AUGUSTA, Ga. | The 71st Masters trashed the form chart. Consistent in its oddity, this one defied convention
from the start. Mostly it served up cold, low British Open temperatures with cold, high U.S. Open scores. Augusta National, for a change, played firm and fast. That meant three flat, quiet days played with the mute button on and the birdie-eagle count way down.
The wind chill, right here among blooming azaleas in the Deep South, got down to 36 degrees Saturday afternoon, meaning some players bought warm Masters-logoed clothing in the pro shop and hit shots with purple hands. Tiger Woods finished two rounds bogey-bogey and finally didn’t win a major championship when leading on Sunday, which was a first. And for the first time since 1990, the winner didn’t come out of the last twosome.
What’s more, the National’s reputation as an exclusive playground for bombers took a big hit from a 5-foot-11 Midwestern man known for his straight living off the course and straight driving on it. Unassuming Zach Johnson, polite as a minister, slipped in and slipped on a green jacket, holding off long-hitting, multiple-major winners Woods and Retief Goosen by two shots with an effective Punch-and-Judy attack.
Zach Johnson, now that’s different. He never had finished better than 17th in a major. It has been two decades since a one-time Tour winner won the Masters, and then it was another slightly built, devout Christian fellow named Larry Mize. He did a bit of giant-killing as well, as Greg Norman’s pulse told us. Mize delivered the miracle chip-in; Johnson merely made birdies on half of the last six holes.
“Zach put his blinkers on and went,” said Stuart Appleby, the 54-hole leader who slipped to a tie for seventh. “That’s the sort of player he is. He knew what he was up against, the type of players who were up there. Fantastic to him. It’s a great story, something different than a guy who wins 15 majors in a row.”
Johnson closed on a day when the Masters finally got its old groove back, what with numerous lead changes, contenders, birdies, eagles, double bogeys and dramatic moments. Ten eagles came Sunday, two more than the first three days combined. The wild finale saw Justin Rose make three double bogeys, including a crusher on the 71st hole, shoot 73 and lose by three. And Goosen rose from the cut line to the temporary lead on the frantic weekend.
This two-way traffic was a welcome diversion from the first three rounds, particularly Saturday, when there was more backing up than at a valet parkers’ convention. Only thing quieter than Goosen’s speech on Thursday-Saturday were the crowds. A tradition unlike any other year, the groan was the unofficial sound of the Masters till Sunday. This staging was like the college kid who had trouble all semester but pulled out a decent grade by acing the final exam. One can thank watered greens, more-accessible pins and calmer weather.
Highly unusual, this Masters was won not by a long-distance operator but by someone whose 265-yard driving average bested only three players who made the cut, and two of those were seniors. We now know that can happen if the ground is hard as Magnolia Lane. Yes, bunters can hit a Grand Slam at a place that has been lengthened almost 500 yards since 2001. Remarkably, Johnson laid up on every par 5 and, after some wedge wizardry, birdied 11 of the 16, shades of Mike Weir if not Paul Runyan.
“Zach chipped his way around,” Appleby said. “He neutralized us with smart play and good putting.”
The latest champion tied for second in driving accuracy, something more associated with June’s major, not April’s. And he won with 1-over-par 289, tying the tournament’s highest winning score ever. What was this, Oakmont?
Some not so intimate with golf probably were asking another question, like, “Who is this?” Well, Johnson, 31, was born two months after Woods but didn’t quite take his Q-rated, monied path to Ryder Cup berth and Masters victory.
Johnson took the road so low he wasn’t even the best player on his high school or college team. He turned pro with no dough in 1998, got some backers back home and played something called the Prairie Tour in various backwater towns
in Nebraska and Kansas.
Not long later, the Drake University graduate could be found living in a three-bedroom, Orlando-area apartment with five other mini-tour players.
He recalls thinking his days on the Hooters Tour were the “best days of my life – chicken wings and everything.” Back in the bushes, his nickname transformed from Z-Man to Z-Monkey to Monkey. These days, he answers to Z.
Not that everyone knows him.
In his news conference, a writer asked, “Who are you?”
Johnson’s answer drew laughter.
“I’m Zach Johnson and I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it. I’m a normal guy.”
Not often a Masters champion sounds like he’s on a game show. “What’s My Line?” comes to mind. Nor can anyone recall the introductory quote, “I’m Tiger Woods and I’m from Cypress, California.”
Not often, either, a Masters winner shoots a 76, as Johnson did in the cold, brutal third round, when the scoring average, 77.35, was the highest for a Masters single round in 51 years. CBS’ David Feherty likened the proceedings to “being tortured by a beautiful woman.” It was so cold that Frank Chirkinian, the former CBS golf boss, said he wore socks for the first time in 30 years.
“Look, she can barely write now,” Johnson said of a reporter taking notes after the round. “It’s hard
to swing, hard to putt. You have to even play the wind on your putts. The last five or six holes I could barely feel my hands.”
Johnson arrived at Augusta with but one top 10 this year, a tie for ninth at his last start, the WGC-CA Championship at Doral. Yet, the day before the Masters began, when he contended in the Par-3 Contest, he wasn’t quite envisioning green.
“At that point,” he said, “I’m thinking I had a better chance to win the Par 3 than the tournament.”
He arrived Sunday two strokes behind leader Stuart Appleby and won with a 69 that tied for the day’s best and was one shy of the week’s standard.
This was Johnson’s third Masters, having finished no better than 32nd previously. His first visit here, though, was as a spectator. His Hooters Tour roommate – an Augusta chap named Vaughn Taylor, someone you may recall as a late-Saturday leader this year – got him tickets in 2001. That same year, Johnson would win three consecutive Hooters events and get the label Back-to-Back-to-Back Zach.
“My mouth was agape,” Johnson recalls of that first visit here. “I was in awe. You don’t see that (Augusta National) on the mini-tours.”
Tour players have a common refrain when it comes to Johnson’s easy nature: Everybody likes him. It’s easy to see why. The tenacity he shows inside the ropes turns nice outside. About the only bad thing you hear is that he’s had the tendency to keep people waiting.
You can feel his genuineness when he says things like, “I’m as normal as they come. I love to play a game for a living. I appreciate it. You know, I feel honored to play golf as my living.” Or when he says, “(The Midwest) is not exactly the golf breeding ground.”
But David types seem to come out of the Hawkeye State. Fifty-two years ago another underdog Iowa pro, Jack Fleck, took down a giant in Ben Hogan at Olympic Club. Eat corn, slay legends.
“That’s pretty special putting my name up next to (Fleck’s),” Johnson said. Later, he added, “As they say, giants gotta fall sometimes.”
Even if the marksman is off target more than usual. The typical green coat doesn’t three-putt six times, as Johnson did. That was worse than everyone but four guys. In fact, he three-putted the par-3 16th the first three days, including from 31⁄2 feet in the second round. He says the wind affected the first putt, and the 3-footer coming back hit a spike mark. “I guess I got Augustacized,” he said.
He would more than redeem himself Sunday at 16, where he rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt that gave him a three-shot lead on Woods and Goosen. It was on that tee that his caddie, Damon Green, told Johnson, who hadn’t checked leaderboards, he was ahead by a couple.
“Most people, that three-putt (on 16) would’ve killed,” Green said.
Winning despite all those three-putts gives an idea of how well Johnson hit it, as do these stats: tied for fourth in greens in regulation, tied for third in birdies. Johnson putted well enough the rest of the time to tie for 10th in putting. But then that’s his thing, accurate driving and rolling. He came to Georgia in the top 15 on Tour in said categories, then went out and controlled his emotions, trajectory and the golf ball’s direction.
“Zach’s a very level-headed golfer, very consistent,” said Rory Sabbatini, another co-runner-up and the
sole leader until he drove left and bogeyed 14. “He’s also tenacious, and that’s what you need to win.”
Johnson has gotten it done before in April. He won his first Nationwide Tour title in April 2003, his first PGA Tour title in April 2004 at the BellSouth Classic and his first major championship in April ’07. Spring
is his springboard.
“It’s normal and natural to wonder if you can win on that stage, to wonder if you’re good enough,”
said Dr. Morris Pickens, Johnson’s sports psychologist. “It’s natural.
But he said, ‘I am good enough.’ ”
It was Woods who had the look of a winner after a spot in the final twosome fell into his lap. When Woods finished the third round, he was tied for eighth. About 90 minutes of cold, windy carnage later, he was tied for second and paired with Appleby. Last time somebody lapped the field from the clubhouse like that, Paul Lawrie was winning the British Open at Carnoustie.
“He won’t even know I’m there,” Appleby said Saturday night of their pairing. “I’m sure I’ll know he’s there. . . . Look, Tiger always has got an advantage. . . . What would you like me to say, that I cleaned him up all the time, I’m great on the practice range, that I can beat him, I can hit it past him? No, no and no. I’ve never had my way with him.”
But Woods would make three bogeys Sunday. He took the sole lead early before mistakes marred his perfect record with a final-round major lead. He made it interesting, making par at 11 despite snapping a shaft against a tree on his approach and pulling to within two shots with a tap-in eagle at 13. But he stalled with a missed 10-footer for birdie at 14 and a watery par at the par-5 15th.
Woods, major runner-up for the third time, battled his swing too much throughout the week and wasn’t as sharp as usual in his bid for his third major title in a row, 13th overall and fifth green jacket. He particularly wasn’t his best off the tee, hitting only 55.4 percent of fairways, and he missed with two many iron shots as well. Appleby noticed, saying, “He struggled.
Nor did Woods finish off rounds like usual. He closed bogey-bogey in the first and third rounds. In the middle, he overcame a “two-way miss,” meaning he hit shots both right and left, and “turned a 90 into a 74” on Friday.
“I threw this tournament away,” said Woods, who remains six behind Jack Nicklaus in major wins (18-12) and Sports Illustrated covers (22-16). “Four bogeys in the last two holes (Thursday and Saturday) basically cost me the tournament.”
That’s hardly all. He shouldn’t discount Johnson. Iowa served a major impediment. And now a major champion, one with as much as golly as grit.
“He’s such an aw-shucks guy . . .” said Pat O’Brien, Johnson’s putting coach since 2001 and a former
Tour rep for SeeMore putters. “But he’s not afraid of anything. I think we saw that today. He stood up
to the challenge. I think everybody was giving the tournament to Tiger, but (Johnson) is a guy who shoots 69 and takes it. We should embrace him.”
A size 40R already has.