It’s late and my (rather small) fingers haven’t stopped typing for more hours than is considered remotely normal or healthy, but I want to at least jot down a few of my thoughts while they’re still fresh (even if I’m delirious — you’ve been warned). After all, I attended my first ever Sunday at the ’11 Masters, which ended up being one of the most compelling finishes in tournament history.
When I walked onto the grounds at Augusta National on Sunday afternoon, I already sensed an intoxicating buzz in the air (and not just because a good percentage of the patrons were drunk). Maybe I was just overly excited and strung out because I couldn’t believe I was at Sunday at the Masters and I only had two-three hours on the course before I had to return to my live-blogging duties for the WSJ.com.
I packed in a dab of everything in the short time I had. I spotted Tiger’s mother Kultida, dressed in red, walking with the help of another person, also wearing red.
I walked quickly (no running allowed! — or you run the risk of losing your badge because you’re breaking one of Augusta’s many rules. I studied the sheet very carefully just to avoid the hassle of getting a lecture) to seven green/eight tee to catch the pairings of Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman, followed by Justin Rose and Ricky Barnes, and then finally Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk.
Then, of course, I had to pop by Amen Corner. When I walked Augusta for the first time on Tuesday, it wasn’t until I reached No. 11 that I had my “welcome to Augusta moment,” and felt blown away by the scenery and energy in the gallery. And it was even more exciting during a competitive round. My time was limited, but I watched Dustin Johnson, Ryo Ishikawa, Sergio Garcia, Trevor Immelman, Rickie Fowler and Robert Karlsson putt on 11 green and hit on the par-3 12th.
The hole location was tucked on the back right of the green, a sucker pin. If you missed right, you wouldn’t have much green to work with and would face a very challenging up-and-down. If you went over the green, it’d be tough to stop the ball near the hole. If you pulled it to the left half of the green, you’d be lucky to two putt. And if you didn’t hit it to the right center, your ball could roll down the slope, leaving you with a 40-50 footer. The right play? Aim for the left edge of the TV tower behind the green and hit a soft fade just left of the green and let it trickle toward the hole. Dustin hit a decent shot, but Ryo pushed it right, giving himself a tough chip on the downslope with hardly any green to work with. He failed to convert for par.
By now, I was already exhausted from walking a fair portion of the course. Next stop? Get back to the first tee to watch Rory McIlroy and Angel Cabrera tee off and walk with them for a few holes. I nearly had cardiac arrest because I’m so out of shape, the course is sneaky hilly and it was 100 degrees and humid. Good news is I got in my exercise (for the week).
When I reached the first tee, I already started hearing rumbles emanating from a few holes ahead. I knew right away they were for Tiger. Here’s what I wrote in an entry for the WSJ.com live-blog:
I walked with Rory McIlroy and Angel Cabrera for four holes, with the crowd definitely pulling for Rory all the way. From tee to green, the fans — excuse me, patrons — hollered, “Go, Rory! Come on, Rory!” As I was walking up the first hole, however, I did hear one person say, “Rory’s going to pull a Phil and choke.” I shot him a dirty look (I know, no cheering in the press room!). As I’ve mentioned all week, if there’s a weakness in McIlroy’s game, it’s on the greens. He is shaky from the five-to-15-foot range — especially under pressure, like at the PGA Championship last year, when he missed several which cost him the tournament. McIlroy missed two from that range in the first three holes.
As I watched McIlroy hit his third shot on No. 2 after punching out from the bunker, I heard a booming cheer to my right — the third hole. I looked up at the scoreboard and shortly realized Charl Schwartzel must have holed out from the fairway for eagle. So far, he had only needed two putts through three holes.
Meanwhile, I was hearing roars all across the course — the kind of roars that only one person can generate. I walked by the eighth green as Tiger putted for eagle and the cheers were downright deafening. The ground may have shaken, too.
I ran into Tiger’s swing instructor, Sean Foley, yesterday and the guy is a genius. Naturally, we discussed the leaderboard, and I said something about Tiger probably being too far back to win. Foley disagreed. “If he shoots 66, he’ll win,” he said. Really? “Yeah, that’ll be enough.” Well, Foley’s prophecy looks like it just may materialize.
Turns out Sean’s prognostication was slightly off. Tiger would have had to shoot 63 to force a playoff, but a 67 was a solid score, considering he missed a number of short putts.
I stopped to watch Tiger putt for eagle on the eighth. He had his Vintage Tiger game face on. After the putt rolled in, he followed it with a Vintage Tiger fist-pump. And the patrons cheered like it was 2005 again. For a moment, it felt like we were in for a redemptive Sunday unlike any other, but a few holes later we remembered it was 2011.
When I saw him making a move up the leaderboard, I wondered if Tiger’s early run would have a psychological effect on any of the players. Vintage Tiger held a two-shot lead before he even teed off because of the intimidation factor — players were psychologically affected if they saw Tiger making a surge. This Sunday, no one flinched. Two years ago, players would have practically froze in fear, but now, the guys are unfazed (or expect him to fade eventually).
I had to nearly drag myself off the grounds and back to my computer to work. My friend kept trying to convince me to stay because he could tell this was shaping up to be one hell of an exciting finish. As it happened, that turned out to be a major understatement — we couldn’t have asked for much more drama on Sunday at Augusta.
Six-to-eight players crowded the leaderboard, taking turns making birdies and bogeys, and sometimes even triples. Things changed so fast that it was hard to keep up (as you may be able to tell in my ramblings on the live-blog).
Tiger was making a charge; Rory was going to snatch a big win for golf’s youth movement, but then he hit shots to parts of the course people didn’t now existed and unraveled so terribly that even Greg Normal felt bad for him; Adam Scott and Jason Day fed off each other, draining one clutch putt after another; Geoff Ogilvy quietly made five consecutive birdies; Bo Van Pelt rolled in a few eagles, Luke Donald recovered from knocking it in the water on the 12th and then chipped in on the 18th (generating the most emotional reaction I’ve ever seen from Luke); K.J. Choi battled, but missed a few short putts coming in; and finally, Charl Schwartzel rose to the moment, carding birdies on the last four holes to shoot 66 and win by two.
It didn’t come down to the final pairing this Sunday, but the results certainly weren’t settled until Schwartzel rolled in a 15-footer for birdie on 18 to win by not just one, but two strokes over Scott and Day.
On Tuesday Jason Bohn’s instructor Scott Hamilton suggested I pick Schwartzel as my favorite because no one else would and if he contended, I’d look like a genius. Bohn’s caddie selected Schwartzel as his favorite, too. I was wary on him only because it was his second Masters and I’d been hearing too much about how much experience matters, so I didn’t take their advice. I went with McIlroy, instead, which was a brilliant choice until the tenth hole.
Schwartzel is a worthy and wonderful champion, but with an hour left in the tournament, I realized I would be content if any of the players in contention won — because the drama produced on the back nine was downright riveting. The great golf inspired the audience to experience a rollercoaster of emotions — grit, magnificence, tears, disappointment, goosebumps, heroics, pure joy and determination.
What we witnessed Sunday was not just a major win for the 26-year-old Charl Schwartzel, it was a victory for the game of golf, particularly its bright young future.