Top Dawg

All of Zach Johnson's Tour victories, including last week's at the AT&T Classic, have come in Georgia. If he can win one more there--the season-ending Tour Championship--he could wind up as player of the year
May 27, 2007

Tournamentdirectors always have one eye on the sky. Dave Kaplan, the head honcho at lastweek's AT&T Classic in Duluth, Ga., knows more about the weather thanmost--probably because he saw so much of it during the nine years his event,formerly known as the BellSouth Classic, straddled the March-April divide."We had high winds, hail, sleet, fog and cold," Kaplan said lastFriday. "Frogs is about the only thing we didn't have." At the 2005BellSouth heavy rains forced play to be canceled on Thursday and Friday."During the snowstorm on Saturday," Kaplan continued with a straightface, "I went to my office and sent an e-mail." The e-mail, addressedto Henry Hughes, the PGA Tour's chief of operations, was succinct: "As Iwrite this, it's snowing. We really need to talk about a date change." ¶Two years later, thanks to a schedule shuffle dictated by the requirements ofthe new FedEx Cup race, Kaplan has gotten his wish: a date in May. And not justany May date, but a week torn from the Garden of Eden catalog. That's judgingfrom last week's Atlanta-area weather, a blue-skies-and-cool-breeze paradigmthat lured thousands of spectators onto the verdant hillsides of the TPCSugarloaf.

Unfortunately, thefield of golfers was like the sky on those stormy March nights: starless.Two-time defending champion Phil Mickelson was a no-show. Tiger Woods was anever-gave-it-a-thought. The only top 10 player in attendance was Sweden'sHenrik Stenson, who is a cipher to casual fans. The one genuine fanfavorite--41-year-old John Daly, ranked 284th in the world and in the fieldthanks to a sponsor's exemption--tried to play through the pain of a lingeringshoulder injury but shot a first-round 77 and had to withdraw.

Otherwise, it wasa Who's Who of Who-lessness. "All these players come off the course sayinghow good it is," said one amused Tour veteran. "The problem is, youdon't know who you're talking to. You've never seen them before." If theAT&T had been a Broadway production, there would have been a notice inSunday's Playbill: "The role of Vijay Singh will be played this afternoonby Ryuji Imada."

Not that any ofthat will matter to golf historians, who will someday run their fingers downthe column of AT&T Classic winners and stop at 2007 champion Zach Johnson.The field, they will imagine, was top drawer because--well, because Johnson wasin it. He's the Masters champ, after all, and his one-hole playoff victory overImada on Sunday gave Johnson his second Classic title since 2004. When youstart piling up wins in the same tournament, you're a star.

O.K., piling up isa little strong for a guy who has only three PGA Tour victories on his résumé.(Mickelson, who was chilling at home in San Diego after his star turn in thePlayers Championship, has 31.) Johnson has, however, won all of his tournamentsin Georgia. That probably constituted piling on to all the Georgia and GeorgiaTech loyalists who spent the week barking and buzzing for Imada, a formerBulldog, and third-round leader Troy Matteson, a onetime Yellow Jacket.("I'm a Bulldog," the Iowa-born Johnson explained in aleader-in-the-clubhouse interview, "but I'm a Drake Bulldog.") Andthough he neither looks nor acts like a celebrity, Johnson has exchanged quipswith Regis and Kelly, Letterman and Oprah. His Masters triumph earned himlaudatory proclamations from the Iowa house and senate. Trust me, even ParisHilton goes weak in the knees when someone hands her a vellum document thatbegins, "Whereas...." (You can write the punch line.)

Did I mention thatthe weather was really great? The course played firm and fast, and the air wasso clear at Sugarloaf that you didn't need a telescope and a defogger to spotthe few "names" in contention. Best of the bunch was Colombianheartthrob Camilo (Spiderman) Villegas, who looked as if he might snare hisfirst Tour win until a wild tee shot on the par-5 10th led to a final-rounddouble bogey and a share of third. Next best was another former Yellow Jacketand onetime Masters phenom Matt Kuchar, whose comeback from a stint on theNationwide tour gained plausibility thanks to a third-round 64 and a tie forthird. Cameo appearances were also made by 42-year-old two-time U.S. Openchampion Lee Janzen, who lost his Tour card last year and needed a sponsor'sexemption to make the field, and by 44-year-old former PGA and Players championSteve Elkington, who has only cracked the top 150 on the money list once since2002 but was still glowing from his 12th at the Players. With final rounds of74 and 73, respectively, the popular veterans joined a five-way tie for 16thand collected $81,000 apiece.

It was Johnson andImada, though, who would be asked to entertain the nation on Sunday. Imada, wholeft Japan at age 14 to play golf and become fluent in college-dormitoryEnglish, led by as many as two strokes on Sunday, but five Johnson birdies onthe last 11 holes forced Imada to birdie the flume-ride par-5 18th to make theplayoff. This Imada did, thanks to a deft chip to three feet from behind thegreen.

But the playoffended as abruptly as a dropped call. Playing the 18th hole again, Imada foundthe left rough off the tee. From that grassy nest, high on the hillside, hetried to fly a 263-yard three-wood shot across the water to a tight front pin,on the theory that Johnson would make no worse than birdie from his perfect liein the fairway. Imada's ball, failing to follow this line of reasoning,splashed down about pin-high, well left of the flag. "I had to take achance," he said (Big Play, page G24). The pressure off, Johnson pured afour-iron to the back of the green and lagged his eagle putt to within inchesfor a tap-in victory.

Afterward Johnsongently corrected those who suggested that his trophy would have sparkled moreif, say, Jim Furyk had hit it into the water instead of Imada. "Every fieldis good," he said. "This field was great. It didn't have the so-calledmarquee players, [but] you're going to be hearing a lot from these guys in theyears to come. They're going to be top 50, top 30, top 15 players."

Kaplan, theweather watcher, was thrilled. Kaplan, the tournament director, well, he lookedpretty happy too. "It is what it is," he said on Friday, unaware that aJohnson-Imada finish would lead to a 20% drop in the final-round rating for theCBS tournament telecast from those of the '06 BellSouth. "The field isn'tas strong as before, but we were going to lose sponsors if we didn't changedates. Sponsors spend thousands of dollars to entertain clients, and if youonly give them a day and a half of good weather, they can't justify theexpense."

The glass, inother words, was half full--but at least it wasn't frozen.

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PHOTODavid Walberg DIRECTAPPROACH
Johnson's second shot on the par-5 72nd hole hit the green and led to a tyingbirdie.
TWO PHOTOSMIKE EHRMANN/WIREIMAGE.COM (2) FATALERROR
Imada, brilliant on the greens, made a big mistake by going for 18 in two onthe first hole of the playoff.
PHOTOPhotographs by David Walberg TOUGHCALL
Kaplan traded a good date for great weather.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)