AUGUSTA – Zach Johnson’s days of flying under the radar are over.
The 31-year-old Iowa native was the unlikely champion of the 2007 Masters Tournament, shooting a 3-under-par 69 Sunday for his first major victory and second win on the PGA Tour.
He was 1-over for the tournament, tying Sam Snead and Jack Burke, Jr., for the highest winning score in Masters history and besting veterans Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini by two strokes.
Johnson wasn’t assured of the victory until after Woods hit his second shot on 18. If Woods eagled the hole he would have tied Johnson, who was watching on television from the clubhouse.
“He’s done stranger things,” Johnson said of the four-time Masters winner. “The guy’s a phenom. It makes it that more gratifying to know that I beat him.”
Johnson was a relative unknown on the Tour where his only victory prior to Sunday came at the 2004 BellSouth Classic in Atlanta. He describes himself as a typical midwesterner who’s as normal as they come. His competitors say he’s level-headed, consistent and tenacious.
“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Sabbatini said. “He’s just a very down-to-earth person and doesn’t get ahead of himself. He’s a quality person – that’s the only way you can put it.”
Johnson was solid on the back nine Sunday – where the tournament is traditionally won – carding three birdies on the final six holes. He got redemption with an 8-foot birdie putt on 16, a hole he three-putted each of the first three rounds.
Johnson appeared fearless and calm Sunday and said he did his best to stay in the present moment. That goal was aided by his pairing - he was with one of his good friends, Augusta native Vaughn Taylor, in the third-to-last group. It was the first time in 17 years the Masters winner didn’t come out of the final pairing.
“Having a buddy next to you certainly doesn’t hurt,” said Johnson, who first visited Augusta National for a Monday practice round in 2001 when Taylor scored him tickets. He didn’t watch much golf that day, opting to walk the course and check out the scenery.
On Sunday, Johnson kept his eyes off the leaderboard, which he said he didn’t look at until reaching the 17th hole. He left score checking up to his caddie but felt like he was in a good position judging from the crowd’s reaction.
“I guess ignorance is bliss,” said Johnson, whose low ball flight played to his advantage this week as wind howled around Augusta National.
This year was just the third Masters appearance for Johnson, who missed the cut in 2005 and finished tied for 32nd at 5-over last year. A 1998 Drake University graduate – who wasn’t even the top player on his college team – joined an elite fraternity of Masters champions and will now be invited back to the tournament every year.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “There are a lot of things that haven’t sunk in yet.”
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.