Masters Really Does Begin on the Back Nine

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The faithful came early every day, as they always do, walking quickly with their green folding chairs to stake out the prime spots in Amen Corner. It wasn't always an easy march to make because, for the better part of four days, this Masters was almost as agonizing to watch as it was to play.
 
Augusta National had morphed into a chamber of horrors, with disaster lurking at every turn. There were whispers the green jackets had gone too far this time, and that the spirit of Bobby Jones had been lost in the never-ending battle to protect the course against modern technology.
 
Everyone braced for a stumble to the finish. The winner wasn't going to be the best player in the world, merely the only one left standing on the 18th green sometime early Sunday evening.
 
Then, just when all seemed lost, a real Masters broke out on the back nine.
 
The familiar roars that had been missing all week echoed once again through the tall pines as an entire leaderboard full of players traded shots through Amen Corner and down the final holes. Eagles and birdies returned to their proper places, and all was right again in the world of golf.
 
Well, almost. Zach Johnson is your new Masters champion, and, while he seems like a nice enough guy, he's not going to be compared to Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or even Retief Goosen for that matter.
 
The Masters is supposed to be won by guys who pull out the heavy metal, take dead aim at the pin and pull off shots like the one Woods hit on the 13th hole that curled back within 3 feet of the cup for his only eagle of the week.
 
Gene Sarazen began that tradition in just the second Masters in 1935, when he spanked a 4-wood 235 yards and watched it bounce into the hole for a double eagle that allowed him to tie Craig Wood and eventually beat him in a playoff.
 
Johnson wasn't going to win his green jacket with such dramatics. You can't make double eagle laying up, and Johnson did that all week on the par-5s, relying on his wedges and putter to make up the difference against the power hitters who were supposed to be the only ones with a chance to win on a bulked-up Augusta National.
 
It worked on the 13th hole, when Johnson had just 213 yards to the green and still somehow managed to resist the temptation to go over Rae's Creek with a long iron. This is a player who knows his game, and he wedged it in close for a birdie.
 
Hardly a 'shot heard 'round the world,' but good enough to take a lead Johnson would never give up.
 
All around him, though, players were attacking a back nine that played so hard the day before that the entire field barely broke 40. Anyone within 10 shots of the lead seemed suddenly emboldened to shoot at greens and pins that they trembled in fear of the previous three rounds.
 
Jerry Kelly got things going by hitting a utility club close on the par-5 13th and making an eagle that briefly got him in contention. A few groups later, Padraig Harrington followed a birdie on the par-3 12th with an eagle he could have only imagined a few days earlier.
 
It helped that the people who run the tight ship at Augusta National ordered enough water to fill the ponds on the 15th hole poured on the greens to soften them up. They also made sure the Sunday pins were in such a spot that balls could funnel to the holes.
 
The players had been careful all week not to criticize the course, afraid perhaps that their playing privileges might be revoked mid-tournament. But they finally seemed to get the message that this was not the kind of course Jones would have wanted his name attached to.
 
A back nine that bordered on unplayable the day before was there for the taking. Balls that bounced over greens on Saturday now settled softly next to the hole, and Woods was able to pull off the shot of the day when an iron to the 13th backed up some 40 feet down the hill and finished within kick-in distance.
 
'They gave us a break, which was nice,' Woods said. 'And gave us a chance to go out there and score.'
 
Woods didn't take enough advantage of that chance, but the patrons in their folding chairs got the kind of Sunday they're used to, topped off by a near hole-in-one by Justin Rose on No. 16 that made things interesting for a bit just when everyone thought it was over.
 
The ending was anticlimatic, with Woods never coming close to making birdies on the final two holes to force a tie. Even before Woods hit it into a greenside bunker on the 17th hole, Johnson was kissing his infant son and accepting the congratulations of everyone around him.
 
It was hardly Mickelson leaping for joy after getting his first major or Woods tearfully winning one for his father.
 
There might, in fact, never be a quieter or more unassuming winner than the self-described 'normal guy' from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
 
Mr. Excitement, he's not. But at least there was some excitement Sunday on the back nine, where this year the Masters really did begin.
 
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