Anything but `normal'

Unheralded Johnson holds off Woods on climb to top

The Masters

April 09, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Zach Johnson's first trip to the Masters came in 2001 as a guest of fellow Hooters tour player Vaughn Taylor, who grew up here. Johnson's first appearance came two years ago when he shot an 81 in the opening round and missed the cut.

A late bloomer when it comes to his PGA Tour career, Johnson has also proved to be a quick study.

The learning curve that began when Johnson was named the Player of the Year on both the Hooters and Nationwide tours jumped exponentially yesterday. Separating himself on the back nine from a gaggle of gagging contenders, including four-time champion Tiger Woods, Johnson won the 71st Masters.

"I know today was a day of perseverance and patience, I guess," said Johnson, 31, who began the round two strokes behind Stuart Appleby of Australia. "I felt like my game was good enough coming into today. I felt like I really had a chance to move up the board. I don't even know what I shot."

With a final round of 3-under-par 69 and a four-round total of 1-over 289, Johnson beat Woods and a pair of South Africans, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini, by two strokes. It was the second PGA Tour win for Johnson, the first coming in the 2004 BellSouth Classic.

Johnson's winning score tied the highest in tournament history, the mark first set by Sam Snead in 1954 and equaled two years later by Jack Burke Jr. The second-place finish by Woods ended his run of major championships at two straight, and prevented him from going after his second "Tiger Slam" in this year's U.S. Open.

Reminded that the victory provides a lifetime invitation to the Masters, Johnson said, "There's a lot of things that haven't sunk in yet. That's just mind-boggling."

Asked to describe who he is, Johnson said, "I'm Zach Johnson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that's about it. I am a normal guy."

Though he made last year's U.S. Ryder Cup team, Johnson is perhaps the least accomplished Masters champion since Augusta native Larry Mize beat then No. 1 Greg Norman in a playoff 20 years ago. But Vaughn Taylor said his longtime buddy from their years together in golf's bush leagues is underrating himself.

"If he's not Superman, who is he? Superman's brother," said Taylor, who was trying to become the first local since Mize to win but finished 10th after sharing the lead early in the round. "[Johnson] is a big-time grinder."

From a historical standpoint, given whom Johnson beat, the victory was reminiscent of the only previous major championship victory by a player from Johnson's home state, Iowa. That came in 1955, when Jack Fleck took down the legendary Ben Hogan in the U.S. Open.

"Did he have the lead going into today - well I don't know," Johnson said of Woods, who briefly took over a share of the lead with Johnson after making birdie on the par-5 second hole and then took the lead outright when Johnson bogeyed the par-4 fifth. "They say the giant has to fall at some point, and maybe that's the case. It's still very surreal in that respect."

Johnson admitted that he didn't even look at the leader board until after he made his par at 15 and his caddie told him that he had a two-stroke lead that would grow to three when he made a 12-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th.

"I didn't know what was going on," Johnson said later. "I guess ignorance is bliss sometimes."

What Johnson couldn't ignore were the roars that reverberated through the Georgia pines as he stood waiting to hit his third shot on the par-5 15th hole. They came from the nearby par-5 13th, where Woods had just made an eagle to pull within two strokes of the lead.

Johnson backed off his shot, allowing the crowd to quiet.

"You may not know where Tiger is, but you can feel him, for obvious reasons," said Johnson, who added that he also backed off because he hit a similar approach shot long Friday, when he bogeyed the last three holes to lose a three-shot lead. "I never felt it was over until I saw him hit his second shot on 18."

Even when Woods narrowly missed a 15-foot birdie putt on 14, hit into Rae's Creek at 15 but salvaged par, and then missed a birdie putt at 16, Johnson wasn't feeling comfortable.

Sitting in the locker room, watching Woods play out the last two holes, Johnson recalled thinking, "He's done stranger things. He's a phenom."

But Woods wasn't yesterday or at any time in the tournament. In pursuit of his 57th PGA Tour victory, 13th major championship and fifth Masters victory - one shy of Jack Nicklaus' record here - Woods was human. It marked the first time that Woods has held the lead in the final round of a major championship and lost.

"This one's not disappointing," Woods, 31, said after shooting even-par 72. "I threw this tournament away on two days when I had two good rounds and I went bogey, bogey [on the last two holes]. So four bogeys in the last two holes basically cost me the tournament. I had a chance this week."

Many others had a chance, from Appleby, who shot 75 to finish tied for seventh, to Goosen and Sabbatini, both of whom shot 69. And, finally, Justin Rose of England, whose roller-coaster day ended when he made his third double-bogey on the par-4 17th en route to a 75.

It left the green jacket to an emotional Johnson, who broke down several times in his post-round celebration.

Johnson cried when he hugged his wife, Kim, and cradled their 14-week-old son, Will. He choked on his words at the green jacket ceremony. He even got teary-eyed when talking about his old high school in Cedar Rapids and the people at the local country club that funded his first try at professional golf.

"I got better and better every year. Looking back on it, it's amazing where I came from," said Johnson, who came into the tournament ranked 56th in the world.

Sort of like yesterday, when few, if any, gave him a chance to beat the game's biggest star and win the 71st Masters.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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