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Master of the Elements

April 16, 2007
April 16, 2007

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April 16, 2007

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Master of the Elements

Overcoming brutal course conditions, harsh weather and the game's preeminent player, Zach Johnson emerged as the unlikely winner of the Masters with a magnificent final round

From Arnold Palmerto Phil Mickelson, the Masters has a long history of decisive final-holedramatics, but this year's tournament was a Masters unlike any other, and sothe ending was destined to be a little messy. After four days of exasperatinggolf, it figured that Zach Johnson would win his green jacket while slouched inthe locker room, averting his eyes from a television because he couldn't bearto watch his fate unfold.

This is an article from the April 16, 2007 issue Original Layout

Johnson, thedimpled, boyish pride of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had retreated to the AugustaNational clubhouse after a spectacular final-round 69. He held the lead at oneover par, and the only player left on the course who could catch him was noneother than Tiger Woods, who was two strokes back with two holes to play.

Johnson settled inat a small table in the locker room, which was deserted but for the courtlyclubhouse attendants, a pair of tournament officials and a gent at aneighboring table who was turned out in a tweed jacket and a green Masters hatthat couldn't quite contain his unruly blond locks.

"This is animportant day for you," the man said, by way of hello.

"Yes, it'sEaster," said Johnson, a regular at the PGA Tour's Bible study groups. ThenJohnson recognized the fellow he was talking to. "Mr. Becker, I'm a hugefan!" he blurted. Boris Becker smiled back.

As Woods waswalking to his ball in the 17th fairway, Becker asked Johnson how he wasfeeling. "My legs are numb from the knees down," he said with a laugh."I'm not sure they're still attached to my body."

Woods dumped hisapproach into a bunker short of the green, an inexplicable unforced errorcharacteristic of a round replete with missed opportunities (Life of Reilly,page 78). Still, the shot from the trap was eminently makeable, and Johnsonclosed his eyes as Woods settled into the sand. He didn't steal a peek untilWoods's shot had skittered safely away from the hole.

"You're almosthome," someone said to Johnson, and now, finally, the tears started tocome. He calmed himself in time to watch Woods rip a drive on 18. Tiger had tohole the approach shot for eagle to force a playoff, and Johnson broke up theroom by saying what everybody else was thinking: "He's done strangerthings."

As Woods wentthrough his preshot routine, Johnson buried his head in his hands. He looked upas Woods's approach was floating well right of the flag. Just like that,Johnson, 31, had triumphed at the 71st Masters, only the second victory of hisTour career. "I honestly cannot believe this is happening," he said,speaking for so many.

Johnson is aMidwesterner via central casting: polite, humble, well-spoken and God-fearing.When he emerged for the green-jacket ceremony on the practice putting green, hethanked, in order, the greenkeepers, his caddie, his sponsors, his motherwatching on TV back in Cedar Rapids ("Happy Easter, Mom"), his sister,his brother, his father, his three-month-old son (Will, who, Zach said,"would have been happy to see me even if I had shot 85 today"), hiswife (Kim, "my rock") and Jesus Christ.

If he wasn't sogracious, Johnson could have also thanked Woods, who for the first time in hisillustrious career coughed up a Sunday lead at a major, and Justin Rose, whobirdied the 16th to move within one of the lead only to make a mess of 17 witha double bogey. A special shout-out could have gone to two-time U.S. Openchampion Retief Goosen, who played the first eight holes in four under par totake the lead only to play the last 10 in one over. And let's not forget RorySabbatini, one of five men to hold the outright lead on Sunday; his charge wasshort-circuited by bogeys on 14 and 16.

Most of all, the160-pound Johnson probably should have thanked the lords of Augusta forpresenting a parched golf course that allowed his 265-yard drives to run outfor precious extra yards and brick-hard greens that played into the hands ofthe short-game whiz. It was a polarizing setup, extolled by some players as theultimate test and reviled by others for a numbing difficulty that drained muchof the excitement that golf fans have come to expect from the Masters. Asbefits one of the game's most intense grinders, Johnson kept his head down andignored the debate. On Sunday evening he allowed only that he felt "veryprivileged, very honored" to have survived Augusta National--his 289 totalmatched the highest winning score in Masters history. Realizing a boyhood dreamwas, he said, "very surreal."

Johnson's victorymay have been a surprise, but it is not a fluke. Since turning pro in 1998,after having earned a degree in business management from Drake, Johnson hasbecome a Horatio Alger story in spikes. At the start of his career he didn'thave the funds to cover his travel expenses, so members of his hometownElmcrest Country Club formed a syndicate to sponsor him. Shares were sold for$500 apiece--Zach's father, Dave, a chiropractor, bought eight--and about$25,000 was raised to send Johnson on his way. (He would repay the investorswith interest.) In '99 Johnson cut his teeth on the micromini Prairie GolfTour, winning twice and finishing third on the money list with $14,625. Hemoved up to the Hooters Tour and in 2001 ended the season with athree-tournament winning streak that propelled him to the top of the moneylist. In '03 he tore up the Nationwide Tour, winning twice and setting recordsfor scoring average (68.97) and money ($494,882), thus earning his spot on thePGA Tour the following season.

In the ninth startof his rookie year he won the BellSouth Classic and, for staying so true to hissmall-town roots, received congratulatory notes from his first-, second-,third- and fourth-grade teachers. The past two seasons were marked by steadyimprovement and quiet success, but then Johnson emerged as a big-time playerwith his spirited debut at last September's Ryder Cup. In a second-dayfour-ball match, he made seven birdies and almost single-handedly beat the teamof Padraig Harrington and Henrik Stenson, both of whom reside in the top 10 ofthe World Ranking. "He left the Ryder Cup a different player," saysMike Bender, Johnson's longtime swing coach. "He's never been afraid towin, and he's had a lot of practice at it on the mini-tours, but he found adifferent kind of game face over there. The kid has so muchdetermination."

That's what youlearn as a pipsqueak holding your own in team sports. Johnson was a startingwide receiver on his seventh-grade football team, despite weighing less than 90pounds. As a high school sophomore he led his golf team to the statechampionship, and as a senior he was a 120-pound, all-city right wing insoccer. Oh, and while at Drake, he won a campus-wide three-point shootingcontest, canning 19 of 25 from beyond the arc. "He's one of thoseirritating guys who is good at everything he does," says Kim.

That a finesseplayer such as Johnson prevailed at the Masters only added more intrigue to acontroversial course setup that was years in the making. The regime of formerAugusta National chairman Hootie Johnson will always be remembered for hispugilistic defense of the club's all-male membership, but his lasting legacy ishaving remade the layout in his own macho image. He may have been replaced thisyear by the kinder, gentler Billy Payne, but last week Hootie enjoyed the lastlaugh as his course--with a little help from Mother Nature--humiliated the bestgolfers in the world.

Since the wholesalechanges to Augusta National began in 2002--turning an expansive layout thatencouraged bold shotmaking into a longer, tighter, more penal test--rainyconditions had taken the bite out of the course. This year it was finally dry,making the greens firm and frighteningly fast. Cold temperatures and gusting,swirling gales, plus the sensibilities of new greens committee chairman FredRidley, resulted in a perfect storm of high scores. Hootie's obsession withprotecting par befitted the blue coats of the USGA, not the green jackets ofthe Masters, and it wasn't a coincidence that this year's bloodbath wasoverseen by Ridley, the immediate past president of the USGA.

The tone was setduring the first round, when there were more rounds in the 80s (12) than underpar (nine), with only two eagles being made all day. Even with courseconditions on the edge, Ridley had showed no mercy. "Some of the pinpositions were like, Wow," Stephen Ames said, following a 76 that left himseven off the lead of Rose and Brett Wetterich. Johnson, with a 71, was lurkingin a tie for fifth.

The differencebetween this Masters and so many others could be more readily heard than seen.Augusta National has long been noted for its acoustics; the soundtrack to theMasters is supposed to be the roars of the gallery echoing through the pines.In the absence of any pyrotechnics, 1979 champion Fuzzy Zoeller described theatmosphere as being like "a morgue."

The easier pinpositions of the second round were negated by stronger winds, and by the end ofanother brutal day the players were beginning to howl. "The course isridiculous," said Stenson. "It feels like I'm walking around for fivehours and someone is whipping me on the back." Added Davis Love III,"You can't make it much harder than this and get guys to show up."

In fact, somecompetitors clearly wished they were somewhere more hospitable, like Hades.After making the cut on the number at eight over, the highest since 1982, LeeWestwood was so down in the mouth he was asked if he still liked the Masters."Not anymore," he said. "It asks too many questions that there isnot an answer to. Sometimes even a perfect shot is not good enough."

For 15 holes of thesecond round Johnson had solved Augusta National's riddles; he was two underfor the day and at 16 had a three-footer for birdie that would have given him atwo-stroke lead. But Johnson missed the putt and the comebacker too, and thedemoralizing bogey was followed by two more as he skidded to a 73 and into atie for fourth, two back of coleaders Wetterich and Tim Clark and one behindAugusta native Vaughn Taylor, the only players under par. Afterward Johnsonchalked up his disappointing finish to being "Augustaized," yet he wasstrangely upbeat. "My game is there," he said. "I feel confident inwhat I'm doing."

Of course, that wasbefore the weather became downright sadistic. Saturday dawned with temperaturesin the 30s, and gusts throughout the day reached 23 mph. To keep the coursefrom becoming unplayable Ridley and the boys moved up the tees, used most ofthe easiest pin positions and watered the greens, but the third round stillturned into one of the most carnage-filled days in Masters history. Playing inthe final group, Clark and Wetterich had a better-ball score of 76 as neithermade a birdie en route to scores of 80 and 83, respectively.

By day's end thefield's scoring average of 77.35 made it the ugliest Saturday since 1956.Despite a triple bogey at the 17th, Stuart Appleby was leading at two over par,the highest score ever for a 54-hole Masters leader. One stroke back was Woods,who had played a nearly flawless round until he limped home with back-to-backbogeys. Johnson was one back of Woods, holding on to fourth despite a 76 thatincluded only one birdie. "I was just happy to finish," Johnson said."It was so cold on the last five or six holes, I could barely feel myhands."

On Sunday warmertemperatures and greens that had been further softened overnight led to afront-nine shootout that at one point featured a six-way tie for the lead.Overpowering the par-5s has always been the blueprint for success at theMasters, and multiple winners such as Palmer, Nicklaus, Woods and Mickelsonhave had that luxury. Johnson resolved at the start of the week to lay up onevery par-5, and on the 13th hole he had the discipline to stick to his gameplan even though he was only 216 yards out. Johnson's caution led to someclucking on the CBS telecast, but he stuffed his wedge shot, and the ensuingbirdie gave him the outright lead at two over. (For the week he would play thepar-5s in 11 under, two shots better than Woods.) From there Johnson put thehammer down, with aggressive iron shots leading to birdies at 14 and 16, thelatter stretching his lead to three strokes. More remarkable than Johnson'sfearless play was the utter comfort he projected.

Said Kim, "Withit being Easter and our faith being so strong, I felt eerily calm, and I couldsee that in Zach too."

His playingpartner, Taylor, had another read: "He's a tough guy. He showed a lot ofguts."

The magnitude ofwhat he was about to achieve finally caught up with Johnson on 17, where hemade a bogey from in front of the green. But a shaky approach to 18 wasredeemed with a gorgeous chip to within inches of the cup for the par that setup Johnson's waiting game in the locker room.

Long after he hadbid adieu to Becker, Johnson repaired to Butler Cabin for a private party withhis family and friends. When he walked through the door, Kim squealed,"Don't you just look so handsome in green!" Zach met his father in themiddle of the room, and they embraced for at least 20 seconds. Dave was thebest kind of Little League dad, a positive booster known for rarely missing oneof his three kids' practices, let alone games. On Sunday night he was walkingaround with a dazed look. "I am in complete, utter shock," he said.

Taking it all inwas Larry Gladson, the head pro at Elmcrest who had flown in that morning. Inhis mind's eye Johnson was still a 10-year-old range rat. Gladson's scoutingreport on the young Zach: "Great kid, squeaky clean." And the coursethat nurtured him? "Short, tight, tree-lined, with sloping greens. Itdemands a great short game and accurate driving. Sounds familiar,right?"

Eventually Paynecame by to collect the new Masters champ for the traditional dinner with theAugusta National membership. In front of some of the richest and most powerfulmen in the country, Payne would welcome Johnson into the "heart and soul ofour club." But before he headed out for the most momentous dinner of hislife, Cedar Rapids' hometown hero had a final request for the folks he wasleaving behind in Butler Cabin. Alluding to his RV parked across WashingtonRoad--the Johnsons' preferred mode of transport when traveling on the Tour--theman in the spiffy green jacket pleaded, "Can someone please go and let thedog out? I'm sure he's really got to go pee by now. I'd do it myself, but Ihave somewhere else to be."

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Asked if he still liked the Masters, Westwood said,"NOT ANYMORE. Sometimes not even a perfect shot is good enough."
More remarkable than Johnson's fearless play was theUTTER COMFORT he projected. "I felt eerily calm," said Kim, "and Icould see that in Zach."
PHOTORobert BeckDRIVER'S ED Though he chose to lay up on all the par-5s, the short-hitting Johnson still played those holes in an impressive 11 under par.PHOTOTIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGESPHOTOSIMON BRUTY (CLARK)BLOWN AWAY Hard, slick greens, swirling winds and frigid temperatures were too much for (from left) Clark, Appleby, Rose and Woods.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (APPLEBY)[See caption above.]PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (ROSE)[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (WOODS)[See caption above.]PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDT 1972
Nicklaus read bumpy greens well enough to win by three.
PHOTOAL TIELEMANSCHAMPS Mickelson kept Johnson loose before the ceremony.