Yesterday, Zach Johnson and Tiger Woods were paired together in the last group as Zach beat Tiger in a dramatic finish to win the tournament Tiger annually hosts–the Northwestern Mutual Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California. Two years prior, they went head-to-head in that tournament and Tiger emerged the victor. This time Zach was four shots behind beginning the last nine and started stuffing irons so close to the hole that Tiger later commented, “I don’t know why they didn’t go in.” One did, on the 72nd hole, which set up a playoff.
Likeable Zach Johnson is a somewhat reserved but outspoken Christian and a member of the PGA Tour Bible Study. He has had a wonderful career so far, with eleven PGA Tour wins and one of them being the Masters. Tiger is headed for setting the all-time win record on the Tour and, with fourteen wins in majors, he’s trying to catch Jack Nicklaus’ record of eighteen majors.
Zach performed some theatrics on the 72nd hole Sunday that caused even the tough competitor Tiger Woods to break out with atypical smiles. It was because Zach hit what I think are the two worst and best shots in succession on the last hole of regulation play for the eventual winner of a PGA Tour tournament that I have ever seen.
If you didn’t see it on TV, as I did, here’s how it went down. Zach and Tiger were all even standing on the tee of that par-four eighteenth hole. Short swinging Zach drove nicely into the fairway. But Tiger drove into the light rough slightly left of the fairway and unto a steep bank. His ball was well below his feet. That promotes a slice shot and makes an intended hook very difficult to achieve. Not only that, Tiger had trees in his line-of-flight about fifty yards or more up ahead. The pin was tucked on the front right portion of the green, near a bunker and water hazard. For Tiger to go for the green, he’d have to hook that shot around those trees.
Tiger took a big chance by trying to do just that. But his ball went straight and landed in the deep, small sand bunker about thirty feet or less from the pin. He had a good lie in that bunker. But since it is a deep bunker, he had no visibility of the green and only about ten feet of green to the pin. He was going to have to play a good bunker shot that barely lands on the green to get close to the hole and make a par.
Zach clearly was in the driver’s seat. He had about an 8-iron shot to the pin. There may not be anyone on the Tour who is better at that shot. Zach has a controlled, short backswing and an abbreviated follow-through on most of his shots, especially that one. He is known for zeroing in on those shots like pointing a laser gun at a target. But this time Zach surprised us all, hitting his ball way to the right and short, splashing in the water. (He later explained that he didn’t finish his backswing, it being even shorter, which often makes the ball go right.) When Zach’s ball splashed in the pond, the crowd groaned. Tiger now had a distinct advantage, so that he must have been smiling on the inside.
Zach had to take a penalty shot and drop a ball in a circled drop zone some fifty plus yards from the pin. Then he promptly knocked it in the hole for a par four. The television cameras soon focused on Tiger to see his reaction. Tiger broke out with his first small smile and slight shaking of his head as if to say, “go figure.”
Tiger now had to get his ball up-and-down from the bunker to tie Zach and force a playoff. Tiger hit a very good shot close to the hole and made the putt. Now came the playoff.
Tiger Woods has a great record in playoffs. The players used to fear Tiger because he was such a great player and so competitive. But in recent times that has changed. Zach looked pretty cool, calm, and collected. He had come from four strokes back in eight holes to go into that playoff.
It didn’t last long. On the first playoff hole, Zach made par and Tiger had a five footer for par. There hasn’t been anyone in the history of the PGA Tour who is better in that situation than Tiger Woods. He is such a good putter and has such a fantastic putting stroke. And he makes those clutch putts almost all the time. But this time it was not to be. Tiger missed right and it was “game over,” with Zach Johnson this time the winner.
As Tiger said in his subsequent televised interview, “we made it entertaining.” Indeed they did. Tiger added concerning Zach, “Pretty impressive what he did. He got me.”