For the first time since April 2004, the world’s top 100 does not include Zach Johnson.
That stat might surprise most golf fans. It’s hard to blame them for not taking notice of the 12-time PGA Tour winner’s decline. Johnson captured his second major at the 2015 Open Championship and ended that year ranked No. 13 in the world but he has slowly drifted away from relevancy with each passing year.
He entered this week’s John Deere Classic – the Quad Cities tournament that could practically be named after the Iowa native considering his seven top-five finishes – at No. 140 in the FedEx Cup standings and without a top-10 finish since November. As if those numbers weren’t demoralizing enough, Johnson opened his home tournament with a 1-over 72 to break a string of 41 under-par rounds at TPC Deere Run. He bounced back Friday with a 67 to make the cut on the number.
This is Johnson, among the most reliable players of the 21st century. Given his astounding 331 weeks in the top 25 in the world, you could argue that nobody has embodied consistency like he has. That’s why he has played on five Ryder Cup teams and has earned more than $45 million on the PGA Tour.
Nobody is declaring his career dead. If Matt Kuchar, two years younger than Johnson, can enjoy a renaissance season, maybe a comeback is in order for Johnson. At points during his pre-tournament press conference this week, Johnson sounded optimistic about mounting a late-inning charge. Other moments felt like more of a resignation.
“I mean, I’m 43. I know, again, the realist in me understands that there’s probably things that, regardless of how good I’m swinging it, how good I’m hitting it, how good I’m hitting it down my line, age can be a factor there,” Johnson said.
Of course age plays a factor in golf, but the larger reality he faces is being squeezed out by all of the other variables he can’t control. He ranks 165th on tour in driving distance, and even though he is 10 yards longer than a decade ago his power has always been limited.
The best players are the longest players. This isn’t a secret in junior golf and it certainly isn’t one in the college game.
That alone is damning. Power has essentially become a prerequisite for consistent success on tour, especially given how soft its venues play. That virtually eliminates the need for obtaining a proper angle into a hole location or shaping your ball as necessary. If the ball will stop where it hits, the trajectory doesn’t matter much. Neither does playing out of the rough, something that provides a massive advantage for the longer players.
Understanding angles, shot shapes and trajectories are examples of how Johnson won golf tournaments. You can’t win a Masters, particularly one played in cold conditions with an over-par winning score, unless you’re strategic. The same goes for an Open Championship at St. Andrews.
From 2010-15, Johnson was never outside the top 15 in driving accuracy. The value of that statistic has diminished, while power has taken on a disproportionate role in determining success. In the top 15 of the driving distance stats, you will find Brooks Koepka, Gary Woodland, Tony Finau, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. Of the top 10 players in the world, eight of them are averaging 302 yards or more. The only exceptions are Tiger Woods, who hasn’t played enough golf to have his stats count, and Francesco Molinari.
The best players are the longest players.
This isn’t a secret in junior golf and it certainly isn’t one in the college game. If you are training to be a professional golfer, the strength and speed part of the quotient is your top priority. And when college players train that way, the learning curve on tour isn’t what it used to be.
Cameron Champ won in his eighth Tour start and Matthew Wolff won in his fourth start. They aren’t outliers; they are indicators of more to come.
“It seems like it’s almost like – every three to four years you get this crop of kids that are just really, really, really good,” Johnson said. “I don’t know – it was almost like a seven- or eight-year period before, now it’s just shrinking, and the next – it’s probably going to be every year here in not so long. Are they all going to be phenoms? I don’t know, it depends on your definition. But these kids are really good. They’re playing professional golf as amateurs.
“I mean, when I was 20, 21, I mean, I was trying to crack the top 5 at Drake University. There’s not many parallels.”
It appears an influx of youth combined with Johnson’s age will make him a somewhat forgotten player on tour. But beyond age, driving distance and homogeneous course setups are factors here.
Everyone in golf recognizes Johnson as a fighter, and we’re bound to see him continue to work harder than ever.
“The competitor in me wants to be top 5 in the world,” he said. “I mean, I just do. I still feel that my best golf is in front of me.”
If it is in front of him, it will only be harder to come by.
Zach Johnson lines up his putt on the 16th hole of TPC Deere Run during the first round of the John Deere Classic. Photo: Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports
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