- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — In five hours yesterday at Augusta National, Zach Johnson shrugged off obscurity and slipped into green-jacket immortality, besting overwhelming favorite Tiger Woods and a host of other challengers to claim the 71st Masters.

“It’s very surreal,” a teary Johnson (1-over 289) said after a closing 69 lifted him to a two-stroke victory over Woods, Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini. “It’s like I’m walking around in a dream.”

Even dreams are rarely as outlandish as the scenario that unfolded in Augusta yesterday. The 31-year-old Johnson had never closely contended in a major — let alone won one — when he began the final round two strokes behind Australian Stuart Appleby (293) and one behind Woods and England’s Justin Rose (292).

In 11 previous major starts, Johnson’s best finish was tied for 17th at the 2005 PGA Championship. He came to Augusta with one PGA Tour victory (2004 BellSouth Classic), one top-10 finish this season (tied for ninth at Doral) and a short-knocking style of play atypical of the traditional Masters winner’s profile.

“I don’t hit it very far, and sometimes it isn’t very pretty, but I am a good putter. And I think I am mentally tough,” Johnson said after matching the event’s record-high winning scores of Sam Snead (1954) and Jackie Burke (1956).

Mental toughness is always at a premium at the Masters and never more than this week, when nasty weather and tough pin positions combined to make this a sadistic Masters. But after three days without them, accessible pins and tolerable temperatures finally greeted the field for yesterday’s finale.

But if the challenge of coping with the 7,445-yard, par-72 layout was somewhat softened physically, the emotional task was doubled for Johnson and the rest of the field by Woods’ presence in the event’s final pairing. The 12-time major champion arrived at Augusta National on a two-major roll as an outrageous 6-4 favorite. And when Woods arrived on the leader board Saturday afternoon, booking a date with Appleby and holding the virtual 54-hole pole, everybody on the property expected a fifth green jacket uprising was in the offing.

After all, the 31-year-old Woods had never blown a 54-hole lead at a major. And that’s basically where Woods was heading into yesterday’s finale, just one stroke behind a major-less Aussie who has spent the better part of his career missing slam cuts.

Predictably, Appleby double-bogeyed the first hole after blocking his drive halfway to Atlanta. And when Johnson bogeyed No. 5 to fall to 4 over moments after Woods posted a birdie at No. 2, Tiger held the outright lead for the first time all week. Before yesterday, Woods had never lost a major in which he led on Sunday.

Apparently, nobody told Johnson.

“They say a giant has to fall at some point, and maybe that’s the case,” said Johnson, who outdueled Woods by three strokes in yesterday’s finale. “It makes it that much more gratifying knowing that I beat Tiger Woods. There’s no question about it.”

The Iowa native birdied the eighth hole to make the turn at 3 over and sprinted — posting midrange birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 16 to pull three clear of Woods and Goosen — while the rest of the field was stumbling on golf’s most famed back nine. Tiger, who struggled all day to control the distances on his irons, seemed to find his stride with a brilliant par save at the diabolical 11th and a point-blank eagle at the 13th. But Woods could never push closer than 3 over, singeing the cups with birdie bids at Nos. 14 and 16 that might have injected serious drama into an event that was sorely lacking in that category all week.

“I threw this tournament away on two days when I had good rounds going and I finished bogey-bogey,” said Woods, referring to costly stretch stumbles on Thursday and Saturday.

Johnson stumbled similarly Friday, finishing with three bogeys to yield the 36-hole lead. And when he missed a 4-footer for par at No. 17 yesterday to drop back to 1 over, another fade seemed possible for a major outsider in the recent mold of Michael Campbell (2005 U.S. Open), Ben Curtis (2003 British Open) and Todd Hamilton (2004 British Open).

But instead of folding at the finish, Johnson proved his mettle, recovering from a blocked approach to the treacherous 18th with a marvelous chip that made his putter practically superfluous. He tapped in from three inches, relatively certain those behind him were out of reach, and proceeded to the back of the green for a celebratory hug with his wife, Kim, and a good-luck kiss for the couple’s 14-week-old boy, Will.

“Being Easter Sunday, I felt like there was certainly another power that was walking with me and guiding me,” said Johnson, until yesterday best known as one of the game’s most outspoken Christians. “I’m Zach Johnson, and I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it. I’m a pretty normal guy.”

Not anymore.

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