Out of the blue, into the green?

The Baltimore Sun

AUGUSTA, Ga. -On the eve of the 2007 Masters, Zach Johnson walked off the 18th green with one prevailing thought: "I haven't got a prayer."

"It was playing so hard," Johnson recalled of that practice round. "It was so cold and windy. My preparation was good, but I just didn't feel like I had an opportunity to play well because it was so long."

Trevor Immelman had a similar woe-is-my-game mind-set one year ago.

He entered the tournament ranked 129th and less than four months removed from surgery to remove a benign, Titleist-size lesion on his diaphragm.

"I had no expectations," he said.

So if you're trying to handicap the 2009 Masters, you might want to consider names other than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

That's not to say that every off-the-radar type is worthy of your attention.

Mississippi gas station owner Steve Wilson, who qualified for his first Masters by winning the Mid-Amateur Championship, is more likely to don a leather jacket than a green one come Sunday.

And former champs such as Fuzzy Zoeller, Gary Player and Larry Mize are here for the experience.

But if the field of 96 had a guy named George Mason, he probably could win it all. Even as a No. 11 seed.

Why? Perhaps because there's no surefire road map to thriving at Augusta National.

"It's not a formula," said Stewart Cink, who has nine top-30 finishes in 11 starts. "The course is a perfect balance of ball-striking and short game. It doesn't matter if you hit it long or short, it has to be quality. And you have to have steady nerves."

Statistically speaking, the past four champions had little in common.

In 2005, Tiger Woods hit just 57.1 percent of fairways but compensated with absurdly accurate iron play. He hit 75 percent of greens to rank second in the field.

An average driving distance of 299.3 yards set Phil Mickelson apart in 2006. Johnson's driving average in 2007 of 264.6 yards makes you wonder whether he was hitting 3-woods. But he wasn't wayward off the tee, and his putter flowed.

Immelman did everything well in his wire-to-wire victory last year. And the weight of expectations on his shoulders could have been measured in feathers.

"Absolutely, that helped," he said. "I wasn't putting any pressure on myself."

Johnson opened the 2007 tournament with a 71 and held his ground with a second-round 73. Saturday brought Bear weather - as in Chicago, not Jack Nicklaus - with temperatures in the mid-40s and wind gusts up to 33 mph.

The Iowan survived the day with a 76, then tied for the low round Sunday with 69. The first moment Johnson thought he could win?

"When Tiger's ball landed on the 18th green and didn't go in," he replied.

Johnson has excelled in 2009, winning the Sony Open in Hawaii and taking third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

At 33, Johnson believes he's a more polished player than the 31-year-old guy who tamed Tiger.

"I'm more complete, certainly from an experience standpoint," he said. "Back then, I had that ignorance-is-bliss thing; I didn't know what I was getting myself into."


When: Thursday-Sunday

Key tee times: Greg Norman, 9:50 a.m; Phil Mickelson, 10:45 a.m.; Tiger Woods, 1:52 p.m.

TV: ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) and chs. 13, 9 (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.)

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