PGA Tour pro Zach Johnson is a self-proclaimed sports enthusiast. And, as a Christian, he readily admits that his favorite story is one where sports and Scripture collide: David versus Goliath. At the mere mention of the biblical battle, Johnson sees flashes of a small shepherd boy with a sling and stones overtaking a Philistine giant. Immediately he is inspired.
The fact that Johnson loves this story shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he was the sports edition of David when he won the Masters in 2007. He’d walked the plush greens of Augusta National Golf Club as an obscure Midwesterner in only his third year on the PGA Tour and defeated the giants of the game. And like David, Johnson knew he wasn’t overcoming the odds alone. He was competing in the strength of his Heavenly Father and knew that, if he was meant to win the biggest tournament in professional golf, it would be for the sole purpose of giving God the glory.
That Easter Sunday, after tapping in a final putt that put him two strokes ahead of the field and eventually secured his title, Johnson was greeted by his wife, Kim, and 3-month-old son, Will, in an emotional embrace that he still struggles to describe. When the final pairings finished, each player coming up just shy of Johnson’s score, it became official: Zach Johnson was the Master’s champion.
On this career-defining day, just after he walked off the course, Johnson told the national television audience what the victory really meant.
“My Christian faith is very important to me,” he said. “It was very special to win the Masters golf tournament on Easter Sunday. I’m very blessed. I would like to thank God. I felt Jesus Christ with me on the golf course every step of the way.”
Johnson was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the oldest of three children. His parents made it easy for him to satisfy his competitive and athletic desires by encouraging him to compete in any and every sport he wanted.
|Born: February 24, 1976|
Hometown: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Alma Mater: Drake University
Turned Pro: 1998
•2009 Sony Open in Hawaii and Valero Texas Open champion
•2007 Masters champion
•6 PGA Tour wins
•Member of the United States’ Presidents Cup (2007, 2009) and Ryder Cup (2006) teams.
“I played soccer, basketball, football, baseball and a lot of tennis,” Johnson said. “I loved them all, but golf was a sport where I felt I was on more of an even playing ground. I could have been on the basketball team, but I wouldn’t have played. I played soccer, but I wasn’t going anywhere in that sport. The individual aspect of golf and the challenge of just me and the course was really appealing.”
Concentrating on golf, Johnson improved as he entered high school, making the Regis High golf team as the second-best player throughout his career and, as a sophomore, helping the team to a state championship. Drake University was the only Division I school to offer him a golf scholarship out of high school, so he accepted, assuming his athletic career would end after he earned his degree.
Again, Johnson was the second-best player on the team, but he was an integral part of the Bulldogs’ three NCAA Regional appearances and two Missouri Valley Conference titles. He completed his degree in 1998—business management and marketing—and was ready to begin a career in the business world. But at the encouragement of family members and close friends he decided to turn pro in golf and join the developmental tours where he improved his skills and quickly began winning tournaments.
“Once I was able to devote all of my time to my game—the fundamentals, the mental and physical parts—we were really able to polish and fine-tune it,” he said. “That was when things really started to progress.”
At each level, Johnson won several tournaments and was swiftly promoted. In 2003, he won two Nationwide Tour events and was the top money winner—a big career breakthrough. The next year, he earned Player of the Year honors and finally received his PGA Tour card.
By this time, Johnson was well-aware that any “big break” in golf would pale in comparison to the spiritual breakthrough he’d already experienced.
Shortly after college, Johnson had met a Christian girl in his apartment complex named Kim who had started challenging him regarding his faith. After living what he calls his “blind years,” in which he knew something was missing in his life but didn’t know exactly what, Johnson opened his mind at Kim’s urging and delved deeper into spiritual thought.
After growing up in the church, turning to the Lord wasn’t a completely new idea to Johnson, but it was something he needed assistance in pursuing. He began praying with Kim that God would lead Christian men into his life to help him get on the path of faith. Soon, they both realized it was a prayer that God had started answering even before they’d asked.
“Christian men like my swing coach, my agent and close personal peers began to surface in my life,” he said. “That was really when I started searching on my own. There was something I wanted that those men had. They had a peace about them, and I realize now that it was their Christianity.”
Through the influence of the Christian men around him and the support of Kim, Johnson made the decision to give his life to Christ in the winter of 2002.
The new relationship with Jesus brought sweeping changes to Johnson’s life and gave him new purpose. Life was no longer about golf, but about God. He began to see his golf career as one in which to pursue excellence for God’s glory, not his own.
“I didn’t want golf to get in the way of what was really important,” Johnson said. “Now I play the game because God has given me the talent, ability and skills to play. He puts me in certain situations for a reason. Whether that is missing five cuts in a row or winning five tournaments in a row, golf is my ministry. Rain or shine, I’m on the golf course for a reason: to utilize that platform for Him through what I say and how I act.”
With the desire to use his fame to spread the gospel, Johnson has teamed up with FCA to speak about his faith and encourage other athletes and coaches to deepen their relationships with Christ. Earlier this year, he spoke at an FCA Golf event at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
“It is very easy for me and my wife to be associated with organizations like FCA that really have a heart for Jesus,” Johnson said. “FCA’s mission is to share Christ and the gospel through athletics. Because sports are so ingrained in our culture, that is a great platform, and it’s great to both share from it and be a part of it.”
Jim Esary, national director of the FCA Golf ministry, is thrilled to be able to partner with Tour players like Johnson who are willing to take the etiquette and manners of the game off the course and represent Christ.
“Because it’s a game of rules and of being proper, you have to be smart and manage your thoughts on the golf course,” Esary said. “The Tour players really have to have it together mentally. The difference with the Christian guys is that they take it a step beyond just being a gentleman and use it as an opportunity to demonstrate their faith. That’s where these guys are pretty incredible. They see a lost world and are willing to leverage their success for the name of Jesus. And Zach is certainly one of those guys. He truly gets what it means to be a disciple of Christ.”
With faith driving his life and career, Johnson joined the PGA Tour in 2004 under an umbrella of freedom—freedom from the pressure to perform and freedom from being enslaved by a sport.
In just his ninth start on the Tour, Johnson won the 2004 Bell South Classic. He finished 19th on the PGA Tour money list that season—his first as a pro—and continued to compete well the next two years. He recorded five top-10 finishes in 2005, another four in 2006 and also earned a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that year.
Prior to the 2007 season, the Johnsons found out that Kim was expecting their first child. Because of the pregnancy, Johnson took the final six weeks of 2006 off in order to stay with Kim. Without the tournament routine, he used the extra time before the birth to practice his golf skills.
“When someone thinks of Zach Johnson, they’re naturally going to think of golf, but golf isn’t really what drives me. It’s not what my life is all about. My priorities are faith and family.”
– Zach Johnson
On January 4, 2007, the Johnsons welcomed Will into their lives. It was a moment Johnson remembers joyfully, even if he can’t describe it.
“I don’t know if you can put it into words,” he said. “Becoming a father is one of the most amazing gifts from God. I remember trying to call my parents because they were on their way to the hospital, and I couldn’t even talk. I couldn’t even get a word out. It is an emotional and spiritual experience encompassing everything that life is all about.”
Just three months later, both Kim and Will were at Augusta to greet Johnson after his biggest career tournament win. As the first player ranked outside of the top 50 to win a Masters title, Johnson gave partial credit for the victory to his son.
“I feel like I owe it to him because I was able to be at home practicing rather than be on the road playing tournaments,” Johnson said. “During that time, my practice had purpose, and I was really trying to elevate all aspects of my game. That tournament may be the highlight of my professional résumé, but the real highlight of my 2007 was January 4 when Will was born.”
Since then, Johnson has been competing at the same high level. He recorded a win in the Valero Texas Open in 2008 and successfully defended that title in 2009. He also won the Sony Open in Hawaii in 2009, finished fourth on the PGA Tour money list—his highest finish ever—and competed for the U.S. in both the 2007 and 2009 President’s Cup Championships.
With the success Johnson experienced during his first six years on the PGA Tour, he says it would be tempting to believe he could coast by on past achievement. Instead, he wants to continue to develop his skills—something he knows will involve more practicing.
“My goal every year is to improve,” he said, “I don’t feel like I’m the most talented player out there, so I have to out-work other guys, especially young guys who are just now coming up. I’m just trying to push myself and see how far I can go.”
Fueled by his inner underdog, Johnson is no stranger to the concept of improving—not when he used to be the second-best on his team. But just like David in the Bible, Johnson continues to face his giants with strength and power not his own. As a reminder, he keeps a ball marker Kim gave him during his rookie season that says “Trust Your Line” on one side and “Proverbs 3:5-6” on the other.
“That gives me peace and perspective in what my purpose is in playing golf,” he said. “I don’t want my identity to be wrapped up in the sport. When someone thinks of Zach Johnson, they’re naturally going to think of golf, but golf isn’t really what drives me. It’s not what my life is all about. My priorities are faith and family.”
Those priorities were clear on Easter Sunday 2007 in Augusta National’s Butler Cabin. After the scorecards had been signed and turned in, the new Masters champion went through his list of thank-yous on national TV. At one point, he paused, a bit choked up, as he spoke about his Lord: “I give my Lord Jesus all the credit.”
The humble Midwesterner had done the unthinkable and slayed the giants of golf. And, following the example David set years ago, he directed the praise and honor to his Heavenly Father.
|FCA Golf: Across the Pond |
For the past two years, the FCA Golf ministry, led by National Director Jim Esary, has been expanding its reach by traveling across the Atlantic. Through a partnership with Operation Mobilization, FCA Golf has hosted a week-long day camp in Ireland to teach golf skills and spread the gospel.
According to Esary, the experience has given them a unique opportunity to reach international athletes who are eager to learn.
“The Irish teens are so appreciative and open to golf instruction,” Esary said. “In America we have so many opportunities to play and get instruction, whereas over there, they don’t. It’s awesome to be able to teach kids who have such a positive attitude.”
Along with their desire to embrace golf skills, the teens have been equally as receptive to the gospel, which is taught at the camp in a different way than what many are accustomed to.
“From an evangelism standpoint, their picture of Jesus isn’t exactly like ours,” Esary added. “It’s great to be able to share Jesus in what is typically a more relational way. The combination of fun, great golf and sharing Christ makes this camp an unbelievable experience. It has even ministered to me and helped me develop relationships that will bear fruit for years to come.”
FCA Golf plans to continue its Ireland golf camp in the future to complement its many stateside summer camps. For more information on FCA Golf, including video blog posts and photos, visit fcagolf.org.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Dawn Santo, Getty Images and US PGA Tour