|ESPN.com: Masters 2007||[Print without images]|
|Zach Johnson saw clear enough to avoid trouble and win the Masters by two shots.|
The 2007 Masters champion is Iowa native Zach Johnson. Johnson is a great upset winner, a genuinely nice story and a man who just went 1 over for 72 holes at Augusta National, the highest winning score in 50 years. And believe it or not, this -- the score, not the identity of the winner -- is what Hootie Johnson and Co. had in mind when they began aggressively changing the length and the layout of the Masters' course a decade ago.
Their original intent wasn't necessarily to force par golf on the field (not that there's anything wrong with that), but to make sure that the course and by extension the tradition of the tournament were not humiliated by having someone -- that would be Woods, for those keeping book at home -- play it to the tune of, say, 18-under, as he did in 1997.
Mission accomplished. Finally given the kind of early spring weather conditions that the course tinkerers envisioned (some cold, some wind, lots of extra-dry fairways and greens), Augusta played like a beast. The golfers felt every one of the 520 yards in additional length put in since '97, and probably most of the 21 "significant" hole changes that have occurred since then. The course itself didn't relent at all until Sunday, and that only after the greens were deeply watered to dampen some of the rock-like effect that occurred all week.
Did all the Tiger-proofing work? It depends upon what you mean. The changes didn't keep Woods himself out of the running, which is good, since it was never the point. The point wasn't that Tiger shouldn't win, but rather that Augusta shouldn't simply yield to the Tour's biggest hitters. Johnson emphatically drove that home by playing the par-5s in 11-under for the tournament, 11 birdies, five pars and no bogeys, while never attempting to reach any of those greens in two. Johnson essentially layed up for four straight days. Woods later said that Johnson "played beautifully."
But did he really? Johnson played intelligently, without question. He knew his limits and stayed within them. In a sense, he practiced the most effective damage control of any of the golfers in the Masters field, using those 11 birdies on the par 5s to offset the bogeys that had been written into the course's tournament code by the combination of layout and conditions.
Is that what the Masters is about, damage control? I always thought that was the U.S. Open's purview.
Woods doesn't have to win a tournament to make it interesting, although, strictly from a fan and TV rating viewpoint, having him around on Sunday with a chance to win makes a huge difference. He had his chance, no doubt. Still, it was striking to note how much less sizzle accompanied this Masters -- and for little more, really, than the fact that no one could score. You realize, seeing all this, what a fine line a tournament like the Masters must continually walk.
As any golfer can attest, there are times when the simple salvaging of par is an extraordinary feat. But rarely does a fan tune in to see par. Fans -- again, generalizing a bit -- like to see the best golfers in the world go for it, break out their best shots, attack greens. Augusta this year penalized that course of action, sometimes severely. Who was served?
In terms of result, the ideal Masters for Hootie Johnson, Augusta's former chairman, was probably last year's. In that one, the champion, Phil Mickelson shot only one round in the 60s, but he was able to score well enough to finish at 7-under-par -- hardly a mockery of the course. After that tournament, new chairman Billy Payne made very few changes to the layout, and what happened this year was largely weather related.
But that's just it: This was the sort of weather that the Tiger-proofing alterations were designed for in the first place. It produced an unlikely champion, not one finisher below par, and more ugly shots and holes than the past several Masters combined. Did it work for you?
Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", published by HarperCollins, is in its third printing. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at email@example.com.