PGA: Johnson's Memorable Final Round at John Deere

By John Campbell, Reporter

By Mike Hlas, Reporter

SILVIS, Ill. — While most of the world's elite golfers arrive in Great Britain several days before the start of the British Open, Zach Johnson has always flown out of Moline on Sunday night of the week of the Open.

Jet lag and adjusting from white-hot Midwest weather to the chill of the U.K. is all part of that equation, as well as flipping a switch to a considerably different form of golf.

Why give yourself a minimal amount of preparation time for one of the four majors in order to play in the John Deere Classic, an event that has never ranked especially high on golf's prestige ladder?

In Johnson's case, how could he not? This was the tourney that gave him sponsor's exemptions when he played on the Hooters Tour in 2002 and Nationwide Tour in 2003. This was the one event where lots of family and friends from Eastern Iowa could congregate and see Johnson play in a PGA Tour event for the last 11 years.

This is the tournament that added Johnson to its board of directors in 2005, two years before he became a genuine name-player in his sport by winning the Masters. And it was why his victory in the Deere Sunday probably felt better than any of his other eight Tour triumphs other than that 2007 championship in Augusta.

"It's a close second to the Masters," said Kim Johnson, Zach's wife. "It's a big deal to win in front of the people who have loved him and supported him."

"Augusta is Augusta," Zach Johnson said. "You can't really push anything past that. But I am going to enjoy this one because this is supremely special."

Johnson made the win extra-memorable with a lot of sublime play, one shot that bordered on ridiculous in his playoff against Troy Matteson, and then one of the greatest shots of his career.

After shooting even-par golf for the first six holes and losing ground and opportunities to catch leader Matteson, Johnson played the final 12 holes at TPC Deere Run in 6-under-par for a 65.

He threw lots of darts at greens, and his putting was superb. The 23-footer he made at No. 14 for a birdie to get to 19-under and a shot behind Matteson was probably the moment when being in the hunt for this title first seemed realistic.

Then, while Johnson was on the 17th fairway, the electronic scoreboards on the Deere Run course showed Matteson had double-bogeyed No. 15. Johnson was alone at the top by a shot.

It was a 2-shot lead when Johnson reached the green of the par-5 17th in two shots, and birdied.

But Matteson eagled No. 17 with a 59-foot putt that circled the cup before spinning into it. Johnson parred 18, so did Matteson, and a sudden-death playoff was next with the two players were 20-under over 72 holes.

What happened next was bizarre. Johnson's tee shot went in a fairway bunker, Matteson's in the deep rough. Matteson's second shot skipped into the pond hugging the 18th green for a penalty stroke. Johnson needed merely to keep his second shot in play to have a big advantage.

But Johnson's shot from the sand also bounced into the water for a penalty. He and Matteson chipped to within 17 and 16 feet of the hole, respectively, missed their bogey putts, made short putts for double-bogey, and the drama continued.

"Hit it really thin," Johnson said. "I mishit it.

"I hit a poor shot."

"Zach laughed when he got (back) on the tee," Matteson said. "He goes 'Man, made 6 and I guess we still got the honor.' "

Things looked grimmer for the local favorite on the second playoff hole, also at No. 18. Johnson again put his tee shot in the leftside fairway bunker, though with a better lie than before. Matteson hit his drive onto the fairway.

But from 192 yards out in the sand, Johnson socked the ball onto the green and it rolled. Oh, how it rolled. All the way to within a foot of the hole.

Matteson's second shot reached the green, but left him 43 feet from the hole. He didn't get a birdie bomb. Johnson then tapped in for an unforgettable birdie to set off a crowd noise that was loud, long and loving.

After years of either missing 36-hole cuts here or finishing not particularly high on Sundays, Johnson found his Deere groove in recent years. He tied for second in 2009, tied for third last year.

But this was the first time he played with a lead here on a Sunday, and the Drake graduate is a bulldog when he's in contention down the stretch. His Tour playoff record is now 3-0.

After his round Saturday left him four shots behind Matteson, Johnson downplayed the importance of winning here. It seemed like he was trying to keep himself from thinking about the possibility.

"It means a great deal now that I've done it," he said. "It was a hypothetical in previous days because I've never experienced this. It means a great deal."

Meanwhile, Waterloo native Mike Bender can add to brochures about his Florida golf academy by noting he's 1-for-1 as a caddie in PGA Tour events.

Damon Green, Johnson's caddie of nine years, was occupied competing in (and tying for 17th place) in the U.S. Senior Open. None other than Tom Watson gave Green a lift in a flight to Moline, and the two then caught the Deere charter from Moline that whisked Johnson and about two dozen other players to England for the British Open.

So Bender, Johnson's swing coach for over a decade, was his caddie for the week.

"Things are meant to be, sometimes," Bender said.

"The beauty of it," said Johnson, "is I think we're still learning about each other and the game and how to improve."

So after three straight Deere wins by Wisconsin native/University of Illinois grad Steve Stricker, the mantle with a deer on it was passed to the Iowa guy.

"I've talked to some of the guys that work here and the staff, obviously, and I think based on what they talked about they would understand if I took one year off (here)," Johnson said.

"I don't think that's ever going to happen."

STATS AND STUFF:

Johnson all but clinched a spot on the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team Sunday with his John Deere Classic championship.

The victory elevated Johnson to fifth on the U.S. point standings with 4,153.859 points. The top eight players after next month's PGA Championship are automatically on the American squad that will compete against Europe's team Sept. 28-30 in Medinah, Ill.

That means only four more weeks of tourneys will count toward making the team, and Johnson is over 800 points ahead of the ninth player in the U.S. standings, Keegan Bradley.

You get one point for every $1,000 earned in Tour events and two points for every $1,000 made in major tourneys. Two of those, the British Open and PGA, remain.

Johnson is behind only Bubba Watson, Jason Dufner, Tiger Woods and Webb Simpson in the U.S. standings. He moved ahead of Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan Sunday in going from eighth to fifth.

In September, U.S. captain Davis Love III will add four players of his choosing to the team.

"I've played in two (Ryder Cups) and they're tremendous," Johnson said. "In golf, arguably in sport, they're some of the most fun and gut-wrenching tournaments you can play in. I love that."

Johnson has played for two Ryder Cup and two Presidents Cup teams.

His $828,000 winnings Sunday pushed Johnson's season-total to $3,912,941. That's third on the Tour's money list, behind Woods and Dufner.

Johnson got 500 FedExCup points for his Deere title, giving him 1,920 this season. Only Woods, with 1,952, has more.

Johnson has two wins and two second-place finishes this season. He was ranked 17th in the world before this weekend, and will surely move up several spots when the new World Rankings come out today.

"This year seems to probably be ... arguably the most consistent thus far.

"I don't want to get too caught up in the highs. I'm not content. As a competitor, you can't get too lackadaisical."
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