The moment was captured for all the world to see — on Zoom, of course.
Zach Johnson was in his bedroom preparing for what he thought was a Ryder Cup video call when three faces popped onto his screen: PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, and Aaron and Chelsea Stewart. That’s when it hit him.
“Yeah, it was highly emotional,” the two-time major winner says with a gentle laugh.
Johnson had been named the 2020 recipient of the Payne Stewart Award, and the tears came without warning. “It really put things in perspective, very quick, as to why I do what I do,” he says.
After close to 20 years on the Tour, Johnson had been bestowed one of golf ’s highest honors. The award — named after the late Payne Stewart and presented to Johnson by Payne’s children Aaron and Chelsea — is given annually to a pro golfer who embodies Stewart’s values of charity, character and sportsmanship, three pillars of Johnson’s life. As if to prove it, he was quick to give credit to those around him, especially his wife, Kim, who, he says, showed him what it means to give all of oneself.
The couple launched the Zach Johnson Foundation in 2010 and has dedicated their efforts over the past decade to children in need in Zach’s hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, whose people have supported him from day one.
“This was a way to give back to the community; to get in there with a very collaborative effort and help kids chase their dreams,” Johnson says. The collaboration has produced Kids on Course, a program that provides Cedar Rapids school district students with the support they need — tutoring, guidance, even food in the case of underprivileged kids — to keep them “on course” through grade school and college.
“What I love about Zach and Kim is their simple attitude of ‘What can we do?’” says Stephanie Stulken, a Cedar Rapids teacher who serves as the director of Kids on Course University, the summer enrichment program conceived and funded by Johnson’s foundation. “It’s extraordinary when you have a person who is so successful in life but hasn’t forgotten what’s truly important: the value of a great education and removing barriers so that every kid has the potential to learn. Zach has done that.”
Through his charity golf tournaments and galas, Johnson has raised just shy of $15 million. Even the global pandemic couldn’t slow the Johnsons down, as they were able to raise close to $200,000 for Kids on Course through a virtual gala in June 2020. That money was used to help deliver close to 4,000 boxes of groceries to hungry kids.
“The program is very data driven, but it’s also very personable, very real and hands on,” Johnson says. “We work hand in hand with the school district, parents and teachers. We’ve always wanted to make this an opportunistic program for kids, specifically elementary age, so they can flourish when they get to middle and high school.”
Johnson’s career has always been an underdog story; the grinder who gets the job done — to the tune of 12 PGA Tour victories, including the 2007 Masters and the 2015 Open Championship. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s passionately going all in for other underdogs.
“Outside of having my own children,” he says, “this has been the most humbling thing I’ve ever been associated with.”