Essential Golf: A passion for the Game

Zach Johnson: Uplifting Values and the Payne Stewart Award

Zach Johnson

Zach Johnson, owner of 12 PGA TOUR victories, including two majors, is the 2020 recipient of the Payne Stewart Award recognizing character, charity and sportsmanship, acknowledging Johnson’s credo that “to whom much is given, much is expected”

By Helen Ross

The Award, in honor of Payne Stewart, is supported and presented by Southern Company, and is given annually by the PGA TOUR to a professional golfer who “best exemplifies Payne Stewart’s steadfast values both on and off the course.” Key values the Award recognizes align with the character, charity and sportsmanship that Stewart showed. Stewart, who died tragically in 1999 at age 42, won 11 times on the PGA TOUR, including three majors.

Usually, we find out the news at a press conference. It’s something staged, with the recipient already informed and prepped for questions. But in this age of COVID-19, we were treated to something much more informal and extremely real when Zach Johnson found out he had won the Payne Stewart Award presented by the Southern Company on—what else?—a Zoom call. And it didn’t take long for the video, which showed Johnson on the verge of tears and taking deep breaths to compose himself, to go viral.

The 44-year-old actually had thought he was going to be interviewed that day about the Ryder Cup, on the verge of being postponed due to the pandemic. Only, the first face he saw wasn’t a reporter, it was Aaron Stewart, Payne’s Stewart’s son. Then he saw Stewart’s daughter, Chelsea, her mom, Tracey, and PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan. “I started to piece things together pretty quick,” Johnson recalls. “Obviously the emotion was apparent. Thoughts of the many, many people that have gotten me to this point is what hit me and struck that emotional nerve—starting with my parents, and certainly my wife, and the support I had back in Iowa from day one and, and support I continue to have from my team and family and golf. So that’s really what did me in.”

Interestingly, Johnson is the first of the 23 recipients of the Payne Stewart Award who never met the World Golf Hall of Famer for whom the Award is named. While he turned pro in 1998 after graduating from Drake with a degree in business, Johnson was playing the mini-tours when Stewart was killed in a plane crash flying to Dallas for a golf course site visit and then Houston to play in the 1999 TOUR Championship.

Johnson made it to the PGA TOUR in 2004 after earning Player of the Year honors on what was then (2003) the Nationwide Tour (now the Korn Ferry Tour). Known for his competitiveness, much like Stewart, Johnson has gone on to win 12 times on TOUR, including two major championships, the 2007 Masters and 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews. He has played on nine international teams.

Q: You mentioned the support you had back home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, early on and throughout your career. As you were starting out, you essentially sold stock in yourself to a group of local businessmen. What did their backing mean to a kid who was trying to find his place in the game?

JOHNSON: I go back to my senior year in college and shoot, some may already have it plotted out, but in my junior year I’m thinking, okay, what am I going to do next year? I guess I can go back to school. I can get my master’s in business. I could go work at a club, the club that I’ve worked at for six or seven years at the time in the summers. I could go back there and become an assistant.

A lot of guys go that route. Or I could really see what I have as a player, because my improvement was consistent year after year. Was it leaps and bounds year to year? No, but you know, I didn’t want to have regrets two, three, four years down the road, wondering ‘What if?’ The improvement’s there, especially if I can continue to surround myself around good people and maybe find a coach and that kind of thing. Who knows? The sky’s the limit. My parents were probably a little reluctant for me to pursue it. … But you know, like my college golf coach, my teammates, my head pro who sits on my foundation where he was one of my dear buddies—his support and encouragement more than anything just to say, hey, you know what, let’s give it a shot and give it a whirl, get the finances together.

I remember walking to a family friend of my parents’ who lived two or three doors down, known them all my life. I’d put together my own little contract, just kind of worded it myself and it was very rudimentary. And I went into his office and he says, I’ll tell you what … I believe in you. I think you can do some really cool things. Talked to your parents, talked to your dad, talked to some other guys, too. Then he says, I’ll be your attorney. And I’ll draw this up, as true contract so that it really checks everything off on the list, and there are no liability issues.

So, I had other individuals put their time and energy resources into me, not just their financial backing. Point is, the support was immense, deep and wide, and still is. I mean, it still is. That part I’ll never forget.

Q: You go from a guy who wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life to a two-time major champion and one of the most respected players on the PGA TOUR. Have you exceeded, or met your expectations?

JOHNSON: I don’t know. I really don’t like expectations because it depends on how you—we’re getting into semantics here—but it just gets into how you word that, or how you process that. I’ve never really looked too far down the road. I’m not a massive bulletin board goal-setter, meaning I’ve got to do this, I have to do that by this time. That’s never really been how I go about work. I’m more objective based. I’m more like, just what am I going to do today to get better? I know what works well. I know what’s efficient. I know what’s effective. I feel like when I have outcome-oriented thoughts, the process of getting to where you want to be or where you can be, that’s potential, it can get lost. It’s not like that for everybody, but I think it is more so for me. So, what I’ve always clung to, admired, relished, embraced, is the idea that I’m not supposed to.

I like the stories where I see the back is against the wall. I like the underdog story. I like the individuals or teams where there’s something about them, the intangible that we just can’t quite identify. It’s something inherent in the way they work, the innate way they operate. You can’t really pick it apart, but it’s there. I like that. When you tell me, “You can’t,” I actually not only embrace it, I relish it.

So, I don’t know if it’s exceeded my expectations because I really didn’t have expectations. It’s like saying, hey, was winning the Masters a dream come true? No, it wasn’t a dream come true because I really didn’t have that dream, if I’m going to be fully transparent. I dreamt of maybe playing and excelling and succeeding at the highest of levels, but I didn’t have that specific dream. I remember when I first met my wife, she says, oh yeah, you’re going to make it. So I say, what do you mean, you’re going to make it? And she replies, you’re going to make it! You’re going to be on the PGA TOUR. …

That was just her intuitive sense. And, for the most part, she’s never been wrong.

Q: Your career is hardly over, but do you have a favorite memory to date?

JOHNSON: The first one’s always very special and there are many stories that coincide with my first win. The Ryder Cups and their competitive nature obviously have a lot of weight in my heart, too. Probably the first special memory—just the realization that I can win out there—was in Atlanta, at the (2004) BellSouth Classic. Two years prior to that, I had Monday qualified. I remember I four-putted the 18th green for bogey; I lipped out for birdie, I lipped out for par and then I made a bogey putt from 5 feet. And if I would have two-putted, I would have top 10’d and I would’ve got in the next tournament on the PGA TOUR. But I had to go back to the mini-tours the next week instead.

And so, then you fast-forward two more years. I win in Atlanta; I’ve got my dad there. A bunch of the guys, the family or whatever you want to call them, the guys that started me in the game, for whatever reason, they were there.

So, full circle, that one was really special. Obviously, Augusta was special, too. Obviously, the Open was special. … John Deere was special because it was John Deere. So, there’s so many, I don’t know that I can pick one.

Q: Whether it’s helping with the floods in Iowa or feeding schoolchildren during the pandemic or trying to level the playing field for post-secondary education, you and your wife have always had a heart for service. What drives this desire to help?

It’s just the right thing to do. There’s not much of a debate there. There’s not much of a decision there. It’s just a matter of, hey, if we can align things, what can we do that can make a big impact? And then when you talk about the game of golf, and the way my wife and I operate, we’ve got a pretty awesome platform.

This game of hitting a ball and chasing it, if utilized the proper way, if you truly understand why you have success, then you can use it to the betterment of other people and to this world, this society, and that’s how we see it.

We feel that to whom much is given, much is expected. We feel that the more we can structure ourselves from a giving standpoint and a stewardship standpoint, that promotes growth, and as faith-filled people that’s exactly what obedience is. That’s what true humanity is all about.
I’m not suggesting we have it down pat but at the same time, I know I’m confident. And I can sit here and say wholeheartedly that it’s what we are called to do. That’s what the Johnsons are supposed to do. That’s what we’re trying to instill in our kids. It was instilled in me with my parents and certainly the people and individuals, and even, I would say entities that have surrounded me.

I don’t know if that’s unique, so be it. But I just know in the depth of my heart, that it’s the right thing to do. 