Johnson goes low -- really low -- at East Lake

ATLANTA -- Imagine being offered this bet: You get Ernie Els and 12 shots in a head-to-head match against Zach Johnson. Who wouldn't scramble to scrounge up some loose change to place on the Big Easy?

On a magical day at East Lake Golf Club, it would have been a losing proposition -- unless you took the very, very long odds and put the cash down on Johnson, giving six a side to one of the world's most accomplished golfers with the ridiculous hope that Johnson would still win.

Impossible, you say. Yet that's exactly what Johnson did Saturday.

His 10-under 60 waxed Els by 13 strokes. Oh, and he threatened to make it a foursome of players who have shot 59 in PGA Tour history.

Johnson, this year's Masters champion, was unable to get his approach shot on the green at the par-3 18th, then knocked his bunker shot to within a foot of the cup for his score of 60, one that broke the course record of 62 by two shots at Bobby Jones' hallowed home course.

"It would have been awesome [to shoot 59]," said Johnson, 31, whose career low round on the PGA Tour before Saturday was 63. "It's just one of those mysterious numbers we have in golf."

So much so that only three players have accomplished the feat -- Al Geiberger at the 1977 Memphis Classic, Chip Beck at the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational and David Duval at the 1991 Bob Hope Classic.

Amazingly, nobody in this decade has been able to match that score, despite all of the game's technological advances and players who seem to hit the ball farther and straighter than ever before.

Perhaps it has something to do with the mental barrier that is erected when approaching golf's Holy Grail. Getting close elicits the same kind of feeling a baseball pitcher feels as he gets closer to a no-hitter. You don't want to say anything, but know full well what is going on.

So it was no shock that when Johnson got to 10-under for his round on the par-70 course with a birdie at the 17th hole, the world started to converge around him all of a sudden.

"My shoulders felt heavy, and my legs felt like they weighed nothing," he said. "My hands were shaking, and my heart was pounding."

Johnson felt good about the club he had in his hand, a 2-iron to the 240-yard hole. But he fanned it to the right, into the greenside bunker. He mentioned afterward to his caddie, Damon Green, that he was nervous.

Green, wondering why a guy feeling so good over the ball would have been overcome at such a moment, couldn't help but get in a good-natured jab at his boss.

"I guess he was just glad to get it in the air," Green cracked of the final tee shot.

The final-hole par, however, didn't come close to taking the joy out of an eight-birdie, one-eagle round that steadily got better. After shooting 31 on the front side, Johnson made birdies at the 11th, 13th and 14th holes before an eagle at the par-5 15th put him 9-under for the round.

The finishing holes at East Lake are not exactly easy birdies, but when Johnson got a 4-iron from 200 yards out of a fairway bunker to within 5 feet for another birdie, he put himself on the cusp of history.

As it turned out, his 60 was just the 20th in PGA Tour history, the first since Justin Rose did it last year at the Disney Classic.

"That was brilliant," said Els, who shot 73. "Very good. It was one of those things that was good to watch. It kept me going."

And it was Els who put Johnson in a good frame of mind.

"The biggest thing is his rhythm," Johnson said. "He's just kind of easygoing. Easy Ernie. His rhythm is great. It's easy to get into that. He looks like he's barely walking, and I'm trying to run to catch him. It's just easy."

Johnson will probably need another 60 on Sunday if he is to have any chance at winning the Tour Championship. He got too far behind Thursday when he opened the tournament with a 71. After adding a 66 and the 60, he trails tournament leader Tiger Woods by 6 shots.

Of course, a comeback of that magnitude would be historic for several reasons, one of which is the fact that Woods almost never blows a third-round lead. It also would give Johnson the Georgia Slam -- victories at the Masters, AT&T Classic and Tour Championship, all played in the Peach State. All three of Johnson's PGA Tour victories have come in Georgia.

"We both ought to get some property up here," Green said. "It's been pretty good to us."

The only blemish on the day for Johnson occurred after the round when a well-meaning radio interviewer told him the score of the big rivalry college football game from his native state of Iowa, where Iowa and Iowa State were battling Saturday afternoon.

You'd have thought Johnson had just seen someone tear apart his green jacket.

Apparently, he had taped the game -- twice -- for viewing later. And he had instructed all around him not to blurt out a score.

Oh well. At least he can take consolation from his own score.

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