Mickelson Leads Into Final Round, Johnson Criticizes USGA
By Mike Hlas (Writing) and Josh Christensen (Video)
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"Whiner" and "excuse-maker" have never been terms people have attached to the PGA Tour's Zach Johnson.
Like most of his peers, Johnson has hidden behind no one and pinned the blame on himself in times when he's struggled on golf courses.
But Friday, Johnson opened himself up for criticism after his own criticism of the United States Golf Association's set-up of Merion Golf Club for the U.S. Open. That came after his second-round score of 7-over-par 77 put him at 11-over through 36 holes, and he missed the cut.
"I would describe the whole golf course as manipulated," Johnson said.
"It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how it manipulates golf courses," Johnson said in this story at Golfchannel.com.
Asked if the setup were fair, Johnson said "Not when luck is required. I think Merion is a great golf course, if you let Merion be, but that is not the agenda."
The responses on social media and in comments sections of stories about Johnson's opinions were predictable. Many were vitriolic since, well, it's social media and comments sections. But it extended to the media.
"Just Zip It, Zach Johnson," was the headline of a critical essay by the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian.
Maybe playing in a threesome with former U.S. Open champs Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell affected Johnson's view of things, since the trio combined to shoot 40-over-par. Johnson was actually the best of the three.
But it was a no-win move making those comments. They will be viewed as sour grapes no matter how sincere Johnson was. That's because most golf followers don't want to hear complaining about conditions that everyone in the field faced, and most fully expect U.S. Open venues to be toughened/tricked up. Had Johnson been in contention for the lead after the second-round and said those things, I think at least some people would have listened with more of an open mind.
And had 90 percent of the field shot 11-over or worse, the Merion set-up would be blasted near and far. But when one player could hit all 18 greens in regulation and shoot a 67, as Billy Horschel did Friday, sympathy is in shorter supply. Even though Horschel's aim must have been some sort of miracle, because no one had hit every green in regulation in a U.S. Open since the USGA began keeping the statistic in 1992.
I've been around Johnson in a hundred group and one-on-one interview settings. Being from Cedar Rapids like him, and getting to know him over the last decade, maybe I shouldn't be the first journalist one should listen to regarding him. But if I thought he was a bum or a jerk or a crybaby, I would say so. He is nothing resembling any of those things, and countless people know it. He is held in very high esteem by his fellow pros.
Johnson is a straight-shooter, not a whiner or an excuse-maker. But that might now be a tough sell to many who don't know much about him and see those quotes, particularly fans who like seeing the national Open played in the most-difficult setup the world's best players face all year.
But I'll guarantee this: If Johnson said Merion was "manipulated," he fully believes it.
This isn't the first time this year Johnson spoke openly about something he didn't like. At the Masters two months ago, he was asked what he thought about the two-shot penalty assessed to Tiger Woods for an illegal drop.
"I don't (know the rule book)," Johnson said. "Does anyone? It doesn't seem so. I'm not so sure I like or agree with the rules of golf, either. I'm not so sure I like or agree with the association that makes the rules of golf. That's a whole other story."
I assume he was describing the USGA. The organization describes one of its core functions as "to write and interpret the Rules of Golf. ... in conjunction with the R&A in St. Andrews, Scotland.
So when Johnson said Friday that his disdain of the USGA was enhanced, he wasn't exaggerating. The disdain was already there.
People in my business (like me) openly want coaches and athletes to say what they think. Then when they do, we jump on them.
In this Des Moines Register story written Friday at Merion, Johnson didn't come off sounding like a bitter man.
"All of what I said, I feel they want to hear,'' Johnson said with a smile. "They're getting exactly what they want. They hear (complaints) every year, so it sure seems like it. I'm not talking about Merion. It's still got a lot of character. She's a beauty.
"But I can put this behind me."
Johnson has nine PGA Tour victories including a Masters. He played superbly in last year's Ryder Cup. He is a world-class golfer. More importantly, he has a history of speaking and acting with grace and humility.
As a story, this will have a very short shelf life. I look for it to vanish in the Pennsylvania vapor by Saturday afternoon.
But had Sergio Garcia said it ...