Monday, April 9, 2007
AUGUSTA, Ga., April 8 -- When Zach Johnson three-putted from three feet Friday to turn a seemingly certain birdie into a bogey, little could he imagine that two days later on the very same 16th green he would secure his first major championship victory with a 12-foot birdie putt. That birdie, his third in a four-hole stretch, provided a three-shot lead and ended much of the suspense Sunday in one of the wildest and more mesmerizing Masters tournaments in recent memory.
The 31-year-old Iowan shook off a bogey at the 17th by hitting his 50-foot chip at the 18th hole within tap-in distance for par and a brilliant final round of 69. Augusta National was not quite the same bitterly cold and windy torture chamber as players had encountered Saturday, but it was still a major handful with swirling breezes and firm, fast greens that yielded only three scores in the 60s all day.
Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods, two off the lead and the last man with a chance to catch Johnson, settled for par after hitting into a greenside bunker at the 17th hole. When Woods failed to hole out his second shot at the par-4 18th, Johnson knew the second victory of his career also would be his first major title.
Johnson's 72-hole total of 1-over-par 289 matched the highest score ever posted by a champion at Augusta National. He joined Sam Snead in 1954 and Jack Burke Jr. in 1956 as the only men to win this event with an over-par total after four rounds.
"Today was a day of perseverance and patience," said Johnson, a rookie on the U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall who said he avoided looking at leader boards for most of the day. "I felt like I had a chance to move up the board. I don't even know what I shot. And being Easter Sunday, I felt there was another power walking with and guiding me."
For Woods and countless other contenders, there will be nightmarish memories of what might have been. Woods ended his rounds Thursday and Saturday with bogeys on his final two holes. On Sunday, he hit his second shot at the 530-yard 15th hole into the water -- he had splashed one into Rae's Creek there Friday, as well -- and made a remarkable par when he needed a birdie or better.
Instead, after a dramatic eagle at the 510-yard 13th with a four-foot putt, Woods managed five consecutive pars to close with an even-par 72. He had to settle for a 3-over total of 291 and a three-way tie for second place with South Africans Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini, who posted final-round 69s.
Johnson, who played golf at Drake University and was bankrolled early in his career by a consortium of Iowa businessmen, earned the largest check of his career, $1.305 million. He's also the first Masters champion since Nick Faldo in 1990 not to come out of the final group Sunday.
Woods, a shot off the lead after 54 holes, went off last with third-round leader Stuart Appleby (75--293) on Sunday, and the No. 1 player in the world had serious problems with distance control and direction. He also saw his run of two straight major victories end, along with any hope for the goal he sets at the start of every season -- a profession Grand Slam of all four major championships in a single season.
"This one's not disappointing today," Woods said. "I threw this tournament away on two days when I had two good rounds, and I went bogey-bogey. So four bogeys in the last two holes basically cost me the tournament . . . I had a chance this week. I lost it with two bogey-bogey finishes in two rounds."
Woods and several others had their chances. Five players, including Woods for about 10 minutes on the front nine, either shared or held the outright lead until Johnson took control of the tournament on the back with birdies at the 510-yard 13th hole, the 440-yard 14th and the 170-yard 16th.
Just as significantly, Johnson, hardly considered one of the longest hitters in the game, never deviated from his pre-tournament game plan of never trying to reach Augusta National's par-5 holes -- Nos. 2, 8, 13 and 15 -- in two shots. He was more than content to lay up and take his chances with third-shot wedges. His first birdie after the turn came at 13, where he made an eight-footer to get to 2 over and take the outright lead for the first time.
At the 440-yard, par-4 14th, he hit a driver down the middle, then watched his approach shot stop eight feet from the pin. He made that putt, too, to push to 1 over. He missed a 25-footer for birdie at 15, but came right back at 16 with the 12-footer that left him at even par for the tournament and ahead of the field by three shots.
After posting 76 each of the first two days and making the cut on the number of 8 over, Goosen had the best score of Saturday's bitterly cold, windy third round, a 2-under 70 that pushed him from last place to just four shots behind after 54 holes.
Goosen had four birdies and no bogeys on his front nine Sunday and held the outright lead at 2 over through his first 11 holes. But he bogeyed the 155-yard 12th with a three-putt from 45 feet, including a missed four-footer, and was criticized by CBS announcers for hitting an iron off the tee at the 13th and laying up on his second shot instead of boldly going for the green in two.
But Goosen said afterward he had actually used a hybrid 1-iron that was plenty of club to allow him to go for the green with a second shot 3-iron. Only after he pushed the tee shot to the right did he decide to lay up short of Rae's Creek. His third shot left him with a 12-foot birdie putt, and he missed, settling for a par, the same score he posted at the 15th, where his drive in the left trees again forced him to lay up. He then missed an 18-footer for birdie and completed his round with six consecutive pars.
"The fairways, as firm as they are now, you can probably hit that [hybrid 1-iron] and still get a bit of run down there," Goosen said of his tee shot at 13. "I hit the third shot a little too hard and hit a good putt. It didn't go in."
Sabbatini had the day's most improbable putt, a 60-footer at the 570-yard eighth hole that seemingly started in Atlanta, veered west toward St. Louis and turned north toward Chicago before dying in the cup for an eagle that pushed him into an early lead at 2 over. Sabbatini took off his hat and bowed to the crowd after the putt went in, and he made another 25-footer at the 18th to get a piece of second, his best finish in a major.
Johnson had the good fortune of playing his final round with one of his best friends, Augusta native Vaughn Taylor, who shot 75--295 and was out of contention early on. In 2001, Taylor, Johnson's pal from their travels on the mini-tour circuit, secured tickets for a Masters practice round, which is when Johnson saw Augusta National for the first time.
"I told myself I'd never come here unless I was playing," Johnson said. "But I came out on a Monday. I just walked the golf course. My mouth was agape. I was in awe . . . I remember following Phil [Mickelson] out here and just dreaming. And my dreams were answered. I feel very lucky, and very blessed."