Win or lose, Johnson has defended his title at Augusta

Win or lose, Johnson has defended his title at Augusta

Johnson, who had back-to-back birdies on Nos. 2 and 3, is at two under par.
Fred Vuich/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — He’s the Masters champion who wasn’t expected to ever wear a green jacket. This week, he’s the Masters champion who wasn’t expected to successfully defend his title.

Zach Johnson played his college golf at Drake University, though. He is a Bulldog, now and forever, and he lives up to that billing.

Johnson shot a sizzling 32 on the front nine Saturday, the lowest front-nine score thus far, en route to a third-round 68, which tied Tiger Woods and Boo Weekley for low score of the day. The leaders hadn’t even made the turn when Johnson was done, but he was seven shots back when he stopped by the interview room to meet with reporters after his round.

“Now I can look at the leaderboard,” he said, checking out the electronic scoreboard on the far wall of the press center as he plopped into a seat.

The inference was that he’d avoided any such reckless act while battling Augusta National through 18 holes. After Trevor Immelman reached 11 under, Johnson’s chances of winning seem remote, but that doesn’t alter what he’s done here this week. He has put up a good defense, playing very well in two out of three rounds. He shot 70 on Thursday, and that 76 on Friday wasn’t so bad except for one disastrous mishap near the end.

For a Masters champ who some saw as a bit of a fluke, even though he won by holding off Woods himself, he deserves a lot of credit for his play this week. Last year was no fluke. The man can play.

Saturday was quite a comeback from a second-round performance that dropped him out of contention. Now he stands at 214, two under par.

“It feels good,” Johnson said. “The pressure is off. It should always be off because I’m not supposed to win, anyway.”

Johnson not only accepts his underdog role as a player who isn’t a long hitter, but he also thrives on it. It rained Saturday morning, halting play for about 45 minutes, and the longer course should’ve been more difficult for him. The length may have hurt him, but the greens were more receptive, and it’s around the greens where Johnson makes his living.

He pitched to seven feet for his first birdie at the second hole, stuck a sand wedge shot to kick-in distance for another at the third, and then hit a solid 6-iron to 18 feet at the sixth. It was then that play was halted, which meant Johnson and his caddie waited out the delay in the evacuation vans nearby. When play resumed, Johnson went back to the sixth green and holed the putt for birdie.

Masters champions are either great putters or have great putting weeks, and Johnson was certainly solid on the greens on Saturday. He sank a sliding 10-footer for a key par-save at the seventh, then added another birdie from eight feet after a superb 9-iron shot at the ninth.

He famously won the Masters last year despite laying up on all of the par-5 holes. No matter his position here, he’s sticking with his game plan. Especially after Friday, when he said he may have let the scoreboard get to him.

“Knowing that I was at two under, and I played pretty good the day before, and the leaders were at eight under, I was thinking I’ve got to pick up some shots rather than let the course and the shots come to you,” Johnson said. “You kind of force the issue and try to take the golf course over. There are certain golf courses you might be able to do that at. This is far from one of them. There was no need for that. This game isn’t a sprint. It’s more of a marathon.”

He was hurt by a mishap Friday at the 17th. He had made two birdies on the back nine and was two over for the day, but he ended up in an impossible lie in the front bunker. To make a long story short, he made double bogey. Those two shots may have been the difference between having a realistic chance on Sunday and needing a Johnny-Miller-at-Oakmont miracle.

No matter how he finishes, he gets the respect he deserves from the Augusta National galleries. As a Masters champion, his ovations are noticeably louder than most other players.

“You can’t help but notice,” Johnson said. “It’s very nice, it’s very encouraging. It’s certainly very genuine. You know they appreciate golf and the history of golf and what guys have done. The support here is second to none. That’s one of the best things about the Masters.”

There’s something else that’s pretty good about the Masters — Sunday afternoons. Johnson will be part of that again for the second year in a row.