- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
If he wasn't so gracious, Johnson could have also thanked Woods, who for the first time in his illustrious career coughed up a Sunday lead at a major, and Justin Rose, who birdied the 16th to move within one of the lead only to make a mess of 17 with a double bogey. A special shout-out could have gone to two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, who played the first eight holes in four under par to take the lead only to play the last 10 in one over. And let's not forget Rory Sabbatini, one of five men to hold the outright lead on Sunday; his charge was short-circuited by bogeys on 14 and 16.
Most of all, the 160-pound Johnson probably should have thanked the lords of Augusta for presenting a parched golf course that allowed his 265-yard drives to run out for precious extra yards and brick-hard greens that played into the hands of the short-game whiz. It was a polarizing setup, extolled by some players as the ultimate test and reviled by others for a numbing difficulty that drained much of the excitement that golf fans have come to expect from the Masters. As befits one of the game's most intense grinders, Johnson kept his head down and ignored the debate. On Sunday evening he allowed only that he felt "very privileged, very honored" to have survived Augusta National--his 289 total matched the highest winning score in Masters history. Realizing a boyhood dream was, he said, "very surreal."
Johnson's victory may 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 has become a Horatio Alger story in spikes. At the start of his career he didn't have the funds to cover his travel expenses, so members of his hometown Elmcrest 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 investors with interest.) In '99 Johnson cut his teeth on the micromini Prairie Golf Tour, winning twice and finishing third on the money list with $14,625. He moved up to the Hooters Tour and in 2001 ended the season with a three-tournament winning streak that propelled him to the top of the money list. In '03 he tore up the Nationwide Tour, winning twice and setting records for scoring average (68.97) and money ($494,882), thus earning his spot on the PGA Tour the following season.
In the ninth start of his rookie year he won the BellSouth Classic and, for staying so true to his small-town roots, received congratulatory notes from his first-, second-, third- and fourth-grade teachers. The past two seasons were marked by steady improvement and quiet success, but then Johnson emerged as a big-time player with his spirited debut at last September's Ryder Cup. In a second-day four-ball match, he made seven birdies and almost single-handedly beat the team of Padraig Harrington and Henrik Stenson, both of whom reside in the top 10 of the World Ranking. "He left the Ryder Cup a different player," says Mike Bender, Johnson's longtime swing coach. "He's never been afraid to win, and he's had a lot of practice at it on the mini-tours, but he found a different kind of game face over there. The kid has so much determination."
That's what you learn as a pipsqueak holding your own in team sports. Johnson was a starting wide receiver on his seventh-grade football team, despite weighing less than 90 pounds. As a high school sophomore he led his golf team to the state championship, and as a senior he was a 120-pound, all-city right wing in soccer. Oh, and while at Drake, he won a campus-wide three-point shooting contest, canning 19 of 25 from beyond the arc. "He's one of those irritating guys who is good at everything he does," says Kim.
That a finesse player such as Johnson prevailed at the Masters only added more intrigue to a controversial course setup that was years in the making. The regime of former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson will always be remembered for his pugilistic defense of the club's all-male membership, but his lasting legacy is having remade the layout in his own macho image. He may have been replaced this year by the kinder, gentler Billy Payne, but last week Hootie enjoyed the last laugh as his course--with a little help from Mother Nature--humiliated the best golfers in the world.
Since the wholesale changes to Augusta National began in 2002--turning an expansive layout that encouraged bold shotmaking into a longer, tighter, more penal test--rainy conditions 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 Fred Ridley, resulted in a perfect storm of high scores. Hootie's obsession with protecting par befitted the blue coats of the USGA, not the green jackets of the Masters, and it wasn't a coincidence that this year's bloodbath was overseen by Ridley, the immediate past president of the USGA.
The tone was set during the first round, when there were more rounds in the 80s (12) than under par (nine), with only two eagles being made all day. Even with course conditions on the edge, Ridley had showed no mercy. "Some of the pin positions were like, Wow," Stephen Ames said, following a 76 that left him seven off the lead of Rose and Brett Wetterich. Johnson, with a 71, was lurking in a tie for fifth.
The difference between 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 the Masters is supposed to be the roars of the gallery echoing through the pines. In the absence of any pyrotechnics, 1979 champion Fuzzy Zoeller described the atmosphere as being like "a morgue."
The easier pin positions of the second round were negated by stronger winds, and by the end of another brutal day the players were beginning to howl. "The course is ridiculous," said Stenson. "It feels like I'm walking around for five hours 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."