'Normal guy' from Iowa wears green
AUGUSTA, Ga. — It all seemed surreal to Zach Johnson. Three clutch birdies on the back nine at the Masters. His name atop the leaderboard. Toppling Tiger Woods. Slipping on the green jacket.
"I'm from Cedar Rapids, Iowa," he said when asked to describe himself. "That's about it. I'm a normal guy."
Normal guys don't beat Woods in the final round of a major, especially when Woods is in the lead. Normal guys aren't unfazed by the ground-shaking cheers of Woods making an eagle to mount a charge.
Jack Fleck was a normal guy from Iowa, too, and he took down the great Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open.
Maybe everyone should have seen this one coming.
A strange week at Augusta National saved the biggest surprise for the very end — Johnson as the Masters champion, and beating Woods to get there.
"As they say, a giant has got to fall at some point," he said.
Johnson pulled away from Woods and the rest of the pack with three birdies in a pivotal four-hole stretch, closing with a 3-under 69 for a two-shot victory over Woods, Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini. It was only the second victory of his career.
Woods was within two shots after his eagle on the 13th hole, but all he could muster were pars the rest of the way. His last chance ended when his approach to the 18th settled 20 feet to the right of the pin. And for the first time ever in a major, Woods walked the final hole with no trophy waiting for him at the end and no one behind him on the course
"I was sitting in the locker room, waiting for Tiger to hit his shot on 18, and I thought, 'He's done stranger things,'" Johnson said. "The guy is a phenom. The next person to come along like him, who knows how long that will be? It makes it that much more gratifying knowing I beat Tiger Woods."
Even more gratifying to Johnson was winning on Easter.
"My faith is very important to me," he said. "I had people looking after me. It was awesome."
The 31-year-old Johnson is the least accomplished Masters champion since Larry Mize, who also had only one PGA Tour victory, chipped in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff 20 years ago.
But this was no fluke.
The thrills and spills finally returned to Augusta National in the final round. Through it all, Johnson kept his cool.
"I felt like I've been blessed and I'm good enough to take home the green jacket," Johnson said. "That's what I was trying to tell myself the entire time and it worked out in my favor."
Johnson finished at 1-over 289, matching a Masters record last set in 1956 for highest winning score. And it ended a streak of the winner coming out of the final group at Augusta National ever year since 1991.
"He played beautifully," Woods said. "Look at the round he shot out there, the score. He did what he needed to do. He went out there, grinded away, made shots he needed to make."
Woods looked like a lock for his fifth Masters and third straight major when he took the lead after a short birdie on the second hole, only this major didn't work out like so many others.
Johnson and three other players came after him, and this time Woods was the one who backed off with sloppy mistakes — a broken club, shots that either found the water or the bunker and too many putts that stayed out of the cup.
It was the third time Woods lost a lead during the final round of a major, and the first time he ever failed to get it back.
He closed with a 72, the first time as a professional he has played the Masters without breaking par. Goosen and Sabbatini each shot 69 on a day when the course finally allowed something that resembled those fabled charges on the back nine.
Johnson chipped away at the myth that the Masters is only for the big boys. He didn't try to reach any of the par 5s in two all week, yet he played them better than anyone with 11 birdies and no bogeys.
"I knew if I stayed in the present, I'd do well," he said. "I kept rolling that ball, and it was my day, I guess. Pretty lucky."
Defending champion Phil Mickelson presented him the green jacket. It was six years ago when Johnson first showed up at Augusta National with a ticket and followed Lefty around as he tried to stop Woods from a fourth consecutive major.
Now, Johnson can come back to play in the Masters as long as he wants as one of the most unlikely champions.
Woods walked away bitter again, not so much at his play on Sunday but for the way he finished in previous rounds. A bogey-bogey finish on Saturday that ultimately cost him the lead, and a bogey-bogey finish on Thursday that set the tone for his week.
"I had a chance," Woods said. "But looking back over the week, I basically blew this tournament on two rounds where I had bogey-bogey finishes. That's 4 over on two holes. You can't afford to do that and win major championships."
The best chance to catch Johnson belonged to Justin Rose, who made five birdies in a nine-hole stretch through the 16th and was one shot behind until hitting his tee shot into the trees on No. 17 and taking double bogey. Rose finished with a 73 and tied for fifth at 292 with Jerry Kelly (70).
Stuart Appleby, who had a one-shot lead over Woods going into the last round, recovered from a double bogey on his opening hole to join a four-way tie for the lead on the back nine until he hit 7-iron into Rae's Creek on the 12th hole and took double bogey.
With two double bogeys on his card, he shot 75 and finished four back.
"I had too many doubles and a triple," Appleby said. "You can handle bogeys out here. But once you do the big numbers, you walk yourself backwards. It was a tough day. I enjoyed the day. Would have loved a rosier finish."