J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Monday, April 9, 2007

It's an Easter surprise

 

Iowa golfer gives himself and his family something to celebrate with major victory.

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Zach Johnson had just hit a chip shot from below the 18th green, leading the Masters by 1 shot, and his father couldn't see a thing.

 

This was nothing new. Nine years ago, when his son graduated from college, David Johnson couldn't see Zach, who wasn't even the best golfer on his high-school or college team, making it as a pro golfer. What David did see was his son working in business or insurance.

 

"At first," David said, "his mom and I weren't pumped up about it."

 

So as Zach's shot rolled toward the cup, David wanted to see. He grabbed the shoulders of the guy in front of him and hoisted himself into the air as high as he could go, over and over again, until he saw the shot settle inches from the hole.

 

That's when it all started to sink in. Zach's father, brother, uncle, first cousin and college buddies all began to cry, the tears gathering in the rims of their sunglasses.

 

But there was still work to do. Zach tapped in for par, finishing the day at 3-under 69 for the round and 1-over 289 for the tournament. And, after Justin Rose double-bogeyed the 17th hole and Tiger Woods failed to birdie the last two holes, it was official. Zach Johnson, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had won the 71st Masters.

 

The moment was simply too much for David Johnson, proudly wearing a cap that said, "Zach's Dad: I taught him this."

 

"This is so overwhelming," David said.

 

Johnson became the first player since 1990 to come from outside the final pairing and win the Masters. And he'll bring a green jacket back to the heartland for the first time since Tom Watson won the Masters in 1981.

 

"Today was a day of perseverance and patience," Zach said. "Being Easter Sunday, I felt like there was certainly another power that was walking with me and guiding me."

 

It was a spiritual day underneath the pines of Augusta National. If the first three rounds were a solemn mass, Sunday was a religious revival, alive with song, clapping and dancing in the aisles. It was Augusta at its best. If you wanted to know where to go for the action, you simply followed the roar of the crowd.

 

Following Retief Goosen was a good place to start Sunday. Goosen started the round 6 over par, and was leading the tournament at 2 over by the ninth hole.

Two days before, Goosen almost missed the cut but slid in at 8 over. Now, there were chants of "Goooooose" echoing through Amen Corner. It was there that Goosen lost his lead as he bogeyed the par-3 12th hole.

 

Johnson might have won the tournament at Amen Corner. He started with pars at 11 and 12 and birdied 13, giving him his first lead of the day at 2 over. Then, Johnson birdied 14, giving him a 2-shot lead over Goosen and a 4-shot lead over Woods.

 

But as Johnson sized up his approach shot at the par-5 15th hole, he heard a raucous roar at No. 13. Johnson had to stop himself. He didn't want to lose focus.

 

"I assumed it was Tiger making an eagle," Johnson said.

 

Johnson's assumption was right. Woods eagled No. 13 and was now 2 shots back. Johnson responded by getting up-and-down for par on No. 15. He followed with a birdie on the 16th hole, giving himself a 3-shot cushion.

 

But when Johnson bogeyed 17 and Rose birdied 16, Johnson's lead was cut to 1. It would all come down to No. 18. Johnson's first cousin, Blake Jones, knew that. He ran all the way from the 17th green to the 18th green, trying to find a good spot to watch Johnson finish his triumphant round.

 

Jones remembered how far Johnson had come. He remembered that Johnson was a 125-pound twig when he graduated high school, that he wasn't the best golfer on his Drake University golf team, that he might have not even pursued a professional career if it weren't for about 20 members of the Elm Crest Country Club in Cedar Rapids buying stock in Johnson's golf career.

 

"I didn't know if I was good enough," said Johnson, 31. "I didn't really want to go back to school. I really didn't want to get a job. The one thing I kind of clinged to was that every year, I improved, and I felt like, if I can get the necessary finances down, I'm going to give this a shot."

 

Johnson started his career on the minitours and ended up on the Hooters Tour. When he won, a Hooters girl would present him the trophy.

 

"I thought those were the best days of my life right there," Johnson said. "Chicken wings and everything. But that's how I got better."

 

On Sunday, there was no girl in tight shorts waiting for him, only defending Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who put the 40-regular green jacket on Johnson's shoulders.

 

Still, even with the new jacket, Johnson was that same boy from small-town Iowa who loves Hawkeye football.

 

"I'm as normal as they come," Johnson said. "I love to play this game for what it is, golf. I appreciate it. You know, I feel very honored to play golf as my living."

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