Zach Johnson has gone toe-to-toe with a monster this week, and he not only has avoided getting his nose bloodied, but on Saturday delivered a few body blows that enabled him to walk away with a technical knockout.
“For sure, I think so,” he said.
Erin Hills is the longest U.S. Open course in championship history, and when you throw in the fact that it has among the widest fairways, too, it appears to set up as a bomber’s paradise. Johnson isn’t a bomber. Not that he can’t move it a bit, but he is never going to be compared with Dustin Johnson or any of the other new-age golfers who have swing speeds that break the sound barrier.
Yet in Saturday’s third round at Erin Hills, Johnson once again exhibited the kind of nuanced skills that still make him a viable competitor, regardless of the dimensions of the course. His early 4-under-par 68 set the tone for another day of good scoring while providing a timely reminder that there is still room in this game for the precision player.
And Johnson is as precise and disciplined as they come. Gritty, too.
Winner of 10 PGA Tour titles, as well as the 2007 Masters and the 2015 Open Championship, Johnson is among the players who made the cut who were thought to have little chance of hanging around on this muscular public layout. But Johnson, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker, the old guard, if you will, have hung around because of their basic understanding of championship golf.
They know that power is a wonderful tool, but control and patience are valuable assets.
“I can still work my way and have a game around this place and put up a number,” said Johnson, 41, who hasn’t won since his Open Championship win on the Old Course at St. Andrews, another place where power players usually flourish. “Golf courses lend themselves to the straight and narrow – hit it to here, hit it there. But if the bombers go around with their 2-iron, does it really matter?”
What Johnson is saying is that he’s on more equal footing on tighter courses where his straight driver is just as good as a long hitter’s iron off the tee. Then it becomes a wedge-and-putting contest, and Johnson is good at that game. Really good.
And yet, lately the Iowa native is seeing a troubling trend. The bombers are gouging into his territory. “What I'm noticing and unfortunately what I had to go up against, I'd say the last so many odd years, is these individuals, Dustin, specifically … he beats me at my own game, meaning wedges and putting,” Johnson noted. “We've seen that with Jason [Day]. We've seen that with Rory [McIlroy] and we know we've seen it with Dustin. Everybody talks about their 320-yard-carry tee shot, which is impressive, but they're scoring, too.”
Not so this week at Erin Hills, where all three – Nos. 1-3 in the world – missed the 36-hole cut.
The other key to success, according to Johnson, is knowing where to miss. This gets into strategy and the cerebral part of the game that is harder to master than the 300-yard darter. Johnson thrives on saving strokes as much with his mind as he does with chipping and putting.
“I just know what I can do and what I can’t do,” he said.
Interestingly, Saturday’s 68 represented Johnson’s best-ever round in the U.S. Open in 14 starts. He’s only had one top-10 finish, and that came last year at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, another brute.
When he completed his round after going off in the second pairing of the day with Matt Kuchar, yet another moderate-length hitter who managed a 2-under 70, Johnson was just three behind the leaders. He had closed the gap, if only for a few hours.
But it’s what he’s always done.
As he said, it still works.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.