Master of the Elements

August 19, 2011

From Arnold Palmer to Phil Mickelson, the Masters has a long history of decisive final-hole dramatics, but this year’s tournament was a Masters unlike any other, and so the ending was destined to be a little messy. After four days of exasperating golf, it figured that Zach Johnson would win his green jacket while slouched in the locker room, averting his eyes from a television because he couldn’t bear to watch his fate unfold.

Johnson, the dimpled, boyish pride of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had retreated to the Augusta National clubhouse after a spectacular final-round 69. He held the lead at one over par, and the only player left on the course who could catch him was none other than Tiger Woods, who was two strokes back with two holes to play.

Johnson settled in at a small table in the locker room, which was deserted but for the courtly clubhouse attendants, a pair of tournament officials and a gent at a neighboring table who was turned out in a tweed jacket and a green Masters hat that couldn’t quite contain his unruly blond locks.

“This is an important day for you,” the man said, by way of hello.

“Yes, it’s Easter,” said Johnson, a regular at the PGA Tour’s Bible study groups. Then Johnson recognized the fellow he was talking to.

“Mr. Becker, I’m a huge fan!” he blurted. Boris Becker smiled back.

As Woods was walking to his ball in the 17th fairway, Becker asked Johnson how he was feeling.

“My legs are numb from the knees down,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not sure they’re still attached to my body.”

Woods dumped his approach into a bunker short of the green, an inexplicable unforced error characteristic of a round replete with missed opportunities. Still, the shot from the trap was eminently makeable, and Johnson closed his eyes as Woods settled into the sand. He didn’t steal a peek until Woods’s shot had skittered safely away from the hole.

“You’re almost home,” someone said to Johnson, and now, finally, the tears started to come. He calmed himself in time to watch Woods rip a drive on 18. Tiger had to hole the approach shot for eagle to force a playoff, and Johnson broke up the room by saying what everybody else was thinking: “He’s done stranger things.”

As Woods went through his preshot routine, Johnson buried his head in his hands. He looked up as Woods’s approach was floating well right of the flag. Just like that, Johnson, 31, had triumphed at the 71st Masters, only the second victory of his Tour career.

“I honestly cannot believe this is happening,” he said, speaking for so many.

Johnson is a Midwesterner via central casting: polite, humble, well-spoken and God-fearing. When he emerged for the green-jacket ceremony on the practice putting green, he thanked, in order, the greenkeepers, his caddie, his sponsors, his mother watching on TV back in Cedar Rapids (“Happy Easter, Mom”), his sister, his brother, his father, his three-month-old son (Will, who, Zach said, “would have been happy to see me even if I had shot 85 today”), his wife (Kim, “my rock”) and Jesus Christ.

If he wasn’t so gracious, Johnson could have also thanked Woods, who for the first time in his illustrious career coughed up a Sunday lead at a major, and Justin Rose, who birdied the 16th to move within one of the lead only to make a mess of 17 with a double bogey. A special shout-out could have gone to two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, who played the first eight holes in four under par to take the lead only to play the last 10 in one over. And let’s not forget Rory Sabbatini, one of five men to hold the outright lead on Sunday; his charge was short-circuited by bogeys on 14 and 16.

Most of all, the 160-pound Johnson probably should have thanked the lords of Augusta for presenting a parched golf course that allowed his 265-yard drives to run out for precious extra yards and brick-hard greens that played into the hands of the short-game whiz. It was a polarizing setup, extolled by some players as the ultimate test and reviled by others for a numbing difficulty that drained much of the excitement that golf fans have come to expect from the Masters.

As befits one of the game’s most intense grinders, Johnson kept his head down and ignored the debate. On Sunday evening he allowed only that he felt “very privileged, very honored” to have survived Augusta National — his 289 total matched the highest winning score in Masters history. Realizing a boyhood dream was, he said, “very surreal.”

Johnson’s victory may have been a surprise, but it is not a fluke. Since turning pro in 1998, after having earned a degree in business management from Drake, Johnson has become a Horatio Alger story in spikes. At the start of his career he didn’t have the funds to cover his travel expenses, so members of his hometown Elmcrest Country Club formed a syndicate to sponsor him. Shares were sold for $500 apiece — Zach’s father, Dave, a chiropractor, bought eight — and about $25,000 was raised to send Johnson on his way. (He would repay the investors with interest.)

In ’99 Johnson cut his teeth on the micromini Prairie Golf Tour, winning twice and finishing third on the money list with $14,625. He moved up to the Hooters Tour and in 2001 ended the season with a three-tournament winning streak that propelled him to the top of the money list. In ’03 he tore up the Nationwide Tour, winning twice and setting records for scoring average (68.97) and money ($494,882), thus earning his spot on the PGA Tour the following season.

In the ninth start of his rookie year he won the BellSouth Classic and, for staying so true to his small-town roots, received congratulatory notes from his first-, second-, third- and fourth-grade teachers. The past two seasons were marked by steady improvement and quiet success, but then Johnson emerged as a big-time player with his spirited debut at last September’s Ryder Cup.

In a second-day four-ball match, he made seven birdies and almost single-handedly beat the team of Padraig Harrington and Henrik Stenson, both of whom reside in the top 10 of the World Ranking.

“He left the Ryder Cup a different player,” says Mike Bender, Johnson’s longtime swing coach. “He’s never been afraid to win, and he’s had a lot of practice at it on the mini-tours, but he found a different kind of game face over there. The kid has so much determination.”

That’s what you learn as a pipsqueak holding your own in team sports. Johnson was a starting wide receiver on his seventh-grade football team, despite weighing less than 90 pounds. As a high school sophomore he led his golf team to the state championship, and as a senior he was a 120-pound, all-city right wing in soccer. Oh, and while at Drake, he won a campus-wide three-point shooting contest, canning 19 of 25 from beyond the arc.

“He’s one of those irritating guys who is good at everything he does,” says Kim.

That a finesse player such as Johnson prevailed at the Masters only added more intrigue to a controversial course setup that was years in the making. The regime of former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson will always be remembered for his pugilistic defense of the club’s all-male membership, but his lasting legacy is having remade the layout in his own macho image. He may have been replaced this year by the kinder, gentler Billy Payne, but last week Hootie enjoyed the last laugh as his course — with a little help from Mother Nature — humiliated the best golfers in the world.

Since the wholesale changes to Augusta National began in 2002 — turning an expansive layout that encouraged bold shotmaking into a longer, tighter, more penal test — rainy conditions had taken the bite out of the course. This year it was finally dry, making the greens firm and frighteningly fast. Cold temperatures and gusting, swirling gales, plus the sensibilities of new greens committee chairman Fred Ridley, resulted in a perfect storm of high scores. Hootie’s obsession with protecting par befitted the blue coats of the USGA, not the green jackets of the Masters, and it wasn’t a coincidence that this year’s bloodbath was overseen by Ridley, the immediate past president of the USGA.

The tone was set during the first round, when there were more rounds in the 80s (12) than under par (nine), with only two eagles being made all day. Even with course conditions on the edge, Ridley had showed no mercy.

“Some of the pin positions were like, Wow,” Stephen Ames said, following a 76 that left him seven off the lead of Rose and Brett Wetterich. Johnson, with a 71, was lurking in a tie for fifth.

The difference between this Masters and so many others could be more readily heard than seen. Augusta National has long been noted for its acoustics; the soundtrack to the Masters is supposed to be the roars of the gallery echoing through the pines. In the absence of any pyrotechnics, 1979 champion Fuzzy Zoeller described the atmosphere as being like “a morgue.”

The easier pin positions of the second round were negated by stronger winds, and by the end of another brutal day the players were beginning to howl.

“The course is ridiculous,” said Stenson. “It feels like I’m walking around for five hours and someone is whipping me on the back.”

Added Davis Love III, “You can’t make it much harder than this and get guys to show up.”

In fact, some competitors clearly wished they were somewhere more hospitable, like Hades. After making the cut on the number at eight over, the highest since 1982, Lee Westwood was so down in the mouth he was asked if he still liked the Masters.

“Not anymore,” he said. “It asks too many questions that there is not an answer to. Sometimes even a perfect shot is not good enough.”

For 15 holes of the second round Johnson had solved Augusta National’s riddles; he was two under for the day and at 16 had a three-footer for birdie that would have given him a two-stroke lead. But Johnson missed the putt and the comebacker too, and the demoralizing bogey was followed by two more as he skidded to a 73 and into a tie for fourth, two back of coleaders Wetterich and Tim Clark and one behind Augusta native Vaughn Taylor, the only players under par. Afterward Johnson chalked up his disappointing finish to being “Augustaized,” yet he was strangely upbeat. “My game is there,” he said. “I feel confident in what I’m doing.”

Of course, that was before the weather became downright sadistic. Saturday dawned with temperatures in the 30s, and gusts throughout the day reached 23 mph. To keep the course from becoming unplayable Ridley and the boys moved up the tees, used most of the easiest pin positions and watered the greens, but the third round still turned into one of the most carnage-filled days in Masters history. Playing in the final group, Clark and Wetterich had a better-ball score of 76 as neither made a birdie en route to scores of 80 and 83, respectively.

By day’s end the field’s scoring average of 77.35 made it the ugliest Saturday since 1956. Despite a triple bogey at the 17th, Stuart Appleby was leading at two over par, the highest score ever for a 54-hole Masters leader. One stroke back was Woods, who had played a nearly flawless round until he limped home with back-to-back bogeys. Johnson was one back of Woods, holding on to fourth despite a 76 that included only one birdie.

“I was just happy to finish,” Johnson said. “It was so cold on the last five or six holes, I could barely feel my hands.”

On Sunday warmer temperatures and greens that had been further softened overnight led to a front-nine shootout that at one point featured a six-way tie for the lead. Overpowering the par-5s has always been the blueprint for success at the Masters, and multiple winners such as Palmer, Nicklaus, Woods and Mickelson have had that luxury.

Johnson resolved at the start of the week to lay up on every par-5, and on the 13th hole he had the discipline to stick to his game plan even though he was only 216 yards out. Johnson’s caution led to some clucking on the CBS telecast, but he stuffed his wedge shot, and the ensuing birdie gave him the outright lead at two over. (For the week he would play the par-5s in 11 under, two shots better than Woods.)

From there Johnson put the hammer down, with aggressive iron shots leading to birdies at 14 and 16, the latter stretching his lead to three strokes. More remarkable than Johnson’s fearless play was the utter comfort he projected.

Said Kim, “With it being Easter and our faith being so strong, I felt eerily calm, and I could see that in Zach too.”

His playing partner, Taylor, had another read: “He’s a tough guy. He showed a lot of guts.”

The magnitude of what he was about to achieve finally caught up with Johnson on 17, where he made a bogey from in front of the green. But a shaky approach to 18 was redeemed with a gorgeous chip to within inches of the cup for the par that set up Johnson’s waiting game in the locker room.

Long after he had bid adieu to Becker, Johnson repaired to Butler Cabin for a private party with his family and friends. When he walked through the door, Kim squealed, “Don’t you just look so handsome in green!”

Zach met his father in the middle of the room, and they embraced for at least 20 seconds. Dave was the best kind of Little League dad, a positive booster known for rarely missing one of his three kids’ practices, let alone games. On Sunday night he was walking around with a dazed look. “I am in complete, utter shock,” he said.

Taking it all in was Larry Gladson, the head pro at Elmcrest who had flown in that morning. In his mind’s eye Johnson was still a 10-year-old range rat. Gladson’s scouting report on the young Zach: “Great kid, squeaky clean.” And the course that nurtured him? “Short, tight, tree-lined, with sloping greens. It demands a great short game and accurate driving. Sounds familiar, right?”

Eventually Payne came by to collect the new Masters champ for the traditional dinner with the Augusta National membership. In front of some of the richest and most powerful men in the country, Payne would welcome Johnson into the “heart and soul of our club.” But before he headed out for the most momentous dinner of his life, Cedar Rapids’ hometown hero had a final request for the folks he was leaving behind in Butler Cabin.

Alluding to his RV parked across Washington Road — the Johnsons’ preferred mode of transport when traveling on the Tour — the man in the spiffy green jacket pleaded, “Can someone please go and let the dog out? I’m sure he’s really got to go pee by now. I’d do it myself, but I have somewhere else to be.”