It all seemed surreal to Zach Johnson. Three clutch birdies on the back nine at the Masters. His name atop the leader board. Toppling Tiger Woods. Slipping on the green jacket. ”I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” he said when asked to describe himself. ”That’s about it. I’m a normal guy.” Not any more.
Normal guys don’t beat Woods in the final round of a major, especially when Woods is in the lead. Normal guys aren’t unfazed by the ground-shaking cheers of Woods making an eagle to mount a charge.
Jack Fleck was a normal guy from Iowa, too, and he took down the great Ben Hogan in the 1955 United States Open.
Maybe everyone should have seen this one coming.
A strange week at Augusta National saved the biggest surprise for the very end — Johnson as the Masters champion, and beating Woods to get there.
Johnson pulled away from Woods and the rest of the pack with three birdies in a pivotal four-hole stretch, closing with a three-under 69 for a two-shot victory over Woods, Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini. It was only the second victory of his career.
Woods was within two shots after his eagle on the 13th hole, but all he could muster were pars the rest of the way. His last chance ended when his approach to the 18th settled 20 feet to the right of the pin. And for the first time ever in a major, Woods walked the final hole with no trophy waiting for him at the end and no one behind him on the course.
”I was sitting in the locker room, waiting for Tiger to hit his shot on 18, and I thought, ‘He’s done stranger things,”’ Johnson said. ”The guy is a phenom. The next person to come along like him, who knows how long that will be? It makes it that much more gratifying knowing I beat Tiger Woods.”
Even more gratifying to Johnson was winning on Easter. ”My faith is very important to me,” he said. ”I had people looking after me. It was awesome.”
The 31-year-old Johnson is the least accomplished Masters champion since Larry Mize, who also had only one PGA Tour victory, chipped in to beat Greg Norman in a play-off 20 years ago.
But this was no fluke.
The thrills and spills finally returned to Augusta National in the final round. Through it all, Johnson kept his cool.
”I felt like I’ve been blessed and I’m good enough to take home the green jacket,” Johnson said. ”That’s what I was trying to tell myself the entire time and it worked out in my favour.”
Johnson finished at one-over 289, matching a Masters record last set in 1956 for highest winning score. And it ended a streak of the winner coming out of the final group at Augusta National every year since 1991.
”He played beautifully,” Woods said. ”Look at the round he shot out there, the score. He did what he needed to do. He went out there, grinded away, made shots he needed to make.”
Woods looked like a lock for his fifth Masters and third straight major when he took the lead after a short birdie on the second hole — only this major didn’t work out like so many others.
Johnson and three other players came after him, and this time Woods was the one who backed off with sloppy mistakes — a broken club, shots that either found the water or the bunker and too many putts that stayed out of the cup.
It was the third time Woods lost a lead during the final round of a major, and the first time he ever failed to get it back.
He closed with a 72, the first time as a professional he has played the Masters without breaking par. Goosen and Sabbatini each shot 69 on a day when the course finally allowed something that resembled those fabled charges on the back nine.
Johnson chipped away at the myth that the Masters is only for the big boys. He didn’t try to reach any of the par fives in two all week, yet he played them better than anyone with 11 birdies and no bogeys.
”I knew if I stayed in the present, I’d do well,” he said. ”I kept rolling that ball, and it was my day, I guess. Pretty lucky.”
Defending champion Phil Mickelson presented him the green jacket. It was six years ago when Johnson first showed up at Augusta National with a ticket and followed Lefty around as he tried to stop Woods from a fourth consecutive major.
Now, Johnson can come back to play in the Masters as long as he wants as one of the most unlikely champions.
Woods walked away bitter again, not so much at his play on Sunday but for the way he finished in previous rounds. A bogey-bogey finish on Saturday that ultimately cost him the lead, and a bogey-bogey finish on Thursday that set the tone for his week.
”I had a chance,” Woods said. ”But looking back over the week, I basically blew this tournament on two rounds where I had bogey-bogey finishes. That’s four over on two holes. You can’t afford to do that and win major championships.”
Even so, he didn’t help himself in the final round.
Two shots behind making the turn, Woods found a bunker on the 10th and failed to save par. His tee shot stopped next to a Georgia pine on the next hole, and Woods’s four-iron collided with the tree immediately after he hit the ball, bending the shaft almost in half. He did well to save par there, and seemed to hit another gear on the 13th.
With the four-iron in pieces, he hammered a five-iron over the creek at the 13th and watched it trickle down the top shelf within three feet away for his only eagle of the week.
Johnson, who laid up short of the 15th green, was walking to his third shot when he heard the roar and ”I assumed Tiger made eagle” to pull within two shots.
Johnson made par from just off the green, then holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the 16th to cap his run and put Woods in position of needing a charge of his own. Woods simply didn’t have it.
His 15-foot birdie attempt on the 14th broke across the front of the cup. And from the right rough on the 15th, needing to bend the ball around the pines, his three-iron came up just short and into the water. He pitched to seven feet to save par and stay in the game.
Johnson three-putted from about 35 feet on the 17th for bogey, again leaving Woods hope. But he missed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th, and his approach to the 17th came up short in a bunker. ”What the hell was that?” Woods said.
The best chance to catch Johnson belonged to Justin Rose, who made five birdies in a nine-hole stretch through the 16th and was one shot behind until hitting his tee shot into the trees on number 17 and taking double bogey. Rose finished with a 73 and tied for fifth at 292 with Jerry Kelly (70).
Stuart Appleby, who had a one-shot lead over Woods going into the last round, recovered from a double bogey on his opening hole to join a four-way tie for the lead on the back nine until he hit seven-iron into Rae’s Creek on the 12th hole and took double bogey.
With two double bogeys on his card, he shot 75 and finished four back.
”I had too many doubles and a triple,” Appleby said. ”You can handle bogeys out here. But once you do the big numbers, you walk yourself backwards. It was a tough day. I enjoyed the day. Would have loved a rosier finish.” — Sapa-AP