ATLANTA — As the writers filed into the interview room to talk with Zach Johnson, the reigning Masters champion was miffed. “The strict order was, ‘If you tell me, I’ll kill you.'” Someone had inadvertently broken Johnson’s order and Iowa’s favorite son had been told the fourth-quarter score between his beloved Hawkeyes and arch-rival Iowa State.
But Johnson’s frustration over losing a fun evening in front of the VCR faded as he talked about his third-round performance at East Lake. Johnson set a new course record Saturday at the Tour Championship by shooting 60, becoming the 20th player in PGA Tour history to do so. Only three players — Al Geiberger, Chip Beck and David Duval — have ever shot 59 in a Tour event.
On a day that saw the soggy course bathed in sunshine, Johnson made pars on his first two holes. He then hit into a fairway bunker left of the fairway on the third hole, but scored his first birdie after hitting an 8-iron 137 yards to within four feet of the hole.
With a gentle breeze, Johnson holed a 19-foot putt on the fourth hole and then hit his tee shot on the 208-yard par-3 sixth — where six of the 30 players found the water hazard Saturday — to within two feet of the flag. Another birdie at the 600-yard par-5 ninth gave Johnson a front-nine 31.
With several players shooting low scores, including a 62 by Geoff Ogilvy, little attention was paid to Johnson until he made birdies on the 10th, 12th and 13th holes.
The quest for an elusive 59 got serious when Johnson split the fairway on the 495-yard par-5 15th and then hit a 2-iron to within 16 feet of the hole. After making the putt for eagle, Johnson knew his round had the potential to be historic.
“I made that eagle putt,” Johnson said immediately after his round, “and I starting thinking, ‘I’m nine-under, I’ve got three more holes left. Okay, we can do it.”
Standing on the 18th tee, a 223-yard par 3, Johnson was both nervous and confident. “The scary thing was I had the perfect club and the perfect number on 18 tee,” he explained. “I just pushed the shot.” Johnson’s 2-iron flew 220 yards and landed in the sand right of the green, leaving him, ironically, 50-feet nine-inches from the hole.
With plenty of green to work with, it was a shot that Johnson could be aggressive with, and he said he was trying to hole it. The ball rolled two feet past the hole on the right side, forcing Johnson to make a 60th stroke. After going through his routine Johnson made the putt, but not without butterflies swirling in his stomach. “I was extremely nervous over that putt on 18,” he admitted. “Even more than I was at Augusta, or any other tournament.”
For the day, Johnson hit 10 of 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens in regulation and just 24 putts. “Any time you shoot that low, you’re obviously putting well. And it doesn’t hurt when you’re playing with Ernie [Els], who’s probably the most rhythmic guy out there.”
Johnson’s 60 moved him into fourth place, six shots behind leader Tiger Woods. If Johnson is able to maintain that position he would earn not only $340,000 for the week, but also a $600,000 deferred annuity for finishing in eighth place in the FedEx Cup points race.
When Johnson was asked if it had sunk in that he not only had an all-time great round, but was also now in the running to win the tournament, he said, “Well, no. Whatever happens, happens. That’s kind of the way I’m approaching this week.”