Between them, Zach Johnson and Martin Kaymer have won the career Grand Slam. But it was still a surprise seeing their names among the leaders after the first round of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park.
Call it what you will – golf or life or the natural progression of things – but what Johnson and Kaymer did Thursday on the southwestern edge of San Francisco in shooting 4-under-par rounds of 66 was another reminder of how the game can come and go like the familiar fog there.
Was it really that long ago that Johnson and Kaymer were at or near the top of the world?
Yes and no.
It’s been five years since Zach Johnson added the Claret Jug to the green jacket he won in 2007, winning his second major at the Old Course in a playoff against Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman.
It’s been six years since Kaymer won the Players Championship and the U.S. Open in the span of five weeks and it’s been 10 years since he won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, boosting him toward a brief and quiet reign as the No. 1 player in the world.
Those are the only three PGA Tour events Kaymer has won but if you’re picking three, it’s hard to beat his collection.
Turn the clock back to when Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa were in high school and Kaymer and Johnson were routinely included in the handful of players who factored into major championship consideration and Ryder Cup slots.
Now, their names near the top of the board are noticed because they haven’t been there in a while. Eventually it happens to everyone.
That’s not to suggest their performances Thursday were cameo appearances in a story that will ultimately be about others. One or both of them may hang around through the weekend – they know what it takes – but a hard game gets harder over time.
Johnson is 44 years old and perhaps in line to be the next U.S. Presidents Cup captain, a nod to his career achievements which include 12 PGA Tour victories with a game built more on moxie and toughness than power. Playing in the era of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Johnson has been underappreciated, if that’s possible for someone who has won both the Masters and the Open Championship.
“Just a guy from Iowa,” is the way Johnson has described himself and there’s a heartland quality to the way he’s done his work, putting in the hours and honoring the commitment to trying to be better tomorrow than he was today.
Look up Johnson’s world ranking this week and it’s startling to see he’s ranked 210th – between Zack Sucher and Jaco Ahlers, two players who would have to introduce themselves in almost any golf shop around the world. That’s what happens, though, when the edge dulls.
“I actually told a couple young guys this week on the phone and in person (that in) major championships you don’t have to manipulate or change your game just because it’s a major. So I’m trying to keep it simple.” – Zach Johnson
Johnson doesn’t have a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this season and he has just three since 2017. Were the FedEx Cup playoffs to start today, they would start without him.
But golf has a way of coming back, sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week, sometimes longer.
At TPC Harding Park, with its juicy, dense rough, hitting fairways is a priority. Unlike most PGA Tour weeks, there is a penalty in the PGA Championship for missing fairways. That was the starting point for Johnson this week.
“I actually told a couple young guys this week on the phone and in person (that in) major championships you don’t have to manipulate or change your game just because it’s a major,” Johnson said.
“So I’m trying to keep it simple.”
And, it doesn’t take a guy making his 68th consecutive major championship start to know that putting the way Johnson did Thursday makes it all seem easier.
If Johnson felt encouraged as Thursday approached, Kaymer was less hopeful. He’s hardly played any tournament golf, staying in Germany during the pandemic, doing some construction work around his home with his father.
Golf courses in Germany reopened in June and Kaymer began working on his game but a missed cut at the Barracuda Championship last week – his first PGA Tour start this season – didn’t help his confidence. Now ranked 128th in the world, Kaymer is 35 years old and admits his priorities and practice habits have shifted. Motivation has been an issue.
At Harding Park, Kaymer said he felt excited again while being struck by how the game has changed in a short time with power – never his greatest asset – becoming increasingly important. Leaving the course Wednesday after his final pre-PGA practice session, Kaymer’s excitement was tempered by low expectations.
Looking for inspiration, Kaymer went online and found a video of his final nine holes in his runaway 2014 U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst No. 2. It was like a postcard from the past.
“That video from last night of me winning the U.S. Open, that helped me believe that my putting was good enough, that my ballstriking was good enough, even though it’s a few years back,” he said. “But it’s always nice to remember those moments and feel the same that you felt that day.”
Maybe it was a one-day thing for Johnson and Kaymer, who were matched by seven others at 4 under, one stroke behind overnight leaders Jason Day and Brendon Todd. Maybe it lasts through the weekend. Maybe there’s another major in there for one of them.
Stranger things have happened.
Top: Zach Johnson tees off on No. 4 on the way to a 4-under 66 in the first round of the PGA Championship. Photo: Harry How, Getty Images
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