Commentary

Masters victory the highlight of Johnson's banner year

Updated: December 21, 2007, 9:46 AM ET
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

During what will be a brief holiday respite from the rigors of professional golf, Zach Johnson might very well take a moment to ponder a dream year, one that saw him immortalized as a Masters champion, his place at Augusta National secure for life.

As a new season draws near, it would be more than understandable if Johnson did not want this one to end.

Johnson didn't exactly come out of nowhere to win the Masters, but Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is only a few miles closer. He had just one PGA Tour win before that victory, making him the least accomplished champion in 20 years. Then he went on to win again, finishing the season ranked 15th in the world.

Zach Johnson
Harry How/Getty ImagesJohnson held off Woods -- among others -- to capture his first career major title.

Not bad for a guy with a pretty short résumé at the start of the 2007 season.

But as much reminiscing and remembering as Johnson is sure to do, he also is looking forward.

"As golfers, we're pretty resilient, and we have to take the good with the bad," Johnson said at the Target World Challenge, where he finished second to Tiger Woods. "When the good is good like it was at Augusta, you have to put it behind you. There's a lot of things left to go, a lot of goals that I have to go on to accomplish. I hope I haven't hit my prime yet. I hope '08 will be better."

There were some strange sights at Augusta National this past spring, not the least of which were the bundled-up patrons, wilting azaleas and frozen fairways.

And to say that Johnson had ice in his veins that Sunday might be a bit of a stretch, but he did dispatch Woods, leaving the game's No. 1 player to traverse the long hill at the 18th hole to the hollow cheers of a gallery that had just witnessed something not often seen at the storied venue.

The unheralded Johnson, never a contender in a major championship, made three birdies in a four-hole stretch on the back nine to become the tournament's most surprising winner since Augusta native Larry Mize won in 1987 by chipping in to defeat Greg Norman in a playoff.

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Our all-time Masters fantasy draft
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Masters.org: Official Web site
GolfDigest.com: Countdown to the 2008 Masters

"You know, I just feel very fortunate to have won a major in his era," Johnson said of Woods.

It was the culmination of a long, winding journey for Johnson, 31, who went from various golf outposts in obscure places to an annual trek down one of golf's most famous roads, Magnolia Lane, the entrance to Augusta National.

His entry into the major championship club was a surprise, because his lone PGA Tour victory had come in 2004 at the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta. Also, he had competed in just 11 majors, his best finish a tie for 17th at the 2005 PGA Championship. In 2006, he missed the cut in three of the four majors.

But the one-time king of the mini-tours played like a veteran on that back nine in April, sticking with a game plan that saw him lay up on every par-5 hole. He found himself in a four-way tie with third-round leader Stuart Appleby, Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini, but he broke away with birdies on the 13th, 14th and 16th holes.

The fact that he took down Woods, however, will forever be remembered.

Woods had won the previous two major championships and found himself with Appleby in the final pairing -- a position from which he had won all of his previous 12 majors. He also grabbed the lead early in the final round -- a position from which he had never failed to win a major.

But it was Johnson who prevailed.

Zach Johnson
AP Photo/Elise Amendola 'I'm Zach Johnson, and I'm from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I'm a normal guy,' he said after the win.

"They say a giant has to fall at some point, and maybe that's the case," Johnson said after the victory. "It's still very surreal. I'm sitting there in the locker room waiting for him to hit his second shot at 18. He's done stranger things. The guy is a phenom. It does make it more satisfying to know I beat Tiger Woods."

Getting to that point had its share of ups and downs, twists and turns. Johnson attended Drake University in Iowa, not exactly a golf power. And he was not even the team's best player. For a time, he had to sell $500 shares to investors to get his pro career off the ground.

Those investors footed the bill for his stops on the Prairie Tour, the Hooters Tour, the Nationwide Tour and anywhere else he played to gain experience. A good year meant he had enough money left over to pay back his supporters. And he managed to do that five out of the six years he played in obscurity.

Those mini-tours eventually took him to Florida, where he met his future wife, Kim, at the Orlando apartment complex where they both lived. They continued the journey together, and it was Kim who helped Zach combine his faith with his golf game.

"He continually exceeds my expectations," Kim Johnson said. "I believe in him, and I think he absolutely has the game and the ability and the skills to do what he's doing. But every time he has success like this, I know God has had his hand on us. We're just very blessed."

After winning the Masters, an exhausted Johnson made the rounds, heading to New York for various appearances and lapping up his new fame. Somehow, he found time to get back to Augusta and drive the family RV to Hilton Head, S.C., for the next tournament, where he finished sixth.

Johnson could have been excused had he gone into a lull, but he continued to play well, with a tie for 16th at the Players Championship, then his third career victory and second at the Atlanta tour stop, the AT&T Classic. Johnson ended his season with a tie for second at the Tour Championship, where he threatened golf's Holy Grail by shooting a third-round 60 at East Lake Golf Club.

He finished with nearly $4 million in earnings and seventh place in the FedEx Cup standings.

"He's changed as far as confidence," said Damon Green, Johnson's caddie for the past four years. "He's pretty much the same in everything else, but he feels like he belongs out here now. He feels he can win every week. And he plays that way. A good example was finishing well at Hilton Head the next week. That showed the Masters wasn't a fluke. And then he won again, which always helps."

Green said Johnson's ongoing issue will be his inability to say no. In other words, all the requests and demands that come with being a major champion can be a bit overwhelming. And it will get only more intense as Johnson gets closer to defending his title in April.

"The difficulty lies in the fact that we're just inundated with stuff," Johnson said. "Some of it is chaos, and you've got to control that … whether it's requests or mail or signings. I'm on the phone with my agent at least once or twice a day, trying to figure out a game plan and scheduling, things of that nature."

The new season begins in Hawaii after the first of the year, which doesn't leave much time to ponder the last one.

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

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Golf Writer, ESPN.com