AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — A strange week at the Masters saved the biggest surprises for Sunday – unheralded Zach Johnson won the green jacket, and he had to beat Tiger Woods to get it.
Johnson pulled away from Woods and the rest of the pack with three birdies in a crucial four-hole stretch along the back nine of Augusta National, closing with a 69 for a two-shot victory and only the second of his career.
The 31-year-old self-described “normal guy” from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is the least accomplished Masters champion since Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff 20 years ago, but this was no fluke. Even as some of the thrills returned in the final round, Johnson kept his calm.
And there wasn’t anything Woods could do about it.
“This is very surreal – very, very surreal,” said Johnson, who was on the Nationwide Tour four years ago and has not won in the big leagues since 2004 at the BellSouth Classic. “I didn’t think it would be this year, but I had no idea.”
Woods looked like a lock for his fifth Masters and third straight major when he took the lead after a short birdie on the second hole, only this major didn’t work out like so many others. Johnson and three other players came after him, and this time Woods was the one who backed off with sloppy mistakes – a broken club, shots that either found the water or the bunker and too many putts that stayed out of the cup.
It was the third time Woods lost a lead during the final round of a major, and the first time he ever failed to get it back.
Johnson finished at 1-over 289, matching a Masters record last set in 1956 for highest winning score. And it ended a streak of the winner coming out of the final group at Augusta National ever year since 1991.
“He played beautifully,” Woods said. “Look at the round he shot out there, the score. He did what he needed to do. He went out there, grinded away, made shots he needed to make.”
The week featured bone-dry conditions, more bogeys than birdies, frost coating the manicured lawn in the morning and one last peculiar sight – Woods walking up to the 18th green with no one left behind him on the course and no trophy waiting for him at the end.
He closed with a 72 and tied for second with Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini, who each shot 69 on a day when the course finally allowed something that resembled those fabled charges on the back nine.
Johnson did it the old-fashioned way.
So much for that theory that the Masters is only for the big boys. Johnson didn’t try to reach any of the par 5s in two all week, yet he played them better than anyone with 11 birdies and no bogeys.
“I knew if I stayed in the present, I’d do well,” he said. “I kept rolling that ball, and it was my day, I guess. Pretty lucky.”
Defending champion Phil Mickelson presented him the green jacket. It was six years ago when Johnson first showed up at Augusta National with a ticket and followed Lefty around as he tried to stop Woods from a fourth consecutive major.
Now, Johnson can come back to play in the Masters as long as he wants as one of the most unlikely champions.
Woods walked away bitter again, not so much at his play on Sunday but for the way he finished in previous rounds. A bogey-bogey finish on Saturday that ultimately cost him the lead, and a bogey-bogey finish on Thursday that set the tone for his week.
“I had a chance,” Woods said. “But looking back over the week, I basically blew this tournament on two rounds where I had bogey-bogey finishes. That’s 4 over on two holes. You can’t afford to do that and win major championships.”
Even so, he didn’t help himself in the final round.
Two shots behind making the turn, Woods found a bunker on the 10th and failed to save par. His tee shot stopped next to a Georgia pine on the next hole, and Woods’ 4-iron collided with the tree immediately after he hit the ball, bending the shaft almost in half. He did well to save par there, and seemed to hit another gear on the 13th.
With his 4-iron in two pieces, he hammered a 5-iron over the creek at the 13th and watched it trickle down the top shelf until it stopped 3 feet away for his only eagle of the week.
Johnson, who laid up short of the 15th green, was walking to his third shot when he heard the roar and “I assumed Tiger made eagle” to pull within two shots.
Johnson made par from just off the green, then holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the 16th to cap his run and put Woods in position of needing a charge of his own. Woods simply didn’t have it.
His 15-foot birdie attempt on the 14th broke across the front of the cup. And from the right rough on the 15th, needing to bend the ball around the pines, his 3-iron came up just short and into the water. He pitched to 7 feet to save par and stay in the game.
Johnson three-putted from about 35 feet on the 17th for bogey, again leaving Woods hope. But he missed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th, and his approach to the 17th came up short in a bunker.
“What the hell was that?” Woods said.
Goosen also had his chances, going out in 32 to take the lead and making only one bogey on back nine, a three-putt at No. 12. But it was a peculiar decision to hit iron off the tee at the 510-yard 13th – easily reachable in two – and he left himself only an 18-foot attempt for birdie, which he missed. He also laid up on the par-5 15th after driving into the trees.
The best chance to catch Johnson belonged to Justin Rose, who made five birdies in a nine-hole stretch through the 16th and was one shot behind until hitting his tee shot into the trees on No. 17 and taking double bogey. Rose finished with a 73 and tied for fifth at 292 with Jerry Kelly (70).
Stuart Appleby, who had a one-shot lead over Woods going into the last round, recovered from a double bogey on his opening hole to join a four-way tie for the lead on the back nine until he hit 7-iron into Rae’s Creek on the 12th hole and took double bogey.
With two double bogeys on his card, he shot 75 and finished four back.
“I had too many doubles and a triple,” Appleby said. “You can handle bogeys out here. But once you do the big numbers, you walk yourself backwards. It was a tough day. I enjoyed the day. Would have loved a rosier finish.”