Monday, April 09, 2007
THE FEARLESS IOWAN
SCORE ONE FOR THE 'NORMAL GUY'
AUGUSTA, Ga. – We've been waiting a decade for someone to step up on Sunday and take on Tiger Woods, to refuse to concede anything, to throw out a low score and make him react to a challenge. Ten years. A dozen major titles for Woods. Countless "rivals" without a spine.
And so the guy who finally, at last, does it is … Zach Johnson?
Who? You mean the chiropractors' kid from Cedar Rapids? The one who played college golf – averagely – at that not-so-noted powerhouse of Drake? The guy who is a product of the Nationwide Tour, the Hooters Tour, the Buy.com Tour, the TearDrop Tour and the Prairie Tour?
This 31-year-old journeyman who is straighter than a row of corn, so sweet he makes honey jealous and, truth be told, thought Sunday at Augusta was good, but didn't like missing church back home, it being Easter and all?
"A giant has to fall at some point," Johnson smiled.
Yes, Zach Johnson, who had one career PGA tournament win, shot a 76 on Saturday and is sleep-deprived from having a 14-week-old son, turned out to be the steel-minded killer who looked up at Tiger Woods on a Sunday major leaderboard and said, well here I come, catch me if you can.
Ten years ago Woods won the Masters going away, and ever since he has humbled the competition on various Sundays, including 11 more times in major tournaments when he took the lead after 54 and was rarely even challenged. It has been psychological as much as physical, a decade worth of golfers just wilting in his wake.
Sunday should have been no different. Woods was in the final pairing, sitting at 3-over, just one stroke behind leader Stuart Appleby. And Appleby was going to collapse, that much was certain. Woods took the lead by the second hole, Appleby finished tie for seventh place.
The problem for Tiger was everyone else. In any other year he could have played the round at par (which he did) and slipped on a green jacket. But the front nine suddenly brought a flood of contenders. It was like half the leaderboard decided to say, screw it, we're trying to win here too.
Woods could stand on the fourth green and hear roars coming from all around, a thrilling approach shot out of the trees by Retief Goosen on seven here, an eagle putt on eight by Rory Sabbatini there, consecutive birds by Justin Rose on eight and nine to boot.
It wasn't just Johnson going for broke. Sabbatini led for awhile. As did Goosen, who started Saturday play in last place and 25 holes later was on top of the leaderboard.
But they eventually stumbled back to Tiger. Johnson, who started the day at 4-over, turned it on in Tiger country – the back nine, no less.
He drained birdies at 13 and 14 to get to 1-over. Woods was at 5-over, but after wrapping an iron around a tree on a follow through, he seemed to be turning it on. On 13, Woods nailed a putt for eagle, his gallery roaring loud enough to shake the ground around Amen Corner.
At that precise moment Johnson was standing over a tricky approach shot on 15. The screams of the crowd enveloped him, the classic psychological shot across the bow – here comes Tiger – that had melted scores of men with greater resumes than Zach Johnson.
Johnson knew what had happened – "I assumed it was Tiger making an eagle" – but rather than rattle he stepped back, took a deep breath and hit a nice shot to set up par.
A hole later he birdied to move to even for the tournament, putting Tiger on the ropes. Here in the weekend that nobody was supposed to make such a charge at rock-hard Augusta, Johnson was pouring it on, telling Tiger to match his rowdy gallery cheers.
Johnson claimed he didn't look at the leaderboard – "I guess ignorance is bliss" – but he knew he was in a dogfight. He knew if he kept playing well, scoring low, then Woods would have to press. On 14, Tiger wound up in the water after a daring and, considering Johnson's surging lead, necessary approach, and he essentially never got his momentum back.
His fifth Masters, 13th major and third leg of a second Tiger Slam was taken from him by the fearless Iowan, whose 1-over-par was the ugliest score since 1956 to win this event but plenty beautiful on Sunday.
"It's so surreal," Johnson said.
He's an improbable champion even to those who knew him best. At Drake he wasn't even the team's top player, yet he decided to try his hand as a pro against virtually all advice.
He was lucky, of course. His dad is a doctor, and he has plenty of other friends with money, too. So 10 guys in Cedar Rapids decided that if they were going to blow their extra cash on something it might as well be sponsoring the Johnson kid's silly golf dream, no matter how little faith they had in him.
"His mom and I thought, 'Boy, this is crazy,' " his dad, David, told the Des Moines Register a few years back.
"Emotionally, all of us were hopeful he'd make it," Pat Cobb, one of the money guys, told the paper. "Intellectually, there was not a lot of thought [that] this kid was going to be on the PGA Tour."
They were burning money on a lark, as a favor, on the chance a good kid might catch fire. Johnson couldn't even believe they believed in him. Then that first year, 2000, he entered 11 Nationwide Tour events, missed seven cuts and never finished better than tied for 25th.
Then he really couldn't believe when they continued to believe in him.
He went on to play in every two-bit tour imaginable. He played in Bellevue, Neb., in rural Missouri, in Lawrence, Kan. In 2001 he got to Augusta – but only by purchasing a practice round pass.
He didn't care. The guy lives an "aw shucks" life where family, religion and golf mean everything. It's all about giving an honest day's effort, staying true to yourself. He did that and kept getting better. He started winning on the Hooters Tour, where, in a world away from the stuffy Masters ceremony, a scantily clad waitress would hand him some oversized check for a few grand on the 18th green.
"I thought those were the best days of my life right there," he said. "Chicken wings and everything."
Then his game came together. He made the PGA Tour in 2004, the Ryder Cup in 2006 and Sunday dropped three back-nine birdies at Augusta to run down and then run away from the legend of Tiger Woods. Green jacket (size 40-regular) on his back, he had the golf world abuzz with a single question:
Who the heck is this guy?
"I'm Zach Johnson and I'm from Cedar Rapids, Iowa," he said.
Everyone laughed at the Opie Taylor bit.
"I'm a normal guy," he claimed.
Not on Sunday, Zach. Not on the back nine. Just ask Tiger.