Golf

Surprise Masters champs back for more

AUGUSTA, GA. — Zach Johnson won the Masters in 2007.

Trevor Immelman won it last year.

They form as improbable a set of back-to-back champions as the tournament has produced in quite some time. You might have to go all the way back to when Gay Brewer, Bob Goalby and George Archer closed out the 1960s as consecutive winners at Augusta National.

Brewer, Goalby and Archer had very nice PGA Tour careers, but hardly do they rank among the greats who have worn the green jacket.

It's also true that Johnson, 33, and Immelman, 29, have plenty of room to establish themselves as significant players beyond their current respectable reputations. But their successes at the Masters raise a question this week: Is another surprise coming this year?

"Anything's possible," Immelman said last month at Doral Resort & Spa after a practice during the CA Championship.

He then offered himself as proof.

Immelman had surgery Dec. 18, 2007, to remove a benign tumor behind his rib cage. He had missed four cuts in eight tournaments with nothing better than a tie for 17th when he drove down Magnolia Lane to begin Augusta National prep work. He had missed two cuts in five previous Masters appearances, although he had tied for fifth place in 2005.

"I had missed the cut at Houston (last year), but felt like I was hitting the ball beautifully ... as well as I'd hit it in a long time," Immelman said. "I went to Augusta early and was more focused on getting a grip on the greens than anything else."

He promptly shared the lead or led alone after every round. He drove more accurately than anyone in the field (hitting 48 of 56 fairways), was fourth in average driving distance (287.5 yards), tied for second in greens in regulation (51) and tied for fourth in fewest putts (112).

He won at 8-under-280 for a three-shot margin ahead of Tiger Woods, and Immelman's closing 3-over 75 — tied for the worst finish by a champion in tournament history — was inconsequential.

"You wouldn't be human if you weren't nervous," Immelman said, "but I do think the fact that I wasn't someone who was expected to win helped me out in a way. It can sometimes work to your advantage to be disregarded a little bit because you're feeling enough pressure on your own out there."

The under-the-radar approach also served Johnson well. Asked whether he had any pre-Masters inkling that something special might happen, Johnson, happily and abruptly, said, "No. None."

Expectations?

"I don't do expectations," Johnson said at Doral. "I didn't even expect to be (on the PGA Tour)."

Immelman, a South African, at least had six international wins to go with his single PGA Tour triumph before his Masters victory. Johnson had two Nationwide Tour wins to go with one PGA Tour victory before grabbing his.

Johnson, dealing with windy and cold conditions, tied the highest winning score in Masters history with his one-over-par 289. The knee-jerk reaction was that Johnson's win — in the wake of a Phil Mickelson-Tiger Woods-Mickelson string at Augusta — was a fluke.

"I don't care," Johnson said at the time, and he has produced three PGA Tour wins, including one this year, since the Masters victory.

Johnson, who ranked 169th in average driving distance on the PGA the year of his win at Augusta National, opted not to attack the course's par-5 holes with second shots. He nevertheless managed to play those holes in 11-under par for the tournament.

"Everything depends on my short game, and it's better now than it was then," Johnson said.

That ought to suffice as a warning to anyone who thinks Johnson can't again be a factor at the Masters where he tied for 20th last year.

Is it a year for a return to chalk, which would mean Woods winning a fifth Masters?

He hasn't won here since 2005, after all, and another year without a victory at Augusta would make it Woods' longest such streak at the event.

Or might it be a year for this generation's answer to a George Archer?

  Comments