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Johnson's green jacket can wipe away those tears

From Thursday through Saturday little held true to form at the 71st Masters. Some players wore knit caps as defense against unseasonable cool to frigid temperatures. Atypical blustery conditions carried shots astray and further quickened Augusta National's notoriously fast greens. Scores soared to levels unseen in more than five decades, prompting dozens of competitors to cry the U.S. Open blues. Two-putt pars had been transformed into the epitome of excitement.

Finally, thankfully, a sense of normalcy broke through. The adage that says the Masters begins with the back nine on Sunday was confirmed as Zach Johnson, a graduate of golf's minor leagues, produced three backside birdies in a span of four holes to best a star-studded leader board on the strength of a final-round 69.

Zach Johnson, Masters' champion. Who outside the folks in Johnson's hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, could have envisioned the major coronation of a player who'd won all of once on the PGA Tour, and that in 2004? Wasn't Tiger Woods in the final twosome? Hadn't the winner come out of the final Masters pairing every year since 1990? And if this was year the mold would be broken wouldn't it have figured that two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen or Ireland's Padraig Harrington, perhaps the best player never to win a major, would be the one to do the breaking?

It's no wonder that, while trying to fathom what he'd accomplished, the newest Masters champion repeatedly broke into tears, beginning when he met his wife Kim and their 14-week-old son Will behind the 18th green.

"I was just an emotional wreck. I was a slob," he said. And he'd lose it again as he recounted a career that traveled golf's backroads following a collegiate career at Drake, victories such as this one a distant, incomprehensible dream.

Drama abounded throughout the final round although Johnson was oblivious to the ongoing upheaval. Four others took a turn atop the leader board, Woods and Goosen among them, but Johnson trudged on, giving his full attention to the course, never varying from a game plan that forbade him for going for par-5 greens in two. Not until a tee shot hit stiff on the par-3 16th did Johnson ask his caddy, Damon Green, where he stood. Told he led by two, Johnson concluded he'd be a bear to catch if he drained his 10-foot putt, which he did, for his third birdie in four holes.

"I didn't look at the board," he said. "I really didn't know what was going on. From the fans I could kind of tell I was close to the lead or in the lead. But I really didn't know. I guess ignorance is bliss sometimes."

The prevailing wisdom going into the day was that milder conditions would result in a 13th major victory for Woods. His presence in the final twosome figured to be worth two shots, as it was in 2002, when he broke from the pack to win his third of his four Masters. Maybe he'd go off on a birdie binge that would have the rest of the field conceding what had been perceived as the inevitable. His playing partner, Aussie Stuart Appleby, had virtually awarded the tournament to Woods in remarks made after the third round. And Appleby was in the lead.

But when the winds relented and the temperatures rose, bringing birdies and better back into the picture, the week-long deficiencies in Woods' game were exposed. No longer could his erratic iron play be attributed to the harshness of the weather. His struggles, manifest by shots struck woefully offline and repeatedly short, were real. His "A" game was outside his reach on a day when generous pin positions enabled 14 of the 60 players -- nearly 25 percent of the field -- to play the final round under par. Still, he finished in a three-way tie for second, two back, not a bad showing with his swing in disarray.

Johnson seized the opportunity to shed his anonymity. He was a member of the last Ryder Cup team, but his presence was regarded not as a testament to his ability so much as proof of the lack of U.S depth. The only hint he might contend here came two weeks ago, at Doral, and it was a subtle hint at that -- a tie for ninth. And it's not like he backdoored a major by winning without any of the Big Five threatening.

"It makes it that much more satisfying knowing I did beat Tiger Woods," Johnson said. "There's no doubt about that."

Johnson dismissed suggestions winning the Masters is bound to change him. Granted, he's attained a new level of professional stature. But that's where it ends.

"I'm Zach Johnson and I'm from Cedar Rapids, Iowa," he said. "That's about it. I'm a normal guy. I'm as normal as they come."

You might say he was a dose of just what this Masters needed.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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