KAPALKO: How a ‘normal guy’ became a Master

Jamie Kapalko

The crowd at Augusta erupted with cheers after Tiger Woods’ final-round eagle on hole 13 on Sunday. Here it comes, everyone thought. He’s coming back.

The echoes of the roaring fans forced Zach Johnson to back off his shot on hole 15. He knew what had happened; Woods had crept within two shots of Johnson’s lead.

Woods’ story, like those of most athletes who dominate their sports, is studded with accomplishments. And by studded, I mean bedazzled more than a Texas rodeo queen. Amateur and NCAA success gave him $60 million in endorsement deals with Nike and Titleist as soon as he announced he was going pro. He reached No. 1 in the world golf rankings after 42 weeks – a record. He is the all-time money and wins leader in World Golf Championships events. He is a four-time Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.

He is married to a Swedish model. He is developing a golf course in Dubai with a 60,000 square foot clubhouse, golf academy, 320 villas and a hotel with 80 suites. He has homes in Florida, Wyoming, California and Sweden. Okay, so these aren’t exactly golf accomplishments, but they are related to his success.

Upon his victory at the 2001 Masters, Woods became the only player ever to hold all four major championship titles simultaneously.

Johnson was at Augusta that weekend. Well, kind of. He wasn’t playing. And he only managed to get tickets to see a practice round. But the experience was a big one for him.

“My mouth was agape,” he said. “I was in Augusta. You don’t see that on the mini-tours.”

Johnson had been in the presence of greatness. He didn’t forget what it felt like.

His story has little in common with Woods’. If Woods is the sparkling rodeo queen, Johnson is just one of the rodeo hands taking care of the animals in the background.

His dream growing up was to play golf at the University of Iowa, the alma mater of most of his Cedar Rapids-based family. He wasn’t a stand-out on his high school golf team, however, and he was forced to forget about Iowa and accept his only scholarship offer – Drake University in Des Moines.

Johnson’s game developed at Drake, where he led the team to Missouri Valley Championships in 1997 and 1998 and spots in the NCAA regionals in 1996, 1997 and 1998. After college, he hit the mini-tours.

Johnson believed the highlight of his golf career had arrived when he won a Hooters Tour event in 2002.

“I thought those were the best days of my life right there,” he said. “Chicken wings and everything. But that’s how I got better. Those mini-tours, a lot of good players have come through the ranks there. I feel very fortunate to have played in those tours.”

Hooters – it’s all about the wings, isn’t it? Johnson managed to pry himself away from the barbeque sauce and busty blondes and joined the PGA tour, winning the BellSouth Classic in 2004. He also made the 2006 Ryder Cup team and was ranked 56th in the world before last weekend’s Masters.

And there he stood, at hole 15 on Sunday, with the cheers ringing in his eardrums, practically beating him over the head with reminders of the Tiger Woods Story. He could’ve choked. Many people wouldn’t have been surprised. Some people probably expected it.

But Johnson did not choke. Instead, he ignored the noise and birdied, raising his lead to three. He finished with 69 for the day and 1-over-par 289 (tying the highest winning score in Masters history) and waited to see if Woods would force a playoff.

Until last weekend, Woods had never lost a major that he led at any point during the final round. He led Sunday after the second hole but lost the lead for good a few holes later. He certainly did not play his best, with bogey-bogey finishes on Thursday and Saturday. Sunday, he broke his 4-iron on the 11th hole when it collided with a tree.

Woods practically owns the sport of golf. Johnson is, in his own words, “from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That’s about it. I’m a normal guy.”

Sure. Johnson is a normal guy who managed to remain unruffled on the biggest stage of his life. He is a normal guy who did not fold under the pressure and expectations faced when leading Woods, unlike so many before him. He is a normal guy with a green jacket.

Johnson’s Wikipedia entry is two paragraphs long. The second of those two paragraphs was added this week, telling the world that on April 8, 2007, the completely normal Johnson won the Masters, the first person ranked outside the Top 50 to ever win the tournament.

Woods’ Wikipedia entry is 39 pages long. There is no question that he is the best. But last weekend, a Hooters’ wing-eating, Midwestern, two paragraph normal guy by the name of Johnson was better.

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Jamie Kapalko is a sophomore English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]