It Doesn't Take A Genius to Beat Tiger

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 9, 2007

AUGUSTA In the age-old competition between talent and genius, always take genius and give the points. Always pick Tiger Woods to stalk Zach Johnson at Amen Corner and trample him as they wind along Rae's Creek on the back nine at the Masters. Common sense, as well as golf history, dictate that Tiger, closing in on his first billion dollars and his 13th major championship, will defeat a fellow ranked 56th in the world (just ahead of Charl Schwartzel), who has won only one PGA Tour event.

Almost every time, Woods will do deeds that expand the imagination. He will deliberately break his club in half on a tree as he escapes from the woods and makes a par. He will stand in the fairway and, to all appearances, use his will power, almost by telekinesis, to make his ball trickle 30 feet back down a slope so that he has a tap-in putt for an eagle. Even when he fails, knocking his ball into the water while trying to make another eagle, his charismatic presence seems powerful enough to unhinge any normal foes.

Year after year, we watch as the merely talented underdogs crumble in the last mile, doing whatever is required to give place to those with world-class gifts. But occasionally, just often enough to give the rest of us some perverse yet inspirational hope, a true plodder, a man without any pretense to great gifts in his field, will upend the most universally acknowledged genius of the age. That's how we end up with Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan at the '55 U.S. Open or Charles Coody leaving Jack Nicklaus to share runner-up honors at the '71 Masters. We wouldn't want such things to happen too often. Beyond a certain point, it's deeply unsettling, against the order of things. But every once in a while, it's profoundly okay.

So, salute the new Masters champ who says, "I'm Zach Johnson and I'm from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I'm a normal guy."

For symmetry, both Woods and Johnson are 31. Woods's wife expects their first child in July while Johnson's wife gave birth to a son in January. There, the similarities end. Woods played golf on national TV at age 2 and won the Masters in '97 at age 21. At that time, Johnson was the second-best golfer at Drake University. After graduating in '98, he had to pass the hat among local backers just to play the Hooters Tour.

"I didn't have very much . . . no money. Looking back, it's amazing where I came from," said Johnson, who began the day in a three-way tie for fourth place, then shot 69 to pass Woods, who began tied for second. "I thought playing the Hooters Tour would be the greatest days of my life, chicken wings and everything."

In 2001, the year Woods completed his Tiger Slam, Johnson came to the Masters -- as a spectator. His best friend, Vaughn Taylor, a pro from Augusta, "scrounged up some tickets," Johnson said. "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. . . . You don't see this on the mini-tours."

Slowly, the compact 160-pound Johnson, who has the short-haired, square-jawed Matt Damon look, improved his golf game. "I kept going because every year I got better," he says. Then, finally, he was truly excellent. On the 2003 Nationwide Tour, he actually won $494,882 in the bush leagues with his straight drives, crisp irons and precise putting. In the past three seasons on the PGA Tour, he won $6.7 million and made the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team, going 1-2-1 for the team that was trounced in Ireland.

Finally, on Sunday, after never finishing higher than 17th in a major championship, Johnson found himself in "an almost surreal place." He was not only playing in the third-to-last group in the Masters, but he was paired with -- Vaughn Taylor, that old friend who also had worked his way up to the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

"Having a buddy next to you certainly doesn't hurt," Johnson said. Yet, true to his open-faced sincerity, Johnson actually was bothered that Taylor shot 75 to tie for 10th place. "I was aching out there for him at times. You're not going to forget Vaughn Taylor for sure."

That's where he won me. For an hour after his win, Johnson was asked about everything imaginable. But he wanted to make sure you knew that Vaughn Taylor, who grew up next door at Augusta Country Club and scrounged those tickets, would be back.

"It was just my day. Pretty lucky. I never peeked at the scoreboard until the 17th hole. I didn't know what was going on. . . . I don't even know what I shot," said Johnson, whose 289 total tied the highest winning score in the history of the Masters. Yet he not only won a Masters, he won the toughest Masters.

As often happens when the meek inherit, Johnson made it clear that, over the years, his wife, Kim, believed in his ability more than he ever believed in himself. Also, playing on Easter gave him serenity; being devout, he thanked Jesus profusely, although he probably should have given Tiger equal billing.

"I basically blew this tournament," said Woods, citing his bogey-bogey finishes on Friday and Saturday. "That's four over par on two holes. . . . I threw this tournament away."

Goodness, how gracious. Actually, Johnson kind of won it, too.

"I have my limitations . . . but I think I'm a pretty tough competitor," Johnson said. "You may not know where Tiger is, but you can feel him.

"Obviously, I've struggled at times. But it might be misleading to compare me [too unfavorably] to Tiger. My career is pretty much where I want it to be. I've reached the point where I thought I was good enough to take home a Masters."

Johnson's victory will be popular on tour, partly because -- like Rich Beem's victory over Woods at the '02 PGA Championship -- it proves that resistance to Tiger is not always futile. But Johnson's mellow good manners and natural friendliness carry weight, too.

"He's a quality person," said Rory Sabbatini, who finished tied with Woods and Retief Goosen for second place. "He also travels [the tour] in an RV. We always seem to end up parked next to each other."

So, there you have it. Tiger has a yacht the length of a football field and, when he rents a house at a major, has his own furniture moved into the place ahead of time so he'll feel like he's right at home. Zach looks for a parking place next to Rory.

On days like this, when Woods doesn't quite win another major championship, we almost appreciate him more. In four days, Johnson seldom played a stroke that was beyond the best swing of Everyman. In contrast, Woods hit contorted improvisational recoveries -- including that club-snapper -- that even other pros never attempt. A few Zach Johnsons go a long way. But they have their place and give us hope. Talent knows the odds when faced with genius, but always wants a rematch.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company