ATLANTA – Georgia’s Mega Millions lottery pot is up to nearly $50 million for next Tuesday’s drawing, and Zach Johnson is certifiably crazy if he doesn’t plunk down a buck for a ticket.
Absolutely everything else he has touched in the Peach State has turned to gold. In April, he edged Tiger Woods to win the Masters. Hello, world. A month later, he was in Atlanta for the AT&T Classic, and he captured a playoff over Ryuji Imada.
First PGA Tour victory? You got it – 2004 BellSouth Classic, Atlanta.
Saturday was a new Georgia adventure. Johnson stood on the 18th tee at East Lake Golf Club, home of the prestigious Tour Championship, 223 yards from the flag, a 2-iron in his hand. “Perfect distance, perfect club,” he thought to himself.
Make birdie, and he’d share one of the Tour’s most magic numbers of all: 59.
But he blocked his 2-iron into a greenside bunker, then watched his sand shot from 50 feet, 9 inches (honest!) release toward the flag and roll on past the high side of the hole, leaving him a couple feet for a par and 60, which is 10 under at the 7,154-yard layout.
It was Johnson’s best score on Tour (by three shots) and vaulted him back into contention four hours after he barely felt a part of the tournament. He’ll start Sunday six shots behind runaway leader Tiger Woods, who’s a pretty safe bet when he’s leading through 54 holes, but trails Mark Calcavecchia by only three shots in the Tour Championship’s Mortal Division.
As for history, Johnson will have to wait.
“I could barely stand up (on 18) – I don’t know why,” Johnson said. “It’s only Saturday, too. It was really peculiar.”
And what would 59 have meant?
“Well, it would have been awesome,” he said. “It’s one of those mysterious numbers we have in golf. Eighteen (majors, held by Jack Nicklaus) would probably be another one … outside of that, I don’t know.
“The Georgia Slam is a big deal.”
He smiled, finding humor in the pursuit of such a manufactured trifecta. Johnson doesn’t really know why he steps into the Peach State and begins to play like Bobby Jones. He started grasping for an explanation. A couple of good college buddies live in town, for one . . . and he used to play here during his developmental days on the Hooters Tour circuit earlier this millennium.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “But I love it.”
Saturday, everything seemed to line up just perfectly. He was paired with Ernie Els, and enjoyed the rhythm of the round, scurrying down the fairway to keep up with the effortless and long gait of golf’s Big Easy. Once it was time to stand over a shot, there was a certain peacefulness to the day. Johnny Miller, dissecting the action for NBC this week, said there is something to be said for pace. He once shot 61s in back-to-back weeks, each time playing alongside the easy-going, sweet-swinging Gene Littler.
Johnson’s round was far from perfect. He hit some poor shots early on – a missed green at the par-3 second, a poor drive into a bunker at the par-4 third, a poor drive at the dogleg eighth. He was 3 under at the time on No. 8, and he caught a flier on his approach, the ball sailing over the green. He flopped to 15 feet, saved par (“That was the putt that got it going,” he said), and soon would catch fire.
On the back nine, it was four birdies and an eagle at the inviting, 495-yard 15th hole, where he reached the green with a good drive and a solid 2-iron, then ran in a 16-footer for eagle to get to 9 under for his round with three holes to play.
Johnson says he’s a stay-in-the-moment type of guy, but his mind couldn’t stop racing ahead at that point, his thoughts fixated on a number: 59.
“That’s about when it hit me, yeah,” he said.
He left a 22-foot putt short in the jaws at 16, made a 6-footer to birdie 17, but then settled for par at the last. And just how did he feel getting to that tee?
“My shoulders felt heavy and my legs felt like they weighed nothing,” he said. “My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding. I was breathing all right, though. I guess the yoga that I’ve been doing helped out a little bit.”
Sixty. A great number. Just not the number at which Johnson had taken dead aim. He was longing to etch his name into 59 lore alongside Al Geiberger (Mr. 59 himself), Chip Beck and David Duval, all of whom posted the number in Tour events. Duval was the last, at the Hope in ’99.
“Very impressive,” Els told him as he extended a hand toward Johnson on the 18th green.
It’s been a season of new ground for Johnson, whose globe didn’t stop spinning wildly for months after his Masters victory. He has a newborn son, David William (now 8 months), which only adds to the churning high of emotions he’s dealt with this year. The son, who goes by Will, has lived a pretty charmed life to this point. He was there as his father won the Masters in April, and earlier this month took in his first pro baseball game, in attendance as Boston Red Sox righty Clay Buchholz tossed a no-hitter at Fenway Park.
Will’s dad has no complaints, mind you. It’s just that sometimes life gets turned on 24-hour spin cycle and it takes a little time to adjust.
The new demands showed with his summer play, which seemed pretty uninspired, consisting of a so-so showing at the U.S. Open (45th), a tie for 20th at the British Open, and a missed cut at the PGA on a course that was built for a fairways guy who is a great putter – Johnson’s MO. He was sick for a couple weeks in there, and hopes now his game is heading in the right direction as he points toward the Presidents Cup in two weeks. In his Ryder Cup debut last fall in Ireland, Johnson was an absolute bulldog, and the Americans could use the spark.
All in all, Johnson’s Saturday really could not have been any better. Well, maybe there was one thing.
As Johnson walked off the course, an XM Radio on-course reporter broke some news Johnson really had no interest in hearing: The Iowa State Cyclones, via five field goals, had upset Johnson’s beloved Iowa Hawkeyes on the gridiron, 15-13.
In the press room afterward, Johnson was told the score again, and his head dropped down against the microphone.
“Stewart Cink is taping the game for me,” he said in disbelief.
Oh well. Other than that, not a bad day.
Close to perfect.
Now, about that lotto ticket …