In the end, it felt like a Masters

4/8/2007 - Golf

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Maybe even Superman had an off day, or at least a day on which someone else was stronger than him. Sunday was supposed to be a celebration of Tiger Woods, a day on which he finally won a major championship while trailing after 54 holes, a day on which he won his third consecutive major, and a day on which he pulled within five of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors. Instead, he pulled within 16 of Jack's record 19 runner-up finishes in one of golf Grand Slam events.

Ten years after Woods firmly established himself as the No. 1 player in the game by winning the 1997 Masters by a record 12 strokes, he made an uncharacteristic series of unforced errors down the stretch and helped slip the green jacket onto Zach Johnson, who won for just the second time in his professional career. The outcome was an unlikely conclusion to an improbable Masters that felt a lot like a U.S. Open until reminding us on Sunday that it truly is an experience like no other.

The winning score -- 1-over-par 289 -- tied the tournament record for the highest by a winner (set in 1954 by Sam Snead and matched in 1956 by Jackie Burke Jr.) and the entire four-day marathon had an odd air to it in which the familiar Augusta National roars were replaced by groans -- until Sunday when the Masters once again made its case as the most compelling event in tournament golf.

There were times during the final round when the leaderboard appeared to be the latest edition of "The Big Break" not because those gracing it were undeserving, but merely because there were so many players who had a chance to win. In startling succession, Stuart Appleby, Rory Sabbatini, Retief Goosen, Justin Rose, Jerry Kelly and Woods played themselves into and out of the hunt. Ultimately it was won by Johnson who finished two strokes better than Woods, Goosen and Sabbatini.

If someone were to tell you that Zach Johnson and Tiger Woods were going to duel down the stretch at Augusta National and that one of them would make birdies on holes 13, 14 and 16, while the other would hit it into the water on 15, miss a makeable birdie putt on 16 and find a bunker on 17 from 120 yards out, who would you have guessed was the victor? But that's why they play the game. You just never know.

Johnson made all the big shots he faced on his way to a closing-round 69 in a tournament that yielded precious few scores in the 60s -- capping it with a gutsy up-and-down on No. 18 to all but end the drama. Whether this is the beginning of a new level of play for Johnson or whether history will prove it to be an aberration doesn't matter. He did it when it mattered, on Sunday and against Tiger Woods -- the best of his generation and perhaps the best ever.

That Woods failed for one of the few times in his career to get the job done was a plot twist so unexpected it served only too remind us how amazing he really is. Sometimes we do Woods a disservice and think he truly is Superman, instead of being a mere mortal fighting the fears and frustrations we all fight. This guy is not a machine, and perhaps the occasional hiccup will remind us he is a human like us all, only a human capable of performing on a level were rarely see, and a level which we should totally appreciate.

Certainly, when Woods walked off the 13th green with an eagle that got him to 3-over par, it felt as if the tournament was over and that Tiger would grab his fifth green jacket, one short of the Nicklaus' record of six. But Johnson was going to make Tiger come and get it, not hand it over as a gift. Perhaps if more of the big-name guys -- Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia et. al. -- would force Woods to perform rather than fold under the assumption he is incapable of mistakes he would make more of them, and they would win more often.

Let the record show that the first Masters of the Billy Payne Era was an unqualified success. For the first time since they started adding length to the course and began lining many of the fairways with forests, the rain stayed away and Augusta National played firm and fast -- the way it was designed to play. Throw some cold and some wind into the mix and for three days the players walked off the golf course with faces contorted in the dazed grimace of someone who had just finished running a marathon.

Going into Sunday, there was real doubt among many that perhaps some of the Masters magic had been lost by the way the course had been renovated. But let the record show that almost all of the players were fine with the way the course played -- calling it severe but fair, challenging but not tricked up. The patrons, adjusting to the scarcity of eagles and birdies, were probably the ones who needed the most convincing, but even they were finally won over by a Sunday that, while lacking a Tiger victory, was both inspiring and well played.

Yes, Superman tripped over his cape Sunday at the Masters, but that should only make us appreciate the 12 major championships and 56 PGA Tour events won by Tiger Woods even more. Yes, Zach Johnson is not the guy anyone had in mind at the beginning of the week as the champion. And yes, no one would have predicted that the winning score would be 289.

But when all was said and done all of that felt just right. It felt like the Masters, and that's as good as it gets.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.