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Ryder Tough

Photo: Simon Bruty/SI

Phil Mickelson presented the green jacket to Zach Johnson, who said afterward that it was a 40 regular.

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 8 — He was a solitary figure in the fading light, a man slowly burning off the frustrations of a windblown 76.

Zach Johnson hit putt after putt on the practice green at 7:45 Saturday evening, the last man standing at Augusta National. Each well-aimed ball caromed off a tin of chewing tobacco belonging to his caddie, Damon Green, who was bone tired and not afraid to say so.

"The work we're doing right now is going to save me one stroke tomorrow," Johnson said, before promising with an expletive that he would win the tournament.

He turned and saw that a fan had ambled up to the ropes, and by golly if that fan hadn't heard his chilling declaration.

"Sorry about the language," Johnson said sheepishly to the fan, who relayed the story to this reporter over lunch in the Augusta National clubhouse on Sunday, several hours before Johnson had even teed off.

Let the record show that golfer, father, family man and regular guy from Iowa, Zachary Harris Johnson, 31, is a man of his word. He bit off a seven-way share of the lead when he birdied the par-5 second hole Sunday, took it outright with another birdie at the par-4 third, and was cool as a cucumber, as Green said later, in firing a three-under-par 69 to win the 2007 Masters by two strokes over Retief Goosen, Rory Sabbatini and yes, Tiger Woods.

"I told him to finish strong," said Vaughn Taylor, who roomed with Johnson on the Hooters Tour, shares the same putting coach and played in the third-to-last group with him Sunday.

"He played really sound under some key putts," Taylor continued. "That's Zach. That's what he did at the Ryder Cup. He's a tough guy."

Taylor wasn't the only one to bring up Team USA's humbling defeat at the K-Club last fall. Green credited the Ryder Cup for helping Johnson find the true depth of his resolve. He was one of the U.S. team's few clutch players, going 1-2-1 under the most intense pressure the game can dish out.

"I thought that was going to put him over the edge," Green said. "It just hadn't come to fruition yet."

It did Sunday, as it had all week. Johnson shot 71-73-76-69 and never made worse than bogey. He went for none of the par-5s in two, since he and Green decided to lay up unless he had a 4-iron or less in his hands. And yet Johnson demolished the par-5s, going 11 under for the week, disproving once and for all the theory that only a bomber can win at the new Augusta, a claim that first looked suspicious when Mike Weir won in 2003.

"His irons were just better than normal this week," Green said. "He stayed so calm. I was proud of him. He stayed in the moment."

Green forbade Johnson to look at a leaderboard all day, and when the pride of Iowa stood on the 16th tee and asked how he was doing, the caddie replied, "You're still a couple up, but Tiger just made eagle."

Of all the men on the big board Sunday, including Taylor (75, T10), Justin Rose (73 with three double-bogeys, T5) and even the flinty, 40-year-old Wisconsinite Jerry Kelly (70, T5), Woods's name may as well have been in neon. The man has 12 major titles and four greens jackets. A final-round charge seemed more than likely; it seemed preordained. But it never happened.

"This one's not disappointing," Woods said. "I threw this tournament away on two days when I had two good rounds and I [finished] bogey, bogey. So four bogeys in the last two holes basically cost me the tournament."

That's one way of looking at it. But the fact remains that after playing with his C-game for most of the tournament, and still working his way into the final pairing with Stuart Appleby (75, T7), Woods birdied the second hole Sunday to join Johnson in the lead at three-over. The world number one took the lead by himself when Johnson bogeyed the par-4 fifth hole. It was over.

Check that. It wasn't over.

Oblivious to the sight of Woods's name on the leaderboards, because he was not looking at the leaderboards, Johnson went three-under the rest of the way. Woods bogeyed 6 and 10 but eagled the par-5 13th hole, at which point the great one was still two shots behind Johnson.

Afterward Johnson talked about staying in the moment, which meant keeping his head down, adhering to the old Satchel Paige maxim, "Don't look back — something might be gaining on you."

Desperate to make something happen, Woods tried to slice his second shot around a tree and onto the green on the par-5 15th hole, but he hit it in the water and had to work hard to save par. Three more pars and it was over.

It was the first time Woods had led a major on Sunday and lost.

"They say a giant's got to fall at some point," Johnson said, "and maybe that's the case. You know, it's still very surreal in that respect. I was sitting in the locker room waiting for Tiger to hit his second shot on 18. Before he hit it, I'm like, 'He's done stranger things.' The guy's a phenom."

Like Woods, Goosen could manage only pars to close, six of them. The two-time U.S. Open champion looked to be heading for his third major title until he three-putted the par-3 12th hole to go to three-over, where he finished.

Johnson mentioned in his press conference the old cliche that the Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday, and that one proved correct. Among those with a chance to win, his 34 on the homeward half was matched only by Kelly, who was fighting a chest cold all week (playing in shirtsleeves Saturday couldn't have helped) and elated to register his first top-10 in a major.

So was Sabbatini, who threw his visor and putter skyward after making a coast-to-coast putt for eagle on the par-5 eighth hole. That got him to 2-over for the outright lead, but he gave back a shot with a missed three-footer on nine and could manage only an even-par 36 on the back nine.

"That's a phenomenal round," Sabbatini said of Johnson's 69, even though he and Goosen had matched it. "Everyone says the first time you're in contention in a major, nerves come into it. I think as long as you focus on what you're doing and you don't think ahead, you're going to be fine. Zach's proof of that. He's a very level-headed golfer."

He's also a realist. When he got hot in the Wednesday par-3 tournament, Johnson was aware of the fact that no one has ever won that funfest and the Masters in the same year. But he decided to pull out all the stops because, he decided, he had a better chance to win the par-3 than the tournament.

Until he took the lead for good on 13, who would've argued? Until he followed that up with two more birdies on 14 and 16 to get to even par, raising the possibility that the winner might actually shoot under par after all, who would have picked him over Tiger?

After Johnson bogeyed 17 just to make it interesting, and then got up and down for par on 18, Taylor saluted his friend's tenacity. Surely, Taylor said, Johnson had just played 18 holes in the company of Superman, or at the very least Superman's brother. Surely no mere mortal could have done what Johnson did, could have refused to blink at Tiger's roar.

Johnson wasn't having it.

"I'm Zach Johnson, and I'm from Cedar Rapids, Iowa," he said, when asked to state his identity. "That's about it. I'm a normal guy."

A normal guy with a funny coat.

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