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Inside the clubhouse at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there is a museum-like display of Zach Johnson memorabilia.

Among the items prominently displayed are his golf bags from Drake University and his first Ryder Cup, the invitation he received from the Board of Governors at Augusta National Golf Club to compete in his first Masters tournament and a flagstick from the 2006 event.

On it, Johnson penned: "Elmcrest C.C., where it all started ... thanks for the support!"

From a 10-year-old participating in the junior program at this private club to becoming a major champion and nine-time PGA Tour winner, Johnson never has forgotten his roots.

His family makes its residence in St. Simons Island, Ga., but Johnson is still introduced at events as from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He hosts an annual Pro-Am golf tournament each summer at Elmcrest that benefits his foundation.

"It gives our club an identity with the PGA Tour," said Larry Gladson, the head pro at Elmcrest and Johnson's swing coach through college.

Johnson's name is etched all over the club.

Besides the sign that greets members: "Elmcrest Country Club, home of Zach Johnson, PGA Tour Professional," the club is located on 1 Zach Johnson Drive, something the Cedar Rapids city council decided days after his Masters triumph six years ago.

There is a restaurant inside the club called "Zach's," and it features the meal he selected for the 2008 champions dinner at the Masters - Iowa beef and Florida shrimp. It also offers corn casserole as a side.

"To actually watch Zach grow up, still call this place his home and him doing so well on the PGA Tour, we feel very blessed and fortunate," Gladson said.

Approximately 95 miles from his home club is TPC Deere Run, the venue for the John Deere Classic and where Johnson seeks to defend his title this week.

Since his debut here 11 years ago, he has drawn the biggest galleries, and fans cheer his every birdie on the D.A. Weibring design.

"Every time I come back here, whether I finished in the top five or was 30th, I'm always welcomed," Johnson said. "I feel like one of their guys and, in some respects, the guy."

Zach's start

The oldest of Dave and Julie Johnson's three children, Zach grew up passionate about sports.

A rabid Iowa Hawkeyes fan, he participated in basketball, baseball, football (to a smaller degree), tennis, soccer and golf.

At age 10, his parents joined Elmcrest, marking his introduction to golf.

"His swing was good, above average for a junior golfer," Gladson said. "Even back then, his game was hitting fairways and relying on his short game."

As a high school freshman at Cedar Rapids Regis High School (now Xavier), Johnson was just 5 feet and weighed less than 100 pounds.

Brian Rupp, an accountant for SourceMedia Group in Cedar Rapids, was the No. 1 player for Regis and Johnson played No. 2. The two met in preschool, and Rupp estimated they have played more than 1,000 rounds together.

"He was a good player, not great," Rupp said. "He was often times 30 or 40 yards behind the other guys off the tee, but even in his younger years, he was a really, really good putter, and the short game was always there."

Rupp and Johnson propelled Regis to a Class 3A state title in 1992. The school followed with a 4A runner-up finish in Johnson's senior season.

"Early in our high school careers, I was clearly the better player, but by his senior he had really bridged the gap quite a bit to the point where we were pretty close," Rupp said.

Rupp played golf at the University of Iowa for four years. Johnson took his game to Drake where he entered college at 130 pounds.

Within a year or two, he began to grow and eventually reached 5-11 and 160 pounds.

"When he got to Drake, he hit the ball a lot further," Gladson said.

Johnson was the Missouri Valley Conference's golfer of the week five times during his career, but he wasn't the top Bulldog and never was a first-team all-conference selection.

"We had a tradition that the player with the high score had to gas up the car and wash the windows," said Ben Poehling, a teammate and all-MVC player. "Zach was doing quite a bit of that."

Even so, Johnson was instrumental in helping Drake claim two conference titles and advance to three NCAA regionals.

"The biggest thing, he was a late bloomer," Rupp explained. "He wasn't the best in high school, not the best in college, but every single year you saw continual improvement.

"In a sport where a lot of guys peak early, level off and plateau, he got better."

Chasing his dream

During a lunch date with Rupp following his graduation at Drake, Johnson told his friend he was going to pursue professional golf.

"The first question I asked, 'Do you mean be a club pro working at a golf course?'" Rupp said. "He replied, 'No, I'm going to try and go play on the mini-tours.'"

Johnson had fluctuated between the second and third position on the Drake golf team. At that time, Rupp wasn't certain Johnson had the game to make it.

"In the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'OK, this is a guy who wants to delay the inevitable of getting a real job,'" Rupp said. "But he was passionate about it, had the right attitude and right mindset."

The decision piqued Gladson's interest.

"I was 100 percent behind it because I had seen him get better and I was curious how good he could become," he said.

With the financial backing of $150,000 from several Elmcrest members, Johnson devised a five-year plan.

"I had a dream, and those members helped push me," Johnson said.

Johnson won three tournaments on the now defunct Prairie Tour in 1998-99, compiled four victories on the Hooters Tour in 2001-02 and prevailed at the Iowa Open in both those seasons.

"There were a number of times and points where I knew I could play out here," Johnson said.

He Monday-qualified for the 2002 Bell South Classic and was granted a sponsor's exemption to play in the JDC that season and again in 2003.

"We've got a history of trying to develop a relationship with players that we think are going to make it," JDC tournament director Clair Peterson said. "Zach had that. He wasn't a breakout star, but we felt he had the right stuff, and he was a local hero of sorts.

"We could see him succeeding down the road."

Johnson pieced together an unforgettable 2003 on the Nationwide Tour (now Web.com), prevailing at the Rheem Classic and Envirocare Utah Classic, making 19 of 20 cuts and topping the money list with what was a record $494,882.

He won the Jack Nicklaus Trophy for Nationwide Tour Player of the Year and earned an automatic promotion to the PGA Tour for the 2004 season.

"It was a product of hard work and great support," Johnson said. "However, I knew this is where I was supposed to be.

"I just kept improving every year and continued to chase my dream."

Masters Sunday

When Johnson broke through for his first Tour victory at the Bell South Classic in 2004, Gladson could not make the trek to Georgia because of obligations at the club.

"I told myself I wouldn't let that happen again," he said.

After Johnson finished the third round at the 2007 Masters and was two shots off the lead, Gladson's wife told her husband: "We've got to find a way to get you to Augusta."

Gladson searched the Internet for a flight and made several phone calls to snatch tickets. He left Cedar Rapids at 2:30 a.m. that Sunday for a 5 a.m. flight out of the Quad-Cities.

By 11:30 a.m., nearly 90 minutes before Johnson was scheduled to tee off, Gladson was on the grounds at Augusta National Golf Club.

"Such an exciting day," Gladson said. "For me personally, it was a real calming affect - until the last couple of holes when it was his to win or lose."

Sticking to a carefully devised game plan where he didn't go for any of the par 5s in two shots but was a cumulative 11-under on those four holes, Johnson birdied three of the final six holes and made a clutch par save at 18 to stave off Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini by two strokes.

It marked the first time in 13 majors that Woods was in the final group and didn't prevail.

Ironically, the win came on Easter Sunday for Johnson, a devout Christian.

"God had a plan for me, and I was just following it," he said in his press conference afterward.

Rupp remembers watching it unfold on television with his family.

"It was somewhat unexpected," he said. "He wasn't in the last group, and for whatever reason, I didn't feel like he was going to win.

"Towards the end, it was like watching a football game. We were jumping around and cheering - a unique atmosphere for watching golf which is usually a pretty subdued activity."

The win vaulted Johnson to heightened exposure and a rising star in golf. It also brought national attention to Cedar Rapids as national publications were scrambling to learn more about Johnson and his upbringing.

"I'm Zach Johnson, and I'm from Cedar Rapids, Iowa," he said after the victory. "That's about it. I'm a normal guy."

But what he accomplished was far from it.

Johnson became just the second Iowan to capture one of golf's four major championships, joining Jack Fleck - the 1955 U.S. Open champion - who was born and raised in the Quad-Cities.

"To have a kid I watched grow up and know very well walk down the fairways at Augusta is fun in itself," Gladson said, "but to have one of your own, one from your state, city and your club put on the green jacket at my favorite tournament to watch is a surreal moment."

Staying power

After Johnson's victory at the Masters, national writer and broadcaster Rick Reilly said, "I think Zach Johnson - in 10 years - has a real chance to be your server at Olive Garden."

Reilly had seen others like Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem and Paul Lawrie capture majors, but failed to accomplish much more in golf.

"Of course, it turned out be the dumbest comment in the history of golf commentary," Reilly admitted later.

Johnson has established himself as a household name on the PGA Tour for a decade.

In addition to the nine wins, he has banked more than $27 million in career earnings, is ranked 30th in the world and competed on three Ryder Cup teams and two Presidents Cup squads.

Mike Bender has been his swing coach for more than a dozen years, and Damon Green has carried his bag since 2004.

"It is a matter of consistency and hard work, putting the right individuals around you and never being content," Johnson said. "I see of a lot of guys that come out here that probably have as much, if not more talent than me, but they don't last because they're always trying to figure something out.

"If anything, what I have works and I'm trying to build on that and not trying to reinvent something."

Since his magical Sunday at Augusta six years ago, where he shot a 3-under-par 69, Johnson has three top-10 finishes in majors - 10th and third at the 2009 and 2010 PGA Championship, respectively, along with a ninth-place finish at last year's British Open.

"I still feel I've got a lot of good golf left in me," Johnson said.

Rupp and Johnson still keep in contact, exchanging text messages about every month and getting together when Johnson returns home.

"Here's a guy from Cedar Rapids who was never a phenom growing up, just a really good, down-to-earth guy and through hard work and improvement got to the top of the mountain and won the biggest event," Rupp said. "It is a refreshing story."

Johnson has just one top-10 finish in 16 events this season. While he's 12th on the Tour in driving accuracy, he is 80th in greens in regulation and an uncharacteristic 100th in putting.

"It has been humbling," he admitted.

But Johnson hopes a trip back to the Midwest with familiar faces in the gallery this week can trigger a spark with the British Open and PGA Championship looming.

The 37-year-old has rock star-like status at the JDC, a tournament where he serves as a board member and has played more than any other on Tour.

"It is my fifth major, and I love being apart of this tournament and participating in it," he said. "It is a small family reunion, and the experiences I got here early in my career helped me down the road.

"The early part of July is a highlight of my schedule."

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Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.