It's been a while since Zach Johnson had a start like he did at PGA National. Just ask him

February 27, 2020

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — There are just four golfers on the PGA Tour older than 46 who have full status without the aid of some sort of longevity milestone, like lifetime membership, career money, etc. Zach Johnson, 44, is still a few of years away from joining that group, but he has some work to do if he hopes to be included among them down the road. This season is the final year of his exemption for winning the 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews.

Since that victory at the Old Course, Johnson is winless and has fallen to 250th in the Official World Golf Ranking. In his last 40 starts, dating to May 2018, he has just one top-10 finish. So an opening-round three-under 67 to put himself near the top of the leader board on Thursday at the Honda Classic couldn’t have come at a better time.

“My guess is that the average age is getting younger, and the guys are better athletes,” Johnson said. “Those kind of things were kind of out here when I got out here, but they’re more prevalent now, and guys are maybe more motivated or more ready.

“I haven’t played my best in a lot of respects, but [playing the tour is] very difficult.”

It certainly didn’t look that way on Thursday for Johnson, who, despite cool temperatures and a brisk wind, made five birdies and just two bogeys, mostly leaning on his putter and low, drawing ball flight.

To put Johnson’s day in perspective, Rickie Fowler, who lives in the area and finished second in the tournament a year ago, shot 76. Furyk—one of the 46-and-older golfers with a full card, and a major champion himself—shot 78. Even youth (and recent good form) wasn’t immune, with last week’s Puerto Rico Open winner, 22-year-old Viktor Hovland, stumbling to a 77.

But as Johnson noted, it’s just one day. The last five years have been a struggle.

“I would say it was mental,” Johnson said of his woes. “I practice very effectively and efficiently with goals in mind, objectives in mind, and I think we had those. But mentally I approached it as if I was assessing every aspect of my game all the time, and then when I felt like, OK, everything feels like it’s in a pretty good place, then I really wasn’t ready to go compete at times.”

Physically, he’s tried to keep up, too, but that has proved difficult. Johnson says he is hitting it farther than ever—he’s averaging about six more yards off the tee since 2017—but so is everyone else.

His biggest challenge in today’s game?

Said Johnson: “Probably avoiding the fact that I know I’m 44.”