ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Zach Johnson would be the first to tell you that his win at the Masters in 2007 all but came out of the blue.
After all, Johnson was barely four years into his PGA Tour career, a single win on his resume, when he outlasted the great Tiger Woods, Rory Sabbatini and Retief Goosen at Augusta National on that seminal Easter Sunday. The unassuming 31-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, then had to spend much of the post-round interview almost shyly introducing himself to the national press.
“I never really thought I’d win one,” Johnson recalled candidly on Monday evening. “Then you get one, and certainly you feel like you can win more, and you want to win more. It drives you, motivates you to practice and get better.”
And Johnson has. He most assuredly is a better player than he was that week in Georgia, and Johnson’s talent was on full display at St. Andrews when he made the 144th Open Championship his second major championship and the 12th win of his career.
“I don’t want to sit here and say that I expect to (win majors) because that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially with the individuals … who are playing this game and playing at a high level, but it’s a dream realized,” Johnson said, his arms wrapped around the Claret Jug that was sitting in his lap.
Johnson’s Open played out over five days in rapidly changing weather conditions — rain that flooded the Old Course on Friday, winds gusting to 45 mph on Saturday, both of which necessitated lengthy delays. So maybe it was only fitting that his win did not go in the history books until he beat Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a four-hole aggregate playoff.
Johnson closed with a 66 on Monday that included a clutch birdie on the 72nd hole that had his caddie, Damon Green, doing a chicken dance with the flagstick, and made the playoff a possibility. He set the standard of 15 under and then had to wait to see if anyone passed him with the brutal Road Hole 17th and the generous 18th laying in wait.
There was plenty of talent still to finish, too. When Johnson finished, there were six groups still on the course — populated with five players who had won a combined total of nine majors.
“They’re champions,” Johnson said. “They’re not going to back down.”
Leishman was in control at 16 under before he made his only bogey of the final 36 holes when he couldn’t get up and down from a greenside bunker at the 16th. While the Aussie parred in, Oosthuizen, who won The Open the last time it was played at the Old Course, matched Johnson’s birdie at the last to set the stage for extra holes.
The sentimental favorite, Jordan Spieth, who was trying to win the third leg of the Grand Slam, almost made it a foursome. But after he drained a 30-footer at the 16th to tie, Spieth bogeyed the 17th and his approach at the 18th sucked back off the green.
Still, the 21-year-old chasing history was there to congratulate Johnson after the playoff was done.
“I can’t describe the magnitude as to what he was going through, because I’ve never been in that position certainly,” Johnson said. “We haven’t really seen that, with the exception of Tiger, right? I mean, truthfully he could be sitting here. You know what I mean?
“… He’s a phenomenal talent, and I’m telling you right now, he’s a better person than he is a golfer.”
Johnson took control of the playoff from the outset with birdies on the first two holes. When he bogeyed No. 17, though, Oosthuizen had an opening — but the South African’s 12-footer at the last stubbornly refused to fall.
For a minute, Johnson looked completely stunned, then he smiled and wrapped Green in a bear hug. And once he had the Claret Jug safely in his possession, Johnson celebrated by running down the road adjacent to the 18th fairway and high-fiving all the fans.
“That was tremendous,” he said with a grin.
The devout Johnson said he felt at peace Monday despite all the dramatic ebbs and flows of emotions at this signature links on the shores of the North Sea. He made sure he stayed grounded by reciting scripture, his favorite passage Psalms 24:17, throughout the day.
“‘Be patient, wait for the Lord. Be courageous and brave. Yes, be patient, wait for the Lord,’” Johnson said. “Just little things that help along the way. Gets me down to my priorities.”
And make no mistake — priorities are all-important to Johnson, who choked up several times while talking about his wife Kim, whom he called the CEO and rock of their marriage, and their three children, two boys and a girl.
“I’m just a guy from Iowa that has been blessed with a talent, and this game provides great opportunity,” Johnson said, sounding a lot like the man who won the Masters eight years ago. “I don’t want to make it any bigger than what it should be. This isn’t going to define me or my career; at least I hope it doesn’t. It’s not my legacy.
“Granted, as a professional athlete and as a golfer I’m going to relish this. I’m going to savor this. I’m humbled by this. But my legacy should be my kids, my family, that kind of thing.”
A review of the playoff:
PLAYOFF HOLE 1 (par-4 1st): All three players find the green in regulation. Oosthuizen and Johnson roll in birdie putts. Leishman three-putts for bogey and is quickly two strokes behind.
PLAYOFF HOLE 2 (par-4 2nd): All three players find the green in two but only Johnson can convert his birdie putt. He now takes a one-stroke lead over Oosthuizen, with Leishman now three shots back.
PLAYOFF HOLE 3 (par-4 17th): A poor approach shot left Johnson with an impossible angle to the pin, and his third shot went over the green into the rough on the other side. He gets up-and-down for bogey. Oosthuizen, with a chance to tie Johnson, misses his short par putt and bogeys the 17th for the first time in the tournament. Leishman three-putts for the second time in the playoff and falls three shots back with one to play. Johnson keeps his lead by one over Ooshuizen.
PLAYOFF HOLE 4 (par-4 18th): Oosthuizen produces a tremendous drive, leaving him with a short chip for his second shot. Johnson has a birdie putt from 15 feet for the win, but it slides by. Oosthuizen’s birdie putt to extend the playoff misses. Johnson wins The Open Championship, the second major of his career.