Apr 09, 2007 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
The sound you hear among the golf nation, casual or committed, is that of consternation, a sense that the 71st edition of Augusta National’s little invitational didn’t deliver.
Translation – Tiger didn’t win, so therefore, it wasn’t good.
That’s how it’s come to be in the last decade. With the exception of Phil Mickelson shaking off his gorilla three years ago (and seeing it climb back at Winged Foot), close to every single golf major has been slotted into two distintct categories – the ones where Tiger ruled, and the ones where someone else got every bit of good fortune and somehow prevailed.
It’s a far-too-simple way of thinking. Not only does that make the nuances of the game seem trivial, it also cheapens the accomplishment.
At this moment, with a green jacket, Zach Johnson has earned the right to crow, but it’s doubtful that this humble guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa would boast any more than necessary.
Zach’s game at Augusta spoke a lot louder. It had to, if any golfer was to overcome the perfect storm of circumstances that turned Bobby Jones’ vision of nirvana into an unspeakable beast.
The same weather system that reintroduced winter to these parts brought a chill to Georgia. Combine those chilly temperatures with sunny skies and winds that swirled among the tall pines, and the folks in the green coats got just what it had wanted ever since it started to super-size Augusta in 2002.
At its hardest, Augusta only awards the best possible play. Few expected it from Zach Johnson, a one-time PGA Tour winner with a major record filled with missed cuts and finishes well down the list.
Yet Zach had received the full education for a golfer, from obscurity at Drake University to the drudgery of mini-tours to a rapid ascenion in the main ranks, culminating in his 2006 Ryder Cup appearance.
Johnson and his fellow Yanks got creamed in Ireland. At the same time, he got a graduate degree in playing under pressure. That would come in handy at Augusta.
But not immediately. Leading late on Friday, he stuck an iron to 2 1/2 feet at 16. Then he three-putted. Two more bogeys followed, Zach fell out of the lead, and he was sure never to be heard from again.
On an impossible Saturday where only Retief Goosen broke par, Johnson’s 76 was a reasonable mark. Thanks to Stuart Applebly fumbling to a seven on 17, Johnson trailed by just two shots with a round to play.
And still, no one seemed to notice. Atrocious drives and poor putts aside, Tiger was just one back. As long as he showed up on the 1st tee Sunday afternoon, the consensus went, Tiger would don that fifth jacket.
Nothing else seemed possible when Tiger briefly took the lead after a birdie at 2. In front of him, though, something funny was going on.
Less wind, generous hole locations and slightly softer greens allowed guys like Retief Goosen and Rori Sabbatini to go out and attack. Johnson joined the fray, too, as a pair of chip-ins left him one shot back at the turn. Justin Rose, Jerry Kelly, Tiger – they all had a chance.
Zach started deciding this thing at 13. Laying up (as he’d done all week on every par-5), Johnson stuck a wedge close and made birdie, then added another birdie at 14, taking full advantage as the South African duo cooled off.
If there was any time Zach could have thrown it away, it was at 15 and 16. He heard the roar for the Tiger eagle, then went about his business. The birdie at 16 all but sealed it.
To be sure, Tiger helped in this endeavor, breaking clubs and looking somewhat mortal in his fruitless chase of the man from Iowa. Needless to say, he better fix his driving before the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Bad tee shots at that place leads to 80, fast.
Just as Larry Mize did 20 years ago, Zach Johnson went from obscurity to a lifetime Augusta pass in a matter of hours. He might start winning a lot. Or he could turn into the Todd Hamilton-type obscurity that never goes so far again.
But he won here. And so did Augusta. Perhaps it got too brutal, but majors are supposed to be the toughest, most thorough imagination for any professional golfer.
On that front, Augusta came through. And conquering it will change Zach Johnson’s life for good. Tough to be a simple guy from Cedar Rapids now.