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Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Life -

A 43 KILO­GRAM FRESH­MAN ike his fa­ther, an avid ath­lete, John­son’s phys­i­cal ma­tu­rity be­gan later than most of his peers, and he weighed only 43 kilo­grams as a fresh­man at Regis High School.“I had good skills, but my lack of size and speed kept me a lit­tle be­hind the best kids in the other sports,” John­son says.“Golf o ered a more level eld. I would have rather played other sports, but golf picked me.”

Once cho­sen, John­son com­mit­ted to the path as if it were pre-or­dained. Says his mother, Julie, who holds a master’s in ed­u­ca­tion from the Univer­sity of Iowa:“Zach is an old­est child who is the prod­uct of two old­est chil­dren. I don’t think he had a choice but to ex­cel at some­thing. He re­ally ts that pro le.” It helped that the “clutch gene” was also preva­lent in the John­son house­hold.“Hav­ing to step up to the plate and per­form in sports, our whole fam­ily loves that sort of stu ,” says his sis­ter Maria Drees.“We love watch­ing oth­ers have the chance, but we re­ally love to get the chance our­selves. It came from our dad, who al­ways made it all right if we failed.We just liked that chal­lenge and that feel­ing of do­ing some­thing un­der pres­sure, es­pe­cially Zach.”

The ap­peal has only grown. “I can’t wrap my brain around not want­ing to be in those sit­u­a­tions – hav­ing to ex­e­cute un­der com­mand,” he says. “I en­joy duress- lled sit­u­a­tions. I en­joy ner­vous-type sit­u­a­tions. I en­joy crunch-time sit­u­a­tions.”

Cer­tainly his early pro ca­reer was one. John­son was never the best golfer on his high school team. He never ex­celled on the am­a­teur cir­cuit and didn’t come close to mak­ing a Walker Cup team. So af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a BA in busi­ness man­age­ment and mar­ket­ing in 1998, his de­ci­sion to turn pro the next year nat­u­rally worried his mother, among oth­ers. But John­son got some back­ing from a lo­cal group of busi­ness­men.When he be­gan to work with the Or­lando-based Ben­der in late 1999, John­son found his foot­ing.

In 2001, he won the last three Hoot­ers Tour events to brie y be­come known as Back-to­Back-to-Back Zach.Af­ter win­ning twice on the Na­tion­wide Tour in 2003, he earned his PGA Tour card and quickly won the Bel­lSouth Clas­sic.

Vet­er­ans could tell the scrawny short hit­ter had the right stu .At the 2006 Ry­der Cup in Ire­land, John­son, part­nered with Scot­tVer­plank in a four­ball match against Hen­rik Sten­son and Padraig Har­ring­ton. On a cold, wet, blus­tery day, as the rest of the US team strug­gled, John­son made seven birdies in a 2/1 vic­tory.

“Our team that year didn’t have a whole lot of con dence,” says Ver plank, “but Zach and I did. He’s a pretty good ex­am­ple of your mind be­ing stronger than your body. That was the best Zach had ever played in his life to that point. He just be­lieved he was go­ing to do great things, with no­body else un­der­stand­ing why he would think that.

“I guess we’re kin­dred spir­its,”Ver­plank says.“When we see each other, we give this goofy lit­tle st pump to the heart that we did in Ire­land. But we look each other in the eye when we do it, and it’s like, Yeah, that’s who we are.”

But as much in­ner re as John­son ex­hibits on the course, he still likes other sports bet­ter. In­ter­na­tional soc­cer matches dom­i­nate his big screen at home in Sea Is­land, Ge­or­gia, es­pe­cially those with his favourite player, Lionel Messi. (“The ball on his foot, I swear there’s glue on it,” John­son says.) As for golf,“I don’t know if I love the game – more like I re­ally like it,” he says.“But I love com­pet­ing, and golf is my out­let to do so.” ▶ John­son birdied the 18th hole all four days at St. An­drews, in­clud­ing a 25-foot birdie putt that got him into the play­off.

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