By Craig DeVrieze, Special to PGATOUR.COM
SILVIS, Ill. – It's hard to believe there was a time when it seemed like contending in his hometown tournament was too tall a task for Zach Johnson.
The nine-time PGA TOUR winner from nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, opened his defense of last year’s John Deere Classic title with a 7-under 65 to snare a share of the early lead with Camillo Villegas.
It was Johnson’s 17th straight round in the 60s at TPC Deere Run, a four-year stretch of home bred success that has seen him finish T2, T21, T3 and, of course, first.
In seven starts here between 2002 and 2008, Johnson’s highest finish was a tie for 20th and he had missed three cuts. Meanwhile, speculation mounted that playing in front of family, friends and galleries stocked with adoring Iowans might have adversely impacted Johnson’s game.
“I have always felt comfortable here, regardless of my numbers,” he said. But he conceded learning to manage expectations, both his own and those of others, while also serving his role as a player rep to the tournament board, was an ongoing process.
“It just feels natural now,” he said. “I’ve gotten so used to being here that it just feels very, very comfortable now.
“When you are comfortable with the surroundings, when you’re comfortable with the peripherals (it helps). My routine has been the same here the last three or four years. We’re staying in the same place. I’ve got my family here. The (John Deere Classic) staff does a great job of just letting me get into my game.”
Johnson also found a comfort level with his Thursday morning pairing, playing alongside Davis Love III, his close friend and Sea Island, Ga., neighbor, and with fellow Midwest native and Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teammate Steve Stricker, whose run of three straight John Deere Classic titles was ended by Johnson last year.
Johnson said Stricker’s recent run of success at TPC Deere Run has provided a template for managing his newest challenge – successfully defending a title close to home.
“I can only imagine winning this tournament twice in a row, let alone three times in a row,” said Johnson, whose nine career PGA TOUR wins include collecting the Valero Texas Open trophy twice in a span of seven months. “It’s just not easy.
“When you can embrace the positives you had from the previous years, previous rounds, that’s great. However, you still have to really just stay in the present. That’s what makes what Steve did that much more impressive. To take it to another level, that’s what makes what Tiger Woods has done over multiple years, on multiple golf courses, multiple events, repeating, defending, even beyond impressive.”
In a year where results have been lacking and his only top 10 finish came while defending at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, Johnson now is relying on the hometown comfort he has found here to carry him through to Sunday’s finish line.
And if that’s not the result?
“I can live with that, especially now that I have won here,” he said. “But even before that. I’m not trying to oversimplify it, but what I have done is just felt like, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter if I shoot 85 or if I shoot 60. Friends and family are still going to be here, cheering for me.’ It’s just the fact of the game and where I am here. And I am so thankful for that.”