ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Zach Johnson has two majors and 12 PGA Tour titles, so there’s not much left he has to prove.
But there is a shortlist of tournaments he’d love to add to his career resume before he’s done.
Both are separated by about 75 miles of I-95 and he’s right in the thick of contention for the event he considers a home game, the RSM Classic at the Sea Island Club, near his St. Simons Island home.
Johnson shot 71 on Friday at the Plantation Course, battling gusty wind and chilly temperatures along with the rest of the field. But combined with his opening-round 61 on Thursday under benign conditions at the Seaside Course, and it adds up to 10-under 132 and a tie for sixth, three shots behind leader Talor Gooch.
Not many players post a score 10 shots higher than the previous day’s round, and make the statement: “my round was really good.”
But Johnson would, and it involves a dose of context. The temperature dropped 10 degrees from the previous day and the wind went from calm to 25 mph, gusting even higher coming off the Atlantic Ocean.
“I hit a lot of solid shots,” he said. “Some panned out, some did not. I think when you have winds and gusts of this nature, that’s going to happen. It’s the nature of the beast right now. The only commonality between yesterday and today is that we played 18 holes. It was vastly different but that’s a cool thing, too. It’s a cool thing about golf and these conditions.”
Johnson put some shots in the bank early, with birdies at Nos. 14 and 15, then a spectacular eagle at the par-5 18th. He flew a hybrid 222 yards into the green, with the ball stopping 3 feet from the hole.
It wasn’t an easy putt, with the break going opposite the wind direction. But he dropped it to take the lead at the time.
“It was one of those shots where I was like, ‘I’m going to stay a little left of the right trap and if it goes over the green, because it’s so straight downwind, it’s fine, I’m putting, chipping back into the wind,’” he said. “But it landed right in the tier. My divot was wet and huge and I’m surprised it stayed on the green. It was the longest two-and-a-half-footer I’ve ever had with that wind.”
Johnson was 2-over on the front side, his back, but saved a key par at the par-5 eighth with a 6-foot putt.
Most Tour players don’t like to brag about saving pars at par-5 holes but he was coming off a three-putt bogey from 18 feet at No. 7 and wasn’t complaining.
“The best putt I hit all day,” he said.
The tournament now moves to the Seaside Course for the final two rounds, a track even more open to wind than the Plantation — which is fine by Johnson, who has a British Open title in 2015 at St. Andrews as one of his two crowning achievements in golf, along with his 2007 Masters title.
Johnson is in the best position he’s ever been in 11 prior starts in the RSM Classic. His previous low 36-hole score was 133 last year, which was five shots behind eventual winner Robert Streb. Johnson shot 65 in the third round and was in the final group, three shots behind Streb.
A 68 on Sunday left Johnson three shots out of the playoff involving Streb and Kevin Kisner.
“This tournament means a lot,” he said. “There’s probably two or three tournaments outside of the four big ones that I feel are just. … have just a bit more weight than the others. Certainly John Deere (near his home state of Iowa in Silvis, Illinois), I would probably throw Colonial (in Fort Worth, Texas). Man, the Players is awesome. And this one’s right there, it is.”
But Johnson has won twice at Colonial and once at the John Deere. What’s left are the tournaments on the Golden Isles and Florida’s First Coast and he has family connections in both places: he’s lived on St. Simons Island since 2005 and his wife’s family is from Fernandina Beach.
Johnson has come close. Last year was his third top-10 finish in the RSM Classic.
Then there’s the “St. Simons Curse:” no player who has lived on the Golden Isles at the time has won the tournament.
“Well, it’s hard, it’s hard to win,” he said. “Maybe there’s a little bit of added pressure because of who you’re playing in front of and that kind of thing. I think it’s going to happen. Shoot … every year if we lose one [a player moving out of the area], we get two more guys. And there’s a bunch of mini-tour guys here that will probably be on Tour … I think the odds are in our favor.”
Johnson said he has two key reasons for wanting to break the curse.
“Certainly it has to do with being at home and representing Sea Island and St. Simons, playing in front of friends and family,” he said. “But it also probably more has to do with the fact that the three letters on my chest, [tournament title sponsor] RSM, is very special to me. It sounds cliche, but it’s the opposite of that. It’s a unique situation. The individuals behind — behind that company are just tremendous individuals and I’m very, very fortunate to be with them.”
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