DULUTH, Ga. (AP) — Winning the Masters has given Zach Johnson a world of confidence, particularly when he tees it up in Georgia.
“I definitely feel a little mentally stronger,” Johnson said. “Now my focus is more or less the process and the routine of each shot rather than the outcome.”
For the second time in six weeks and the third time in four years, Johnson earned a PGA Tour victory in the Peach State when he beat Ryuji Imada to win the AT&T Classic on the first hole of a playoff Sunday.
The Iowa native closed with a 5-under 67 to match Imada (70) at 15-under 273 on the TPC Sugarloaf.
Johnson needed just one hole to finish the job against Imada. Hitting a 4-iron on his second shot, Johnson watched his ball land above the pin. He rolled in a 60-footer for eagle within 5 inches of the hole.
Imada could only offer a congratulatory handshake. His tee shot landed in the left-side rough and his 3-wood failed to clear the water in front of the green.
Laying up was not an option, Imada thought, because with Johnson in the middle of the fairway, there seemed little chance his opponent would make par.
“I knew I had to gamble even though I was in the rough,” Imada said. “I probably could have won the tournament on 17. I only had a 6-footer up the hill, right to left. I missed it.”
Seeking to become just the third player from Japan to win on the PGA Tour, Imada lost a critical stroke with a drop that all but nullified his next approach, which landed 13 feet from the pin.
“I feel bad for him,” Johnson said. “He’ll be out here for many, many years. I think in time you’ll see him on the leaderboard a lot.”
For Johnson, scoring conditions the last four days were nothing like those at Augusta National, which endured bitterly cold wind in April when Johnson matched the highest winning score in Masters history at 1-over 289.
The AT&T, a suburban Atlanta event moved from the week before the Masters to the warmer temperatures of May, offered a favorite venue for Johnson, the runner-up to Phil Mickelson last year.
Matt Kuchar (70), Camilo Villegas (71) and Troy Matteson (73) tied for third at 12 under, and Chris Tidland (68), Stephen Marino (70) and Bob Estes (70) followed at 11 under.
Mickelson, a week after winning the Players Championship, skipped the tournament. Tiger Woods and many of the world’s other top golfers did the same.
“I realize that numbers-wise, world rankings-wise, money list-wise, we didn’t have everybody here,” Johnson said. “At the same time, it doesn’t matter. It really, really does not matter. There’s so many good players every week. I know that gets redundant … (but) any of the guys who teed it up this week could have won this golf tournament.”
Imada, who began the day tied with Matteson and holding a three-shot lead over Johnson, held his composure after two-putting from 7 feet for par at No. 17.
Rather than dwell on disappointment, Imada drove the middle of the fairway before his approach shot flew the green and landed right on top of a sprinkler head 35 yards behind the pin.
Imada showed some resolve, chipping within 3 feet and tapping in for a birdie that forced a first career playoff for both players.
“I wouldn’t say it was the biggest shot of my career,” Imada said. “Maybe if I had won, but it didn’t really change anything. Second is second.”
Johnson had just four bogeys in the tournament, none on the back nine. He picked a perfect time for his first birdie at the par-4 15th hole, rolling in a 14-footer that tied Imada.
Since missing the cut at last year’s PGA Championship, Johnson has four top-10 finishes and two others in the top 25 while earning money in 11 of 12 events. He withdrew from his second tournament, the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., because of a wrist injury.
Johnson has every reason to make plans to return to Atlanta in September, when East Lake Golf Club hosts the Tour Championship, but he doesn’t want to discuss it with the Memorial in two weeks and U.S. Open looming in mid-June.
“I’m not a firm believer in expectations,” Johnson said. “I think (if) you get caught up in expecting to do this or that, things go astray. Paramount is the fact that it doesn’t matter where you play.”