Long irons key for Zach Johnson on tough track at PGA

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Zach Johnson played at Quail Hollow about two weeks ago, but he did not play this golf course. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa native found an unfamiliar track waiting for him at this week’s PGA Championship.

“Dramatically different.” Johnson said Wednesday, welcoming a reporter inside the clubhouse to escape the heat following a long practice round and autograph session. “It was running (two weeks ago). I didn’t think it was playing that long at all. With this rain, it’s playing very long. My guess is it probably wouldn’t have been open (Tuesday) or (Wednesday) for member play if it wasn’t a major championship. And from past tournaments here, still different.”

That means an emphasis on long irons and strategy for Johnson, one of the shorter hitters on the PGA Tour, at a 7,600-yard course which will likely favor the home-run hitters. Not that he hasn’t had success at such courses in the past.

The two-time major winner finished T-8 at the 2016 U.S. Open on an Oakmont setup which featured the then-longest hole in major history at 684 yards.

Now 41, Johnson’s seen just about everything and knows how to prepare for such tests.

“I gotta take advantage of the holes where I have at least some loft in my hands,” Johnson said. “I don’t necessarily mean making birdie on all of them. I just mean giving myself opportunities. I’ve really had to try to figure out how to hit those five-irons and four-irons accurately, because there’s going to be a lot of them.”

Johnson is currently 36th in the FedEx Cup standings with four top-10 finishes this season and a T-18 in the British Open at Royal Birkdale, where he hit it well enough to seriously contend but couldn’t get many putts to drop.

He’s coming off a runner-up finish at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where Hideki Matsuyama blew past the field with a final-round 61 to top Johnson by five strokes. Quail Hollow provides vastly different challenges than Firestone Country Club, but Johnson said he can still use the momentum to his benefit this week.

“As far as my game, what I was trying to do, it was really, really good,” Johnson said.

The career Grand Slam has been a hot topic as Jordan Spieth looks to complete it this week, but it’s been on Johnson’s mind a bit as well. With wins at the 2007 Masters and 2015 British Open already on his resume, a PGA Championship title would vault him to the top of the discussion alongside Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.

“It doesn’t matter what tournament it is – I know I can excel and compete at the most difficult, most trying, pressure-packed arenas in this sport,” Johnson said. “If you can do it at the Ryder Cup or a major championship down the stretch, then you know you can compete anywhere.

“If I’m in good form, I don’t think it matters where it is. I recognize there’s two more to go and my years are ticking, so there’s a bit of motivation there.”

At week’s end, Johnson’s attention will shift to the Solheim Cup at Des Moines Golf and Country Club. He played there often while attending Drake University and remains great friends with superintendent, Rick Tegtmeier.

“He’s jacked,” Johnson said. “That community will do great things for that event, and those girls will showcase some awesome golf. I’m excited to watch it. Hoping to get up there, I just don’t think that’s in the cards right now. But it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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