124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2



FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

Reheating the 2007 Masters, one of the coldest ever

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

April 07, 2023
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Andrew Redington

AUGUSTA, Ga.—Masters Friday dawned muggy and gray, what could be described as perfect golf weather. But the forecast called for angst, with a chance of calamity. The range was packed at first light, as tee times had been moved up half an hour to try to get ahead of incoming thunderstorms. But much of the concern was for the next day’s forecast: a high of 49 and a rare 100 percent chance of rain. On the practice putting green, under the Tree and in the press room, one number kept getting thrown around, often in a grave tone: 2007. That was the year of one of the hardest, wackiest, most miserable Masters ever, and with this year’s tournament on the brink of similar carnage, it’s worth turning back the clock 16 years to celebrate and commiserate and perhaps predict what’s coming.

In ’07, Augusta National was like an awkward teenager still adapting to a sudden growth spurt. Five years earlier, chairman Hootie Johnson had remade the course in his own macho image, a series of changes necessitated by the 2000 arrival of nuclear solid-core balls like the Pro V1. In the first few years after Augusta National’s transformation into a longer, tighter, more penal test, the green jackets offered benign setups, careful not to turn a tournament defined by fireworks into a U.S. Open-style grind. But in 2005, Tiger Woods won his fourth Masters at 12 under, a score that had been bettered only three times since 1980. Chairman Johnson, presiding over his final Masters, was displeased. Billy Payne, his successor, ordered that the screws be tightened the following year, and Phil Mickelson scratched out a winning score of 7 under. Then Fred Ridley made the scene. A lawyer with a fabulous head of hair, Ridley traveled on two passports as an Augusta National member and president of the USGA in 2004 and ’05. The 2007 Masters was Ridley’s first overseeing the course setup as the all-powerful chairman of the competition committee. Determined to prove his tough-guy bona fides to Johnson and Payne, Ridley presented a brutal test.

The tone was set during the first round, when there were more rounds in the 80s (12) than under par (nine), with only two eagles made all day. Even with the dry, brick-hard greens on the edge, Ridley showed no mercy. “Some of the pin positions were like, Wow,” Stephen Ames said after a 76 that left him seven strokes off the lead of Justin Rose and Brett Wetterich. The difference between that Masters and so many others could be more readily heard than seen. Augusta National has long been noted for its acoustics; the soundtrack to the tournament is supposed to be the roars of the gallery cascading through the pines. In the absence of any pyrotechnics, 1979 champion Fuzzy Zoeller described the first-round atmosphere as being like “a morgue.”

The easier pin positions of the second round were negated by stronger winds, and by the end of another dispiriting day the players were beginning to howl. “The course is ridiculous,” said Henrik Stenson, who shot 76. “It feels like I’m walking around for five hours and someone is whipping me on the back.” Added Davis Love III, “You can’t make it much harder than this and get guys to show up.” In fact, some competitors clearly wished they were somewhere more hospitable, like Hades. After making the cut on the number at 8 over, the highest since 1982, Lee Westwood was so down in the mouth he was asked if he still liked the Masters. “Not anymore,” he said. “It asks too many questions that there is not an answer to. Sometimes even a perfect shot is not good enough.”

Saturday dawned with temperatures in the low 30s, and gusts during the day reached 23 mph. To keep the course from becoming utterly unplayable, Ridley moved up the tees, used most of the easiest pin positions and finally saturated the greens, but the third round still turned into one of the most sadistic days in Masters history. Playing in the final group, Wetterich and Tim Clark had a better-ball score of 76 as neither made a birdie en route to scores of 83 and 80, respectively. (Of the 60 players who made the cut, 13 didn’t break 80.) Stuart Appleby called the weather “frigid” and the day “a comedy of errors.” Zach Johnson went with “miserable.” Playing in his 15th Masters, Mickelson added, “It’s as tough as I’ve seen it. It wasn’t as hard as it could have been because they put water on the greens. But it’s a challenge to make pars. You have to fight on every hole to make par here.”

Retief Goosen was the only man to break par, with a 70, and it shot him from 45th into a tie for eighth, just four back. By day’s end the field’s scoring average of 77.35 made it the ugliest Saturday since 1956. Despite a triple bogey at the 17th hole, Appleby was leading at 2 over par, the highest score ever for a 54-hole Masters leader. One stroke back was Woods, who had played a nearly flawless round until he limped home with back-to-back bogeys and signed for an even-par 72. Johnson was one back of Woods, holding on to fourth despite a 76 that featured only one birdie. “I was just happy to finish,” Johnson said. “It was so cold on the last five or six holes, I could barely feel my hands.”

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Harry How

The final round was significantly warmer, and Ridley drenched the greens and employed the most accessible pin positions, bringing some excitement back to the Masters. Five players held the outright lead on Sunday: Woods after an eagle on 13; Rory Sabbatini (!), who then bogeyed 14 and 16; Rose, who doubled 17; and Goosen, who played the first eight holes in 4 under and the last 10 in 1 over. Johnson raced past all of them with birdies on 13, 14 and 16. His spectacular final-round 69 left him at 1 over par, and he retreated to the clubhouse to watch the end play out on the telecast. The only player left on the course who could catch him was Tiger M.F. Woods, two strokes back with two holes to play. Johnson settled in at a small table in the locker room, which was deserted but for the courtly attendants, Johnson’s agent and a pair of tournament officials serving as chaperones. There were no TV cameras. I had followed Johnson into the locker room and the only other reporter with similar instincts was Michael Bamberger, leaning against a wall at the back of the room. We exchanged knowing nods. A gent sat down at the table next to Johnson’s; he was turned out in a tweed jacket and a green Masters hat that couldn’t quite contain his unruly blond locks.

“This is an important day for you,” the man said, by way of hello.

“Yes, it’s Easter,” said Johnson, a regular at the PGA Tour’s Bible study groups.

Then Johnson, a good tennis player with a wicked hook-serve, recognized the fellow to whom he was talking. “Mr. Becker, I’m a huge fan!” he blurted. Boris Becker smiled back.

As Woods was walking to his ball in the 17th fairway, Becker asked Johnson how he was feeling. “My legs are numb from the knees down,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not sure they’re still attached to my body.”

Woods dumped his approach into a bunker short of the green, an inexplicable unforced error characteristic of a round replete with missed opportunities. Still, the shot from the trap was eminently makable, and Johnson closed his eyes as Woods settled into the sand. He didn’t steal a peek until Woods’s shot had skittered away from the hole.

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“You’re almost home,” someone said to Johnson, and now, finally, the tears started to come. He calmed himself in time to watch Woods rip a drive on 18. Tiger had to hole the approach shot for eagle to force a playoff, and Johnson broke up the room by saying what everybody else was thinking: “He’s done stranger things.”

As Woods went through his preshot routine, Johnson buried his head in his hands. He looked up as Woods’s approach was floating well right of the flag. Just like that, Johnson, 31, had triumphed at the 71st Masters, only the second victory of his PGA Tour career. “I honestly cannot believe this is happening,” he said, speaking for so many.

And now heavy weather is threatening to throw another Masters into chaos. The 2007 result is not a perfect precedent because Johnson benefited from the extra rollout on the parched fairways—though he famously laid up on every par-5—and his wizardly short game was a difference-maker on the firm greens; this year the rain-saturated course will play long and soft. Still, history has shown that when the Masters is compromised by gnarly weather, grit is the leading predictor of success. On another Easter weekend, we’re about to find out which player has it in spades.