Zach Johnson is the new Masters champion. I realise you know this already but I just wanted to go through the process of actually writing it down because, despite having just walked up the 18th fairway with him, I still cannot quite believe it. Zach Flipping Johnson. Good luck to him of course but few outside the Zach homestead could have felt he really had a chance over the final round of an interesting Masters. I say ‘interesting’ because, for me, this is what this 2007 week has been.
Not fascinating, not exciting, certainly not exuberant. No, it’s been quite interesting. What also has been quite interesting is that Tiger Woods can play halfway towards a drain and still finish in a tie for second place. “Zach Johnson is about to be officially coronated, ” said an American TV commentator who clearly does not know the difference between a verb and a noun but then this is a nation that does not know the difference between a mountain of washing powder and a weapon of mass destruction.
Not that we are much better except, perhaps, when it comes to the grammar thing. Anyway, there we are. Quite a flat end to an often shocking week. Shocking in that the weather and the revamped course combined to thwart everyone except Zach. To be fair to him his last round 69 was one of the very few controlled rounds at a Masters that invited disaster at almost every turn.
I’ve never known the clubhouse – where I watched the very final moments on TV – so quiet. The Media Centre also was a testament to the general bafflement that whispered everywhere. This may have been because Mr Johnson won or, more likely, it may be the worrying news that the cold snap this week is now threatening the peach crop. Zach Johnson inside a Green Jacket is one thing but Georgia without peaches? O please, give me a break. Until next year then, stay lucky.
Right, it?s finally official. This is, incontrovertibly, my 28th US Masters. I mean, who cares? Actually I do. While it is increasingly frequent these days to wonder where I am, occasionally even who I am it would be seriously worrying to not know how flaming many I am. What I also know for certain is that this is the joint coldest Masters I?ve ever been at. I think it was back in 1982 when play was delayed while frost cleared the greens. Yesterday, however, when the wind really got up and the chill factor went the wrong side of iced lollipop felt colder. It was also even harder than Friday?s challenge.
Okay, they didn?t have to clear any frost but as the day wore on they almost had to stop play to clear the casualties off the field of battle. I spent a couple of hours out by the third green, smallest on the course and an upturned saucer that may as well be a barricade if a man fails to stop his ball in time. It was while lolling around there and feeling slightly guilty as though I?d stopped to properly take in a motorway crash that I bumped into Ray Howell, David?s dad, who was following his son around and trying very hard not to overdose on pride. It was while we were chatting that David thwacked in a wedge to within 4ft of the hole. When it came to the putt, however, Ray buried his face in my back, unable to watch his lad. It was probably just as well. David?s putt was never hit with conviction and slid weakly left of the hole. ?I?m not sure I can take this any more, ? said Ray before pulling himself together and striding off with the Howell group.
Mind you, the English golfer was not alone in feeling at least slightly twitchy over almost any length of putt. That cooling wind on top of fierce sunlight has now baked Augusta National dusty dry. In many ways it is no longer the Masters, it?s an impersonation of the average US Open where eagles and birdies are protected species. Even worse, the weather has not encouraged the appearance of the traditional mini-skirted locals out celebrating springtime. Instead the girls are wrapped in several layers and one I saw was wearing a long, black overcoat, black leggings and a woolly hat. She looked as though she this week?s blind date for the Grim Reaper. It may be time to be beamed back up to the mother ship.
Look, I don’t want to go on about how many times I’ve been here but no matter what you may have read elsewhere it is in fact 29. To be honest I thought it was 28, someone else accidentally wrote 27 and then Martha, the admirably cuddly but effectively stern mistress of the Media Centre told me I was down on her records as 29 and if that’s what Martha says it’s good enough for me.
Anyway, I only mention this because it is relevant and it is relevant because this 2007 Masters course is the toughest track of my 27/28/29 visits. More significantly, Gary Player who recorded his 50th Masters participation this week – and intends at least one more next year just to beat Arnold Palmer’s record that he now ties – thinks it is the toughest it’s been since 1965 when Jack Nicklaus won his second Green Jacket. “Man, it’s hard out there. Unbelieveable. This is now a truly great course again. I have to think back to the 1965 Masters to find a week as hard as this one. And that’s good because these young guys today need a big challenge and here this week they’ve got one, ” the old maestro told me when we chatted in the clubhouse after his second round. He did of course miss the cut but he also made me a few quid from a friend who had bet me that Seve Ballesteros’s two round score would better Player’s.
Despite a 20 year age difference, Gary came up with the goods , his second over par 36 hole total a numbing six strokes better than the Spaniard’s. It have me no pleasure to see this but I must admit the 20 bucks I subsequently picked up somewhat eased my pain at Seve’s continued, and very sad, demise as a player of any significance whatsoever.
Home is the hero
THERE are three great viewing points at Augusta National. One is the press stand at the epicentre of Amen Corner where three holes may be viewed in some comfort. Another is to the side of the 15th green where shots across the water may be studied properly. And the third is the left hand corner of the clubhouse bar. Today I passed on the first two and took up position at the bar. I was there with a couple of friends to toast another dear friend, sportswriter lan Wooldridge, who died recently and who came to love his annual trip to the Masters after an initial flurry of discontent when he criticised the club and felt he could not comfortably return for a few years until they forgot. It was while we were raising a glass to this hugely talented and hugely nice man that Chubby Chandler joined us. Chubby is founder and chief exec of ISM, the sports agency that looks after, among other, Ernie Els, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Freddie Flintoff. Cricket in fact is Chandler’s first love. Bolton-born he harboured ambitions of becoming a Lancashire batsman but just failed to make the grade and turned to golf instead. As a European Tour pro his biggest success was winning the Brazilian Open but his brilliance as a self-taught businessman has elevated him to a different level. Well, while the Masters went on somewhere outside Chandler pinned me to the bar and delivered a ball by ball account of England’s unlucky demise to Sri Lanka in the Cricket World Cup. Then he left to see if he could find a pedalo maufacturer to sponsor Freddie. Meanwhile I rang my chum David Feherty who is here to commentate for CBS Television. David declined my invitation to join us for a livener. Apparently he is still acutely aware that his co-commentator and partner-in-crime Gary McCord got the heave-ho from Augusta some years ago when he described lightning-fast greens as having been bikino waxed. Given Feherty’s predisposition for the acutely funny but sometimes ill-thought out comment the Ulsterman has decided to maintain the lowest of profiles at this place. “I arrive early under cover of darkness and leave the same way. For me it’s the smart thing to do. Actually it’s the only smart thing I’ve ever done, ” he said. The other thing worth reporting back is that Tiger Woods is not winning this 2007 Masters. Apparently it’s down to climate change. What is beyond dispute is that our very own Playing Editor David Howell was the right side of hot in the first round. David obviously was thrilled with his opening effort that took him unexpectedly high on to the leaderboard after a difficult day. The reason behind this resurgence in form was a text message confirming that his new(ish) house in Surrey was being properly furnished this week. For five months the poor lad has been rattling around this place with one chair to his name. Now when he gets back he just may have a spare one upon which he could throw a Green Jacket. Here’s hoping…
Elvis has left the building
Biggest news here this week is not that, apparently, Tiger Woods will win this Masters but the strange case of The Missing Elvis Bust! For legal reasons – oh, okay then, my personal safety – Elvis went missing from one of Augusta’s most popular pubs where it enjoyed pride of place on the bar. We’re talking major bust here, a thing of Dolly Parton proportions. Anyway, it turns out that a gaggle of caddies had a bet on whether or not Elvis could be ‘borrowed’. Following some serious distraction, Presley went walkabout, ending up in the boot of a senior golf man’s car after this innocent party’s keys were also borrowed. He knew nothing about it until the following morning when he opened up the boot to find a marble Elvis leering up at him. Who said golf couldn’t be fun.
All we need now is for someone to nick a few green blazers as well. The caddies get my vote. Meanwhile Gary Player most definitely lives. The old boy – he’s 71 but with the body of a keep-fit teenager and a mind to match. Gazza is playing in his 50th Masters and plans one more to edge ahead of Arnold Palmer in the Most Played Category. Somewhere in the middle of a rivetting soliloquy delivered compellingly to a small group of trapped reporters Player revealed that Jack Nicklaus nets more from his American Actor’s Guild pension than he does from his PGA Tour pension. “Nowadays they can play okay for a few years and pick up millions when they retire. That’s one big difference from my time to now. Back when I was a contender we didn’t play for money because there wasn’t any really, ” he added. Right, and the Pope doesn’t go to church most Sundays. Augusta really does bring out the best in people – especially the pleasantly barking ones.