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Veteran Move Rookie Zach Johnson won the BellSouth by keeping everything in perspective


After a 13th at the Honda Classic and a tie for sixth at Bay
Hill, PGA Tour rookie Zach Johnson was 53rd on the money list
when the field was named for the Players Championship, leaving
him three slots short of qualifying. So instead of heading to
Sawgrass, Johnson went home to Lake Mary, Fla., and hooked up
with his coach, Mike Bender, for the week.

"We worked a lot on his tempo and staying solid at the top, not
hinging too much," says Bender, "and it was really windy, blowing
20 miles an hour, so we hit a lot of knockdowns." The extra
practice paid off: Over four brisk, windy days at the TPC at
Sugarloaf, Johnson fired a 13-under 275 to win the BellSouth
Classic in only his 13th start on Tour.

The victory felt "amazing," Johnson said, but it once again left
him a bit short of the big time. In years past the win would have
earned him a last-minute invite to the Masters, but no more.
Still, if coming up short for the second time in three weeks
bothered the 28-year-old, it didn't show. "I'd obviously like to
play," he said, "but I'll be around for a while. I'll be

It's exactly that kind of patience that makes Bender such a
strong believer in Johnson's future. "I've been telling everyone
that I thought Zach would win this year, but I'm a little
surprised he did it this soon," Bender says. "I thought it would
be later in the summer, after he had some time to get
comfortable. These guys who played on the Nationwide tour are so
ready to compete. It's not like the old 36-hole mini-tours. These
days the only difference between the Nationwide tour and the PGA
Tour is the crowds."

That might be true. Johnson is just the latest in a string of
young guns who have learned how to win on the lower-tier tours
and brought a fearless attitude to the big show. On Sunday,
Johnson looked as if he were out with his buddies as he joked and
traded high fives with playing partner Padraig Harrington while
extending his lead to five strokes through 10 holes. Even down
the stretch, when he had four bogeys in five holes and saw his
lead shrink to two shots, he maintained a professional calm that
seemed impossible for someone with an $810,000 payday at stake.

Johnson, who stands 12th on the PGA Tour money list, was the
Nationwide tour's player of the year in 2003, when he won twice
and had nine other top 10s. In 2002 he won once on the Hooters
tour and Monday-qualified for the BellSouth, at which he narrowly
missed a top 10 finish when he four-putted the 72nd green. "It
was definitely a realization for me that I belonged out here and
could play out here," Johnson says.

Now he knows he can win out there, and with the same patience and
calm he's ready to move up to premier events--the Players, the
Masters, the World Golf Championships. The only person who may
not be prepared is Bender, for whom Sunday's back-nine roller
coaster was a revelation. "I played on the Tour," Bender says,
"and watching Zach was harder than playing by far. I was going
crazy. My heart was probably racing more than his." Probably.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG (JOHNSON, SCOTT) MR. COOL After a practice-filled week off, Johnson played his best golf, looking not only calm but also as if he were having fun.



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