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Hlas: Zach Johnson tops all but untoppable Matsuyama

Aug 08, 2017

By Mike Hlas, The Gazette


AKRON, Ohio — Seldom will you see someone who has just earned $1,045,000 in a competition walk away feeling bittersweet.

Johnson’s seven-figure paycheck was for second-place at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, and it was his best finish since his British Open win in July 2015. But second-place wasn’t what he had in mind when he arrived Sunday at the Firestone Country Club’s South Course as the tourney co-leader with Thomas Pieters. But sometimes you don’t lose as much as someone else wins.

Hideki Matsuyama won, all right. The No. 3 player in the World Golf Rankings was a runaway train, tying the course-record of 9-under-par 61 for a total of 16-under, five shots better than runner-up Johnson, who had a final-round 68.

Still, Johnson stopped on his walk up the 18th fairway to exchange fist-bumps with caddie Damon Green for a well-played (and well-caddied) tourney. Sometimes, someone else is simply too good.

“I don’t want to say it’s frustrating,” Johnson said. “I like being pushed. I got to (No.) 9 green today and at that point I think I was even par for the day. I asked Damon ‘I don’t know where we are, but I think it’s about time I know something.’ He said somebody was at 12 (under).”

That somebody was Matsuyama.

“I was like, ‘OK, we’ve got to get the pedal down,’ and I made a birdie there. … Birdied 11, and here we go. After that, I hit quality shots. I didn’t make a putt.”

Johnson parred the final seven holes. None of his birdie tries were putts inside 10 feet.

“I’m not mad,” he said. “I’m not angry or upset. I’m encouraged, you know? Am I a little dejected that my best wasn’t good enough this week, or arguably my best? Yeah, but that’s also good motivation.

“I think Damon and I are just doing great things.”

This had been a mundane 2016-2017 season by Johnson’s high standards, but he is now on a good roll. He tied for fifth at the John Deere Classic, tied for 14th at the British Open, took a week off, and then posted this runner-up finish. He outplayed Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth ... everyone but Matsuyama.

“Anytime you finish, I would say top-5 in a World Gold Championship, you’re doing something right,” Johnson said.

“My execution’s there. I’ve seen it the last three weeks. I can struggle one day and come back the next. I can play a good round and still play well the next. The patience I’ve had, and certainly the rebounding I’ve had when I’ve had a bogey or two, has been what I’m accustomed to and expect.

“I don’t expect to win necessarily every week, no one does. But I expect to rebound from mistakes. That’s kind of how I’ve always played this game.”

Matsuyama, Johnson, and everyone else who’s a men’s golf notable can’t rest this week. The PGA Championship starts Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.

“I’ve just got to keep the pedal down,” Johnson said.

All in all, it was a pretty nice weekend in the Akron-Canton area for Cedar Rapids Regis High School grads. About 15 miles from Firestone, Kurt Warner was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday night.

“He was a role model of mine when I was 10 to 15,” Johnson said. “He’s as much if not more (now).

“His speech was everything you would expect from Kurt Warner. It was poignant, honest, genuine. That guy, I kind of feel less of a man around him sometimes, he’s so good.”

Johnson, who’s not exactly a slouch as a human, would seem to be a strong candidate to one day be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

To be eligible, you must be no younger than 50 or five years removed from being an active PGA Tour participant.

These four days in Akron showed that’s back-burner stuff, to put it mildly.

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