Zach Johnson plays out of a bunker on the first day of The British Open. (Gerry Penny / EPA )
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Zach Johnson played nearly perfect golf Thursday in the British Open, shared second place with his five-under-par 65, and is assured of a brief mention in the seventh paragraph of most stories on the first round.
Several reasons for that. One is that he's from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, giving him a profile about the same as his birthplace. He is Midwest in a game where East, West and South stir the drink. His sport's imagery tends to have a New England hard edge, a California palm tree or a Southern drawl. Man riding tractor lacks similar pizazz.
Quite often, the guy holding the big trophy at the end says "y-all" a lot and thanks all his buddies from Clemson. Johnson emerged as a pro golfer from Drake University and Des Moines, Iowa, where the golf courses are certainly playable by mid-May.
PHOTOS: 2012 British Open
Were it not for the wrap-around sunglasses and the 2007 Masters title, Johnson might as well be Justin Hicks or Ted Potter Jr. Yes, they are tour pros and yes, they are playing here. Unless you have a golf fantasy league or live in Iowa, Zach Johnson might as well be Dustin Johnson, except about 60 yards shorter off the tee.
In a game that dictates stoic consistency for success and flashy heroics and quirky personality for attention, Johnson is the former. He turned pro in 1998 out of Drake and plied his craft on something called the Prairie Golf Tour. Talk about the minor leagues.
It took him two years to make his way up the chain to the Hooters Tour, still not even triple-A, where he became famous for winning the last three events of its season in 2001. That got him labeled "Back-to-Back-to-Back Zach." Clever, but it didn't play on Broadway.
By 2004, he had made his way to the main show, and now, for the careful golf-watcher, is known for winning the '07 Masters while laying up on all the par fives and still playing them 11 under for the week, and by being the only player on the tour to have two rounds of 60 in his career.
He has won $25.6 million in his career, is currently ranked No. 11 in the world, will probably top the $4-million mark in winnings here later this week and remains, in the minds of the general sports fan — if he is there at all — one of those guys seeking fame and fortune by winning the John Deere Classic.
Which, come to mention it, he just did.
Late Sunday afternoon, in a tournament Johnson has played more than any other because it is held near the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa in Silvis, Ill., and is as close to a hometown event as he has, he won the title in a playoff. He did so with his regular caddie, Damon Green, off playing in the Senior Men's Open on the Champions Tour and his coach, Mike Bender, on the bag.
"The joke is Mike is coming over this week to hustle a bag," Johnson said. "After all, he's batting 1.000 now."
Johnson is riding a high of success coming into the Open, and his result Thursday spoke to that. But he said afterward, with his typical steady-as-you-go approach, "I wasn't too amped up about it. I knew I had a lot of work to do this week. There is a lot of momentum coming from last week. But I've forgotten about it."
Like the man who uttered it, not exactly a headline-grabber. But then, who says quiet proficiency isn't admirable.
Johnson's close friend, Stewart Cink, himself a major winner with the 2009 British title, said Thursday that consistency is among Johnson's best attribute, both on the golf course and off.
"You will not see him overreact to the top of the peaks," Cink said, "nor to the bottom of the valleys. He shot a great score today, and I'm sure he had moments where he was angry out there. But the game does that to you and Zach really manages it."
On the par 34-36-70 Royal Lytham & St. Annes layout, Johnson's round had three birdies and one bogey on the front, four birdies and one bogey on the back for 32-33-65. But most indicative of what he does and why he has success were the 17th and 18th holes, where he scrambled for a bogey and a par.
On the 17th, a doglegged 453-yard par-four, he drove into what appeared to be perfect position, had a bit of an awkward lie and left his seven-iron approach about 10 yards off the front of the green. Then he skulled his 60-yard chip 75 and into high grass above the green.
"I hit a terrible second shot and an even worse chip," Johnson said. "It was a bit annoying when you've got a seven-iron in the fairway. I should be 20, 25 feet."
Perhaps somewhat ruffled, the short-hitting Johnson — as usual 40 to 50 yards off the tee behind big-booming playing partners Ernie Els and Darren Clarke — hit his approach to the par-four 18th hole into a pin-high pot bunker. Two closing bogeys would have spoiled his day. So Johnson opened his club face and popped his sand shot over the front face of the bunker to three feet, from where he easily rolled in his par putt.
It is little moments like that that can lead to victories in British Opens.
That would be big for Johnson. It would be a second major and it might even get him into that first paragraph.