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Reigning British Open champion Zach Johnson right in the mix despite struggling finishes

July 15, 2016
Zach Johnson 2016 British Open.jpg

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TROON, Scotland -- After finishing with exceeding proficiency in winning last year's Open Championship at St. Andrews, Zach Johnson can't seem to recapture the magic so far this week at Royal Troon.

And yet he's right in the mix, sitting just five behind Phil Mickelson at 5-under-par 137 through two rounds.

"I feel like my best game is in front of me," Johnson, 40, said Friday after he left behind a bogey on the 18th hole for the second consecutive day. "I still feel confident in the sense that I'm doing the right things."

Were it not for his dyspeptic finishes on Troon's tough closing stretch, the defending champion would be right on Mickelson's heels. On Thursday he suffered consecutive bogeys coming in to post a 4-under 67, and on Friday he bogeyed the 15th and 18th -- the latter with a poor approach and a three-putt -- to limp home in 70. Even with his weak close to Thursday, he still submitted the best opening-round score by a defending Open champion since Tiger Woods in 2006.

Johnson has made a career out of being one of the game's most tidy tacticians. He drives it straight and leans on his wedge and putter when he encounters trouble. He also exudes calm and patience.

Winner of 12 PGA Tour titles, including the 2007 Masters, the Iowa native tends to excel amid inclement weather, a talent he cultivated after missing the cut in his first three Open Championships. He hasn't missed a cut since 2007 at Carnoustie, and has finished 16th or better in four of the last five years, including his playoff win in 2015 at the Old Course over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman.

"I've learned to appreciate it and respect it and embrace it," he said of the itinerant challenges.

The task for the weekend is merely executing in a similar manner to his last two starts, which produced top-10 finishes in the U.S. Open at Oakmont and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. He posted a solid 71 in the former to finish T-8, and then fired a final-round 65 at Firestone.

"I'm not searching for anything right now," Johnson said. "There's nothing to search for. It's right there. I've just got to finish it up."

Which he knows how to do.