As good as it gets

There is just enough scandal and dysfunction in sports to summon the cynic in all of us.

Every once in a while, though, a pure, vulnerable, passionate moment will recapture our innocence and remind us why we love this stuff so much – imperfections and all.

Zach Johnson, the aw-shucks golfer from Cedar Rapids who sits alongside fellow Iowa icons Kurt Warner, Fred Hoiberg and Shawn Johnson on the almost-too-good-to-be-true list of wholesome perfection, won the second major of his career at the British Open on Monday. He captured the Claret Jug in a dramatic playoff at the birthplace of the game itself, St. Andrews.

And just when you think it couldn’t get any better for our state – which recently an NBA championship with fellow nice guy Harrison Barnes and the Golden State Warriors – Zach completely lost it and started to sob almost uncontrollably during the post-tournament interview.

Johnson is already one of the game’s consummate professionals, both well-liked and respected by virtually everyone involved with the PGA Tour. But just in case we needed a reminder of how gracious and modest he is in a true moment of glory, Johnson jogs our memory by letting tears of humility and thankfulness flow on national television for everyone to see.

I often tell the story – as I did eight years ago after he burst onto the scene with a surreal win at The Masters – of Johnson’s 1997 performance at the Fort Dodge Amateur golf tournament. Tied for the lead with five holes to go, Johnson – a Drake University student and team member at the time – completely fell apart by finishing bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey, par, triple bogey on the back nine at the Fort Dodge Country Club.

Afterward, Johnson patiently waded through a round of questions in an interview that neither one of us wanted to do. He could’ve very easily stormed off the course, laughed at my sheepish request for a quote or two, and left our town in the dust forever. I definitely wouldn’t have blamed him one bit.

Instead, he stuck around, shook hands, congratulated eventual winner Chris Emanuel, and said to me, ”I admit that I started thinking about it (being tied for the lead) on the back (nine). I felt so close to winning that I may have pressed a bit. It’s disappointing, but all I can do is learn from this and move on.”

That was ’97 Zach – a guy who was just trying to make it in the game he loves. And that game had just run him over like a truck.

When I saw ’15 Zach doing the same thing in principle at St. Andrews – speaking candidly about a round he’d just completed – a million miles and years away from that Fort Dodge Amateur day, a smile came to me that hasn’t left since. Like any Iowan with a pulse and a heart, I am simply overwhelmed with pride.

The game decided to open its unforgiving arms and reward him in the most remarkable way. Again. And the best part? For everything – and it is basically everything – that’s different in Zach Johnson’s life now compared to 18 years ago, at his core, he hasn’t changed at all.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net