2007 Masters: Johnson and short hitters can compete at the Masters

Augusta, Ga. | The inspiring trip down Magnolia Lane is a little more than 350 venerable yards, making the journey through the 61 leafy giants the shortest drive at Augusta National.

Since 2001, Augusta National has bulked up, adding some 460 yards in a defiant attempt to counter the advances in technology and player performance. It’s a development many believe all but eliminated the short- and medium-length hitter and narrowed the list of potential winners to a half-dozen bombers.

But, as is the norm at Augusta, perception has been slow to jump on board with reality. The result

of a firm and fast course was a Masters leaderboard that was a mosaic of the medium-lengthed as well as the mighty.

“Last year, so much was written about how long it was and how it would suit the longer player,” said Tim Clark, who finished runner-up at Augusta in 2006 and 13th this year. “In the end, the (course’s) length may have brought guys of my length back into the tournament.”

When conditions are hard and fast, it mitigates the distance gap, bringing trouble – and large numbers – into play for the long bombers.

Conversely, shorter hitters such as Clark and winner Zach Johnson aren’t at risk of reaching the danger zones.

Planning, precision and putting – not pounding – won the 71st Masters. Johnson, a clutch putter who never has ranked better than 113th in driving distance, spent the days leading up to the Masters fine-tuning his game at the Tom Fazio-designed Frederica Golf Club on Sea Island, Ga. The track has just enough elevation and closely cropped chipping areas to pull off a serviceable Augusta National impersonation.

For three days, Johnson and sports psychologist Dr. Morris Pickens performed a series of drills to prepare Johnson for Augusta National, particularly the layout’s par 5s.

Johnson and his caddie, Damon Green, agreed they would only challenge a par 5 in two shots if they had

a 4-iron or less to the hole. For the week, Johnson laid up on every par 5, playing Nos. 2, 8, 13 and 15 in 11 under. Even on Sunday, when he had just 203 yards to the front at the 13th, he laid up with a 7-iron and wedged his way to birdie from 10 feet and a lead he would never yield.

“He laid up on 13 and they were giving him grief on TV, but in every practice round he laid up,” said swing coach Mike Bender. “He’s just steady. He’s an average-length hitter. They talk about the long hitters at Augusta, but there’s always another way.”

One of the drills at Frederica – along with a putting game called “24” and a few rounds of worse-ball, where Johnson would hit two balls and play his worse shot – featured countless wedge shots into greens that were rolled to Augusta-like speeds to prepare for his crucial par-5 approaches.

“I would move the pin around the green as he was hitting, and I was moving a lot,” Pickens said. “I was holding the pin and he would have hit me a lot if I didn’t get out of the way.”

For the week, Johnson compiled a statistical blueprint for success. He was second in driving accuracy (80.36 percent), fourth in greens in regulation (61.11 percent) and 10th in putting (1.556 average). By comparison, his driving distance was a pedestrian 265 yards, which ranked him ahead of just one player who doesn’t make his living on the Champions Tour.

Johnson’s Masters bid also was aided by the retooled PGA Tour schedule. The move of the Atlanta tournament, which Johnson won in 2004 and is committed to playing annually, from the week before the Masters to May allowed him extra time to prepare.

Thorough preparation aside, the catalyst for Johnson’s breakthrough likely occurred late last year at the Ryder Cup. During his first-day alternate-shot match against Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, Johnson’s play was nearly flawless. He capped the match with a 4-footer for birdie on the 18th to earn a half point.

“When he walked off the green (U.S. captain) Tom Lehman shook his hand and said, ‘You’re a much better player now than you were when you started,’ ” Bender said.

“I felt like that was a real stepping stone. There’s no question in my mind he drew on that experience. Pulling those shots off gave him an edge.”

This year’s Masters may not have been the pine-rocking shootout patrons have come to expect, but it proved to be a perfect fit for a consummate grinder.

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