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Ryder Tough

Zach Johnson
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.

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