- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga.

You could be clever if you wanted and say the Masters has gone to Zach and ruin, but it wouldn’t be fair to this year’s winner, Zach Johnson. Granted, he came to Augusta National with just one PGA Tour victory on his resume, but everybody has to start somewhere. Besides, he didn’t back into a green jacket yesterday; on the contrary, he snatched it out of the hands of, among others, Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen, two guys who know a little bit about major championships.

While the other contenders were just trying to put one spiked foot in front of the other down the stretch yesterday, Johnson seized the moment with three birdies in four holes from the 13th through the 16th. Had Woods or Phil Mickelson done something that heroic, the Greencoats would name a cabin after him. So let’s give the kid his due. In the toughest conditions anyone could remember here, weather that turned the Masters into the Greater Anchorage Invitational, Johnson out-toughed them all.

And who knows? Maybe he’ll do it again sometime.

We’ll probably never see a screwier Masters, though. How screwy? This screwy: For a while yesterday, it looked like the most significant holes in the tournament would be the ones Johnson played not at the end of the final round but at the end of the second. The champ-to-be was alone in first place late Friday when he finished bogey-bogey-bogey to drop back to even par. That enabled 15 more stragglers to make the cut under the 10-shot rule, including Goosen.

All Retief did on the weekend was shoot 70-69 and actually take the lead on the front nine yesterday. He held it until the wicked 12th, at which point a three-putt — followed by Rory Sabbatini’s birdie on 13 — knocked him out of the top spot. Still, starting a Masters 76-76 and tying for second … when has that ever happened?

Goosen said it himself during his visit to the interview room afterward: “It’s probably thanks to Zach that I’m sitting here because he messed up on Friday on those last three holes. So in a way I’m happy I’m here, and in a way I’m a bit sad I didn’t win it. I gave myself a chance again [as he did when he was runner-up in ‘02], but I’d like one year to maybe go a little bit further.”

You found yourself saying “When has that ever happened?” a lot the past four days as normally hospitable Augusta turned nasty and strange occurrences became almost routine. Woods, for instance, hit three balls in the water in the last three rounds, the last on 15 yesterday to essentially end his chances of winning. How strange is that? On the other hand, he lost only one shot to par on those three holes. How strange is that?

Nothing, though, was stranger than yesterday. As temperatures dropped, winds whipped and nerves frayed, the lead became a revolving door. Stuart Appleby started out with it, then Woods took it, then Sabbatini, then Goosen. (The last three ended up sharing second at 3 over.) Finally, Johnson moved in front — and stayed in front, though Justin Rose (4 over) took a late run at him before making a double-bogey mess of 17.

We should all be encouraged by that, that some of the younger fellows held up so well. Johnson and Sabbatini, after all, are just 31, and Rose is only 26. Let’s face it, Tiger can use some new playmates, especially players who aren’t going to get the heebie-jeebies when they see his name on a leader board.

Actually, the best way to keep your lunch down when Woods starts climbing the leader board is to not even look at the leader board. That’s the approach Johnson took yesterday. His caddy, Damon Green, “was the one keeping an eye on things,” he said. As for Zach, he was just “staying in the present. … I didn’t know where I stood even after 14, but after 15, [Green] said, ‘We’ve got a couple-shot lead.’ I guess ignorance is bliss sometimes.”

Ability and backbone help, too. Though Johnson is still relatively new to the big time — he escaped the Nationwide Tour just four years ago — he acquitted himself well enough to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team last fall. And though his “mouth was agape” and he was thoroughly “in awe” the first time he saw Augusta National as a spectator in 2001, he wasn’t the least bit overwhelmed by the circumstances yesterday.

“I felt like my game was good,” he said. “I felt like I had a chance to really move up the board.”

Which he did, shooting a 69 that featured a few uncertain moments on the final two holes but nothing Van de Veldian. He didn’t even blink when Woods eagled 13 — provoking a roar from the gallery that rivaled a sonic boom. He had a good idea what the roar meant, but he didn’t let it keep him from hitting a solid approach over the water at 15 — and making par — and then hitting an even better approach over the water on 16 — and making a killer birdie that gave him some margin for error.

You can look at the leader board now, Zach Johnson. You’ve won the Masters.

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