2004: Atlanta yes, Augusta no
Perhaps one the most compelling stories of this young golf season is not who may vie for the year’s first major title at Augusta National, but who will not. That Zach Johnson will not be in the field at this week’s Masters is an error of conscience, although the demure Drake University grad would never admit as much.
By almost any measure, he is the picture of politeness. Predictably, Johnson had no interest in challenging Augusta’s peculiar ways.
“I understand,” he said. “They have got their system and their rules. I’ll remain patient.”
Yet few are more deserving a trip down Magnolia Lane, and not just because the cool PGA Tour rookie weathered an even cooler final round April 4 at TPC at Sugarloaf to score his first Tour victory.
If the stars in the golf universe were aligned properly like they were five years ago, Johnson would have walked from the TPC at Sugarloaf’s clubhouse, loaded his courtesy car and headed east down Interstate 20 to Augusta. Instead, because a Tour victory since the previous Masters no longer assures a player of a date with the dogwoods, he’ll settle for a mini-vacation at home in Lake Mary, Fla., and a lofty new title – PGA Tour champion.
Augusta is perfectly suited for Johnson because he hits the ball high and, despite his rookie status, has a shaman’s patience on the golf course.
He also has the type of putting prowess a champion needs on the National’s linoleum greens. It’s that sweet stroke that ultimately won the 28-year-old the BellSouth Classic despite a few sour moments.
Through three rounds in Duluth it was Johnson’s slow stroke and SeeMore putter that paved the way to a three-shot lead. But Sunday during the most pressure-packed 18 holes of his career, it was that same putter that missed crucial par attempts at Nos. 11 and 12, opening the door for a charging Mark Hensby.
Johnson’s six-birdie, four-bogey, double bogey final round was not what observers have come to expect from a player who has an open affinity for “boring golf.” Fairways and greens are Johnson’s staple, yet Sunday at Sugarloaf he played an eight-hole stretch in the middle of his round in even par without a par. He needed 31 putts and hit a pedestrian 71 percent of his fairways in Round 4. Little surprise, however, in the end all he needed was a signature boring finish – a two-putt par at the par-5 18th – to secure the richest payday of his career ($810,000).
Johnson’s victory should have come as no surprise to anyone with a sense of BellSouth history.
Prior to this year, Johnson had played four PGA Tour events, missing the cut in all but one – the ’02 BellSouth.
Two years ago at this same Sugarloaf layout, Johnson opened with rounds of 68-71-69 before a closing 75, capped by an inexplicable four-putt on the 72nd hole, dropped him out of the top 10 and a chance to garner a spot in the Tour’s next open tournament. As is usually the case, the soft-spoken Iowan turned that lapse into a lesson.
“It was definitely a realization for me that I more or less belonged out here and could compete out here,” Johnson said April 4 following his final-round 72 for a 275 total and one-stroke victory over Hensby.
There have been a rash of lessons for Johnson the past few weeks. After opening the season with what the 2003 Nationwide Tour Player of Year considered substandard play (two missed cuts and no finish higher than 20th in his first six events), he huddled with swing coach Mike Bender as the Tour entered its Southern swing.
“We worked on getting his arms and his body to match up with the ball. When he gets it matched up, he’s really good,” said Bender, who began working with Johnson in 2000. “It was lots of smaller things but they were all related.”
His work with Bender, which included a waste-high to waste-high drill aimed at improving his tempo, and familiar surroundings in Florida provided the spark Johnson needed. He posted his best finishes of the season (T-13 at Honda, T-6 at Bay Hill) before heading to Georgia.
“Every time he gets near the lead he feels more comfortable,” Bender said. “He knows how to win – it’s just a matter of him getting comfortable and up near the lead.”
Having tired of what normally is considered a rookie adjustment period, Johnson played like a veteran at Sugarloaf and never buckled even when Hensby – another Nationwide alum who finished second for his best Tour showing – cut his lead to one with a day’s best 67.
“I was fairly calm, maybe a smidge antsy at times but I tried to keep my walking pace at a good rhythm,” Johnson said. “Everything just kind of even keel.”
With that, Johnson added a new spin to an old adage: This nice guy finished first.
– Rex Hoggard and wire reports