A study of Masters history reveals some interesting patterns related to the annual winning scores.
Over the past three decades, the winning 72-hole total has been higher than 280 on only four occasions. Three of those Masters – 2003, 2007, and 2016 – produced three of the most surprising Masters champions since Augusta native Larry Mize toppled two of the game’s giants (Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros) in a 1986 playoff when the winning score of 285 was the second highest winning total since 1972.
Mike Weir won in a playoff in 2003 over journeyman Len Mattiace after the two competed 72 holes with scores of 281. Englishman Danny Willett scored his only victory on American soil in 2016 with a 283 total, the beneficiary of a shocking Sunday collapse by Jordan Spieth.
Willett is likely to go down in modern Masters history as one of the few non-elite players to have won the tournament along with 2008 winner Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera, who won the following year.
All three were highly regarded players at the time, as was Weir when he won two years after Augusta National unveiled the first of two significant increases in yardage in the span of five years.
Bu as unexpected as the Masters victories of Weir, Immelman, Cabrera and Willett were, nothing in modern Masters history matches the results of 2007. That tournament is best remembered for the awful weather that plagued the first three days of the tournament, and the atypical game plan devised by the eventual champion, who did not exactly fit the playing style of Masters winners in the era of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Zach Johnson, in his fourth season on the PGA Tour with just two previous Masters appearances, won in 2007 with a score of 289, matching the highest winning total in tournament history, which occurred twice in the 1950s.
Johnson overcame the chilly, blustery conditions that made the 2007 Masters one of the least enjoyable in tournament history for both the players and spectators. He won utilizing a strategy that remains part of tournament lore while the awful weather that week, especially the first three days, has largely faded from memory.
Johnson won that week by playing to his strength, ignoring the conventional wisdom that the way to handle the challenges of Augusta National begins with overpowering the four pars 5s. Johnson, among the shorter hitters on the PGA Tour then and now, made the decision prior to the tournament that he was not going to attempt to reach any of the par 5s in two.
Instead, Johnson elected to lay up on all four each day, even if he was in position to possibly reach one on two. Johnson was already known as one of the most precise wedge players in the game, and put his skill with that club to excellent use all week.
Johnson carded 11 birdies on Augusta National’s par 5s with no bogeys, the best showing of any player in the field. No balls in the water on holes 13 and 15. No awkward short game shots on 2 or 8. With a wedge in his hand, Johnson was 13-under in 20 attempts for the tournament, adding a pair of birdies on the short, par-4 third, the only other hole on the course where he was able to utilize his favorite club.
Johnson played the other 13 holes at Augusta National 14-over for the week, but with the difficult conditions, his 1-over 289 total was enough to finish two strokes ahead of Woods, Rory Sabbatini and Retief Goosen.
When he needed to, Johnson played the holes other than the par 5s and the short third in championship fashion. Other than 13 birdies on his five “wedge” holes, Johnson managed no birdies on the other 13 holes until late in the final round.
Johnson’s winning margin was the product of Sunday birdies on holes 14 and 16. He won the tournament despite placing 57thout of 60 players who made the cut in driving distance on measured holes. He averaged just 265 yards in the inhospitable weather conditions, finishing ahead of only a pair of former Masters champions who were members of the Champions Tour.
While Johnson ranked near the bottom of driving distance stats, he placed second in fairways hit, fourth in greens in regulation and tied for 10thin putting even though he three-putted six times on the week, one of the highest totals ever for a Masters champion.
Johnson trailed by two strokes at the conclusion of all three rounds before making his move on Sunday. He was just one of eight players to break par in the opening round, posting a 71. He was tied for fourth after 36 holes at even par 144, trailing only co-leaders Tim Clark and Brett Wetterrich, and Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor, who was alone in third.
For much of the second round, Johnson held a share of the lead, but bogeyed the last three holes beginning with a 3-putt from four feet on the 16th, a hole he bogeyed three straight days before his birdie on Sunday.
Thanks to his bogey-bogey-bogey finish, Johnson allowed an additional 15 players to make the cut under the 10-shot rule, one of whom was Goosen, who almost rallied from that deficit to win the tournament.
The third round was played in the worst of the week’s weather, with the scoring average 77.3. Johnson shot 76 with a lone birdie on the 15th, but remained in a tie for fourth, two off the lead of Stuart Appleby.
Johnson teed off two groups in front of the final pairing Sunday along with Taylor, his friend and occasional roommate on the road from their days on the Hooters Tour. Taylor, looking to repeat Mize’s feat of a hometown victory, had the lead outright late Saturday afternoon before replicating Johnson’s Friday finish of three consecutive birdies to close out the round.
Woods, who was in the final group with Appleby, was won shot off the lead along with Justin Rose, who was paired in the next-to-last twosome with Padraig Harrington, who joined Johnson and Taylor in a tie for third.
Appleby could have held an even larger lead after 54 holes, but a triple bogey at the 17thSaturday reduced his lead to just one. Appleby stumbled out of the gate Sunday, and with the aid of early bogeys by some of the other contenders, Woods found himself with the outright lead and seemed destined to continue the 15-year streak of players to win the Masters after beginning the fourth round in the final pairing.
But other than a fortuitous eagle on the 13th, Woods did little in the final round, hitting his second shot in the water on 15 and failing on birdie opportunities on 14 and 16. A dozen years later, Woods is still in search of a fifth green jacket after winning in Augusta four times between 1997 and 2005.
Woods was not the only player who had an opportunity to overtake Johnson on the back nine.
Goosen, who made the cut on the number thanks to Johnson, was the lone player to break par on Saturday, closing within four of the lead after a 70. He went out in 4-under Sunday, but did not make a birdie coming in and settled for a 69, matching the low score of the day.
Sabbatini gained a share of the lead with a monster eagle putt on the eighth, but quickly fell out of a tie for first with a bogey at the ninth, and cost himself a chance at victory with a bogey at 16.
Rose seemingly shot himself out of contention with a bogey and two doubles on his first four holes, but recovered with five birdies in a 9-hole stretch from 8 to 16 to emerge as the main challenger to Johnson over the closing holes. But an errant tee shot on 17 led to his third double bogey of the day and he ended up tied for fifth at 292 with Jerry Kelly, who made some late noise with an eagle at 13 and a birdie at 15.
Sabbatini wasn’t the only player to move into contention with an eagle at the eighth. Luke Donald pitched in for an eagle to close in on the lead, but made triple bogey at the ninth when three straight chip shots rolled back down the slope to his feet.
With three birdies over his final six holes, Johnson matched Goosen and Sabbatini for the low round of the day at 69. For the week, there were only nine scores in the 60s, none lower than a pair of 68s Friday by Harrington and Paul Casey.
Johnson’s victory was just his second on the PGA Tour, with his first coming as a rookie in Atlanta in 2004. While still a member of the Hooters Tour, Johnson played his way into the field at TPC Sugarloaf in a Monday qualifier in 2002, and was in line for a top-10 finish before 4-putting the 18thhole Sunday.
One month after his Masters victory, Johnson scored his second win in Atlanta, and soon moved to Georgia from his native Iowa, settling on St. Simons Island, where he still lives with his family.
Johnson has added nine more PGA Tour titles, giving him 12 for his career. Among those victories is the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews. But after winning at least once in every year but one from 2007 to ’15, Johnson is still stuck on 12 career wins.
From 2006 to ’16, Johnson appeared on nine of 11 U.S. Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup teams, and was one of the game’s consistently top players. But at the age of 43, Johnson’s best days seem behind him, although he has finished around 50thin the FedEx Cup standings each of the past three seasons. He is barely inside the top 125 coming into the 2019 Masters.