Real Success with Nate Kaeding: Zach Johnson

Sponsored by MidWestOne Bank, this is the latest edition of the CBJ’s new podcast feature with Nate Kaeding and notable Iowa business and cultural leaders, available first to CBJ members. Listen to this episode below, and subscribe on SpotifyiTunesGoogle PlayStitcher and SoundCloud.

Zach Johnson is an entrepreneur in the business of professional golf. The Iowa native has been a professional golfer since 1998 and boasts 12 victories on the PGA Tour, including a Masters Tournament win in 2007.

I talked to Zach about how he approaches his golf career like a business, the importance of surrounding himself with the best team possible, and his keys to a long career. Zach is passionate about his Iowa roots and was excited to share his story and business insights with CBJ readers.

I learned a lot and I think you will too.

What is the greatest gift golf has given you that you’ve been able to apply to life outside of the course?

So that’s a good question. There’s been so many! I would say there’s a couple of different things. Certainly perspective comes to mind right off the bat. I understand that it’s pretty cool to some people, cause it’s not the normal nine to five. But I think if you can treat it as a nine to five to some degree, I think that’s proper, as well. You can be healthier. I mean, I have other priorities. I want to look through the lens of where my priorities lie and then golf falls in there somewhere. I think that’s the biggest thing that this profession has probably taught me. If I have the proper perspective, my priorities can stay in line. They may shift and alter depending on the season, depending upon what I’m doing, and what’s next around the corner, but I just think it just allows me to approach all of those priorities [with] one hundred percent given when I put the time in.

Is that perspective and humility something that you had early on as a golfer or is that something you’ve purposely worked at?

I think it’s probably a combination of both. I continually work on it. I mean, I’m human. My work and my proof is in the dirt, so to speak. So you believe it’s going to happen, but that’s not necessarily the case, you know? It’s the focus on the process, right? It’s the focus on getting better. So that next time around you’re better off. I mean, the way me and my coaches approach each week is, regardless of the magnitude of that week, I’m preparing this week for next. What that allows me to do is really just home in on that process of trying to get better, really focusing on the things I can’t control, so that the next time around whatever the situation may be, I can rely on those things rather than the outcome, rather than a bounce here or ricochet there. If I can prepare each week for the next week, I just feel like that keeps me grounded. It keeps me in the now and I don’t have to worry about that outcome.

There are a lot of great startup business stories in the corridor and perhaps none better and more successful than your own. Do you mind sharing a bit about that story?

You know, I was the individual that shouldn’t make it. That’s always been a motivation of mine. I feel like I’m still not supposed to flourish. I’ve always had the dream of being in sports and golf picks me. I played at Drake University and got better. That’s when I decided “You know what? I know I can always go back to school. I know I can get my Master’s in this, that, or the other. But I’m getting better at this. I’m seeing some decent results. I don’t want to have regrets as far as my trajectory in this game. So let’s see. Let’s pursue it. Let’s give it two or three years.”

I graduated in May of ‘98 and turned pro that summer. All that means is you pay an entry fee and, if you accept money, you’re now a professional. I spoke with a number of individuals that I trust about this pursuit. I’m not growing up in central Florida or Dallas, Texas or somewhere out West where golf is very, very prevalent. I went to the only place that I knew to go: the club that started it for me. We put together a nice little contract where you’d buy shares in Zach Johnson Golf, if you will.

How much did you raise right out of the gate total?

Well, it varied year to year. I mean, I’d have certain individuals or families buy one share at $500. I mean, shoot, I can make $500 go a long way. I was paying for the necessities in life: travel, food, lodging. I think I did it for probably four years if I’m not mistaken. I believe it was anywhere from about $15,000 to $25,000, depending upon the year. I had certain individuals that would buy 10 shares. I had certain individuals buy five or, you know, a handful.

My contract skills were not very good at the time. So I went to a buddy who was a great family friend who’s actually an attorney to see if he wanted to be a part of it. He looked at me and he said “I believe in you. I want to see you chase this game and see how far you can go. How about I just become your attorney and I draw up a formal contract?” I’m like “Yeah, that’d be great.” So, with the help of him and another individual, with one share you could get about 300% to 400%. At the end of the year, with the exception of one year, I paid them back in full and then obviously I was able to retain the remainder. They just wanted to see a kid pursue their dream.

Can you share a little bit about endorsement deals in general and how you’ve approached those?

I’m going to say that my business team, my business family, if you will, are the individuals, companies, organizations that give me the freedom to go play and compete. The longest tenure company now would certainly be Aegon Transamerica. I mean, I’ve got a phenomenal team. If there’s anything I can stress in this podcast, it’s just to surround yourself with great people.

When I officially got my tour card, my agent sent out some letters to Iowa companies. As you well know, there’s actually some very respected corporations that have hubs in the state. Now that I’m removed from that state, I see it even more. So an individual by the name of Pat Baird was the CEO of Transamerica at the time. He loves the game of golf. Pat and his team came with a pretty open mind because they’d never done anything like it. But off we went and from there it’s just kind of grown organically. It’s very unique.

Did money and fame have any sort of negative effect on you early on?

I feel extremely blessed that I was able to surround myself with the right people at a very early stage. Certainly it starts with my wife and my business team of Brad and his people, and my coaches. When the success started to hit me and the opportunities became more prevalent, it was difficult. Without question, it was difficult. You can spread yourself thin but learning to say no, even though probably 90% of these things are extremely worthy of my time, provided freedom. I know I need to schedule my off time. I don’t really need to chase that dollar sign right now. I’m very content with what’s going on in my golf world. My priority needs to be home. My priority needs to be, you know, everything off the golf course that allows me to go play on the golf course. So I need to go do another Transamerica event. That is the same week as Singapore? That event is my priority.

How has the business of golf changed since you got your start back in the late nineties?

There was a certain individual that turned pro in 1996. You’d be foolish to not acknowledge that the opportunities as a professional golfer on the PGA tour had sort of a direct route back to one individual. That’s Tiger Woods. It’s just obvious. He comes along with your TV contracts which is your number one sponsor on tour, right? Golf just goes through the roof and you’re riding, from a monetary standpoint, the coattails of this individual. Well, in 2022, the opportunity on the golf course is going to grow between 24 and 26%, all driven by metrics around eyeballs and engagement and people watching the game. There are a variety of factors. If you can find a positive from this awful pandemic, it’s that people wanted to get outside and actually pursue something that was safe. So yeah, it’s all about eyeballs. It’s all about leadership. It’s all about the entertainment value. So, on the golf course, it’s fascinating where this game could go.

Does sports betting drive some of that interest?

I remember sitting on the [PGA Tour] board and I never thought we’d get to gambling because we’re pretty conservative in our approach. Now it’s going to be a big part of it. I think that’s great if it brings more eyeballs into it, which could lead to more people pursuing the game too. We’re seeing that more and more young kids are playing it and pursuing it. We’re seeing it just a number of different ways. It’s not an easy game to play. It’s not an easy game to pursue, but we’re starting to find modalities to make it easier.

What’s the most difficult thing about being a professional golfer that an average fan doesn’t appreciate?

I think it’s an easy answer for me. I don’t want my identity to be around the game of golf because that’s just not who I am. I know it’s what I do. But I feel like my presence needs to be at home when given the opportunity or when it’s needed. I mean, my wife and I talk about our calendar all the time. We’ve just changed my fall schedule because of my kids’ schedule. Travel is, by far, the most difficult.

The Ryder Cup is coming back to the Midwest and you’re Vice Captain. What’s your strategy as a mentor and coach to help keep the cup here in the United States?

I put on a hat of services. So whatever captain wants is what I do now. That sounds overly generic, but my role there is to be a sounding board for the captain and to be a sounding board for the players. I would think that my experience in that realm should have some sort of benefit for some of these other players. We have Ryder Cup rookies and then you have rookies in general. Those individuals might need a little bit more talking to or time to explain to them that this is what it’s all about.

What I tell some of these guys is, especially the young ones: you’ve obviously made this team for a reason. You do not need to alter your game or try to be perfect just because you’re on this team now. So, keep it simple. I think we’ve got a good plan in place, so let’s do that and get that cup back. Yep. Absolutely.

Rapid Fire Questions

How much of your success would you contribute to luck versus hard work?

I’ve always been a believer of “You put a lot of hard work in, your luck actually looks a lot better.” I’m not a believer in luck, you know? So 99.9% of it is hard work.

Given the chance, what profession other than golf would you have most liked to attempt?

We built a home and I really enjoyed that process. If I’m going to get down to it, I think pursuing the art of an architect would be kind of cool. I didn’t study anything of that nature in college, but I’ve enjoyed that. Also, one of my passions is college football recruiting. So maybe a college recruiter.

Are there people you followed outside of the golf realm that you’ve looked up to?

I’ve been able to rub shoulders with a lot of really cool individuals. I certainly admire what Bob Parsons and his wife Renee do – their model of giving. I’ve been able to ask him questions and it’s pretty inspiring. So I’d put him up there.

Do you have a favorite podcast or TV show or something that you’re listening to right now?

I’m a big fan of documentaries, especially the ones that challenge me or make me uncomfortable. Oh, man. I love podcasts. I even work out to them. My favorites deal with Iowa football and basketball. I’m a sports junkie. Now that I don’t live in the state, it’s just so cool for me to be able to attach myself back there, and that’s one of the avenues by which I’m able to do that.

Is there a favorite mantra that’s been important to you through your career?

I’m a Christian man, so there’s a lot of scripture that I certainly go to for a number of different reasons, both on the course and off of the course. But a quote that I like that kind of mirrors that is “What we do in life, that goes on in eternity.” That’s by William Wallace. I’ve always felt like we’re in a place now preparing ourselves for the next step in what we do as a person from the temporal to the eternal. I love it. It’s a checkpoint for me. It’s a perspective for me. It’s a way to focus on what’s really important and kind of take myself out of it.

If you had 30 extra minutes in a day, what would you do with it?

First, I would spend more quality time with my kids and my family. That would be part of it for sure. Second, I’m a believer that you can never pray enough. I know that sounds generic, but I believe in the power of prayer. 15 minutes for each.

Is there a favorite golf book that Zach Johnson would recommend?

Yeah, I mean, it is my business, right? So this is going to sound like a terrible plug, but it’s awesome. He’s made it so that it certainly has parallels in any industry. It’s Learn to Win by Dr. Morris Pickens.

How would you define success?

Right now, for me, it’s living a life that demands  explanation with a grateful, humble, and selfless heart constantly glorifying the Lord. I think that summarizes what I try to do each and every day on the course, off the course, in my marriage, and in the business world. I just love how it is challenging. Frankly, it can kind of tear me apart and make me extremely uncomfortable and I hate that. But I know it’s the right thing and even though it pushes you and makes you uncomfortable, you find joy in it. I think that’s a great thing.