Zach Johnson received a warm welcome Monday when he returned to TPC Deere Run to participate in the John Deere Classic's annual Media Day, which formally kicks off the event's final promotional phase prior to the tournament, set for July 8-14.
And Zach is looking forward to coming back.
"The early part of July is a highlight of my schedule, and I can't wait to come back," the Cedar Rapids, Ia. native and former Masters championtold about 80 members of the media from the Quad Cities, Des Moines, Peoria, Chicago and many towns in between.
Zach will defend his title in the Quad Cities two weeks after competing in the upcoming U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, a course whose comparatively moderate length [6,900 yards compared with other Open venues that typically measure 7,500 yards] some say favor a player like Zach, who averages a relatively "short" 280 yards off the tee.
Zach was planning to play Merion for the first time this week, however, he said, after talking with Tiger Woods, he's not convinced Merion is as short as it's cracked up to be.
"The scorecard says 6,900 yards, but he [Woods] says it plays as long as any U.S. Open [course] he' ever played," Zach said. "You have four par 3s where you're hitting lumber in and then...coming down the stretch there's not a par 4 under 500 [yards]. So the yardage on the card is very misleading...The USGA is not going to pick a pitch-and-putt, put it that way."
Zach said he is pleased with the state of his game after a rough start to the season.
"I really like the state of my game and where it's going," he said. "The beginning of the year I was off fundamentally."
Before his news conference, the 37-year-old three-time Ryder Cup team member interacted with members of the public, answering questions via Facebook and Twitter. An avid social media participant with nearly 133,000 Twitter followers, Zach answered more than a dozen fan questions in 20-minute time span.
The best Twitter question?
"If you were a farmer, what seed would you plant with your John Deere?"
Zach's answer: "Green onions, collard and turnip greens, and sweet corn."
A few minutes after wrapping up the social media segment, Zach told members of the "real" media how much he relishes his association with the John Deere Classic.
"I love coming back here," Zach said. "I've said many times, it is kind of my fifth major. I love being a part of this tournament. I love participating in it. My family loves being a part of it. We kind of rally behind the week and have somewhat of a small family reunion, although I am still working, make that very apparent to them. But it's fun. We just love the John Deere week."
Many people know Zach's strong bond with the tournament began in 2002 when, as a member of the Hooter's mini-tour, he received a sponsor exemption to play in the John Deere Classic, a PGA TOUR event. Then, even though he missed the cut in '02, tournament director Clair Peterson gave him a second exemption in 2003.
"It meant everything to me, those two years right there, the experience I gained, certainly on this golf course...just the experience on the PGA TOUR, I think has really helped me," Zach reflected. "I think it helped me in 2003, 2004, 2005, and I'm sure that some of those experiences are still helping me today. I'm very grateful for those opportunities."
After Zach earned his full PGA TOUR playing privileges in 2004, Peterson invited the business major from Drake to join the tournament's executive board in order to give tournament organizers a Tour pro perspective on the event and what steps were needed to continually improve it.
At the news conference, Zach also got a look at the new Zach Johnson bobble head that will be distributed at Youth Day on Tuesday of tournament week. "I think my kids are really going to like it," he laughed. "Probably draw on it."
Following his news conference, Zach went out to the 18th hole fairway bunker and - with no warm up - reenacted the miraculous shot he hit from there last year to win a sudden death playoff against Troy Matteson. On the third try, he hit a solid shot to the center of the green.
Then, as he stepped out of the bunker, he remarked to Peterson and the crowd, "I still like the original one better."