Apr
9
2017
Seeing stars: Masters set for Sunday to remember
By Stephanie Wei under The Masters

It’s been hours since the last putt dropped at Augusta National to close out the third round of the Masters, yet every time I look up at my TV (which has the 54-hole leaderboard on the screen) and catch a glance, I’m still getting goosebumps and wowed by all the star power. LIKE I’M SEEING IT FOR THE FIRST TIME ALL OVER AGAIN. Sorry for the caps lock; that was unnecessary.

Seriously, though, it doesn’t get much better than Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth — just to read the first four names listed on the scoreboard. Ryan Moore and Charley Hoffman are the next two, and while they are much more obscure and relative unknown to the casual fan, there’s some charm in the underdogs who have their own unique stories. Next comes Adam Scott, whom, of course, won in an exciting yet touching playoff against Angel Cabrera at the 2013 Masters to finally capture his first major less than a year after bogeying the last four holes at Royal Lytham to hand the Claret Jug to Ernie Els.

We’ve really been pretty spoiled on Sundays (and a Monday) at the majors since the 2015 Masters. And that may have been the least thrilling of the last eight, since then-21-year-old Jordan Spieth separated himself from the field by the halfway mark and then broke a dozen or so records en route to his four-shot victory.

Think about it: The dramatic and memorable final rounds, the realization of golf’s youth movement that had been *years* in the making, the likable winners, both young and old from all around the globe, etc. I could keep going, but I’ll stop while I’m ahead for once.

By the way, I decided it was truly in everyone’s best interests (particularly mine) if I spared us all of a live stream following Saturday’s round. Trust me. I called yesterday “Freaky Friday,” but it has nothing on what I’ve dubbed “Shitshow Saturday.” It’s just been a series of unfortunate events, which is absurd as much as it is hilarious (because if I don’t laugh, I’ll only cry and that’s no fun). I felt like I was living a real-life episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I’m not complaining because ultimately, it’s two of dem days in a row, but amplified, and if I survived the weird spell (or hell) that defined 2015 and 2016, I’m pretty much bullet-proof.

And I mean, LOOK AT THAT LEADERBOARD. Those final two pairings! Sergio and Rose, who are tied for the lead! Spieth and Rickie in the penultimate group! Those incredible story lines! I mean, Sergio breaking through for his first major at Augusta National of all places given his tortured history? Who doesn’t love that? Jordan Spieth, who had a quadruple-bogey in the first round, fighting back to redeem himself from not only Thursday but last year’s quadruple on no. 12 and blowing his five-shot lead on the back nine to win his second straight Green Jacket.

(By the way, I would’ve had no problem if Spieth’s presser had gone something like this Saturday…
Moderator: Questions?
Spieth: Answered. Spieth out. /mic drop and gets up and heads for the exit.

Just saying. Majority of people have had a much worse last 364 days than Spieth. But it was seriously cringe-worthy every time the par-3 12th was mentioned, which felt like every time he had a press conference and it was almost like he was being trolled. You know, just in case he had forgotten about dumping two balls in the water on the par-3 12th. In the past month or so, he’s definitely not been afraid to express his annoyance and relief when this week came to an end.)

Holy crap, my mind is going to explode. Again, we’ve had really amazing leaderboards the past two years, and perhaps it’s just me and we’re in the present during an era that enables ADHD, short-term memories, but this Masters Sunday seems like the best thing since…I have no clue.

The best part is we’re all hanging onto every single second from the first tee time to the last and in such awe of the incredible first three rounds that have produced what’s setup to potentially be one for the ages, yet two big names weren’t even in the field: World no. 1 and pre-tournament favorite Dustin Johnson, who was forced to withdraw with a sore back following a freak accident Wednesday afternoon, and Tiger Woods, who has been sidelined with nagging back injuries that even his most fervent fans have written him off.

Think about that. Golf is in a good place despite what the game’s powers-that-be never-ending hysteria and panicked emphasis on the lack of interest from the “millennials,” leading to an endless number of pointless committees, task forces, overpaid executives and consultants, etc. that have spent way too many hours and far too much money on overthinking this fake crisis. It’s all going to be OK. Golf is never going to be mainstream as long as it remains to require a long-term time commitment — whether it be practice, instruction, 4-5 hour rounds, expensive equipment and greens fees and/or memberships to clubs, and it’s not something you can just “pick up” or really be a “natural.” It takes diligence, patience and perhaps some sort of strange desire to perfect what cannot be perfected. And that’s just to start. I could go on for probably five thousand more words if I really wanted to, but you get the point.

Tiger Woods in his prime drew ratings and increased TV viewership exponentially, but studies show that he couldn’t manage to make more people play golf. The numbers say the rise of Woods didn’t also compel millions more to take up the game and bring it into the mainstream realm. Just like we’ll never see another player dominate the way he did in our generation and lifetime, and perhaps ever again, I think the golf industry has a long ways to go and part of that is to stop moving backwards in time and to really take a deep look at implementing real change and tearing down the perception of elitism and discrimination that the majority of Americans still associate with the game (and not for good reason).

But I digress. First things first, I’ve been scratching my head for hours and hours trying to figure out the reason and/or answer to this mystery. It seems quite sudden to me, but perhaps it’s been gradual. It’s hard for me to understand and grasp as someone on the inside. American golf fans have done a complete 180 in the realm of public opinion when it comes to Sergio Garcia, once the biggest villain and perhaps most disliked player (unfairly). It doesn’t feel like that long ago when I shrunk in horror to the way fans treated him and the constant hate spewed from Golf Twitter. He’s always been genuinely a kind and friendly person and one of the most popular guys on Tour. He has a big heart, which he wears on his sleeve.

After clearly thinking long and (way too) hard over this mystery, I came up with a few theories. When he first made his debut on the big stage at the ripe age of 19, he seemed arrogant and overly emotional as he seemed determined to take down Tiger Woods — and believe he could at first. And perhaps the language barrier and cultural differences played a role in things getting lost in translation. I’ve always felt he was misunderstood and misjudged for mostly superficial reasons. Sure, he made some mistakes, but we’ve all been there. I can’t imagine living under such scrutiny at 19 and my early- and mid-20 (or hell, probably late 20s and even today). I mean, thank god social media didn’t exist the way it does today when I was in college and/or when I first moved to NYC and was freed from the discipline of being a competitive golfer for the majority of my adolescence and all my of teens. Sergio’s behavior and/or remarks were never coming from an “evil” place and there was never anything nefarious about his actions. He was young and brash and people are quick to judge and forget that everyone has issues that they don’t share and/or don’t translate well via TV and the old media.

But I think the biggest factor to the deep dislike for Sergio among American fans was that Tiger decided he was enemy no. 1. Sergio was Tiger’s foil. When Woods was in his prime and dominating for a decade or more, we needed a villain, and bless his heart (and shame on us), but Sergio was an easy target.

Thoughts? Theories? Anything? I mean, this 180 has been mind-boggling. I would love to see Sergio finally get that awful monkey off his back, but when I realized that Golf Twitter and fans were just as eager and I wasn’t in the minority for a change, I was befuddled. I need answers to this very important mystery! After almost two decades of being quite unpopular among the majority of fans, he’s suddenly the most beloved golfer in America. WTF? Was there a singular moment that changed everyone’s minds? Has it been gradual? And that includes Tiger’s inevitable disappearance and the discouraging signs toward his eventual retirement from competitive golf. I don’t know. I suddenly have tons of empathy for Tiger because of my own battle and long-term chronic back injuries and pain and knowing how much that sucks and how it wears you down mentally and physically. So, I guess perhaps this Sergio thing makes more sense.

No doubt his actions and words have also played a massive role. Now 37, Sergio has matured and grown wiser and learned from his mistakes and life experiences (especially traumatic ones) certainly tend to dramatically change one’s world view and perspective. As you’ve surely been reminded repeatedly the past three days, it’s been five years since his third-round 75 dropped him out of contention once again and his infamous defeated comments that followed afterward. Even for Sergio, his remarks were a bit shocking when he said he simply didn’t think he was good enough to conquer Augusta National and/or win a major. Ever.

Via ESPN.com’s report in 2012:

“I’m not good enough … I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia said in Spanish. His comments were translated for the Augusta Chronicle. “In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”

Garcia was asked if he meant in the Masters, and replied: “In any major.”

After shooting 71 on Sunday to finish in a tie for 12th place, Garcia was asked about the Saturday comments.

“Do you think I lie when I talk?” he said.

A reporter asked if it was more emotion talking.

“Everything I say, I say it because I feel it,” Garcia said. “If I didn’t mean it, I couldn’t stand here and lie like a lot of the guys. If I felt like I could win, I would do it. Unfortunately at the moment, unless I get really lucky in one of the weeks, I can’t really play much better than I played this week and I’m going to finish 13th or 15th.”

Yeah, wow. We’d seen Sergio in some pretty dark places before. I won’t name them all because you know what I’m talking about. 2007 at Carnoustie. And then he turned 30 in 2010 when he took an extended leave of absence from golf, which also meant missing the Ryder Cup, an event that’s near his heart and excelled in the team format — though he attended as a non-playing assistant captain.

“I had a very important talk with people that I care about and who care about me,” García said back then. “I thank them. It means so much to me. I hope that this is day one of a new attitude, a new Sergio, to try and enjoy playing golf again because I haven’t had that for a long time. I have been down for a long time.”

In 2012 Sergio was so disillusioned that it appeared he had lost belief in himself and was in an even darker place than a few years back. It was unclear at the time if he was beyond repair.

I didn’t really know Sergio. I’m sure I’d interviewed him one-on-one in passing a few times. I know I had. But I’d never even just made small talk with him in passing until the day after the Masters at a TaylorMade outing in 2014, where I played nine holes with him at Reynolds Plantation. In fact, I was his cart buddy. He was extremely personable, friendly, genuine and considerate — just as he had been described to me by those who have known him well (some of whom once had an negative opinion of him before they actually got to know him). In other words, he seemed like the opposite of Tiger, who has always had a frosty relationship with the media.

I’m not sure when he genuinely came out of his rut and optimistic outlook and zen-like attitude on golf and when he began to truly believe in himself again. I joked with a friend the other day that perhaps he had been spending time with Buddhist monks in the mountains during his free time.

“It was fun to play well again, to go through a Saturday at the Masters with a chance at winning, and, you know, to be up there going into tomorrow,” said Sergio in his opening remarks at his post-round presser Saturday evening.

“So I’m going to be playing with Justin, which is a good friend of mine, too. Should be a great match‑up in that last group.

Garcia, who once felt like the golfing gods were conspiring against him after one too many bad breaks at crucial moments on the big stage, caught a good one on the par-5 13th Saturday. His second shot came up a bit short, but instead of rolling down the bank into Rae’s Creek, his ball stayed up on the bank. From there, he almost chipped in and left himself with a tap-in for birdie.

“I’ve definitely had ‑‑ I think, I don’t know, probably it’s because my mentality has kind of changed a little bit, the way I’m thinking things,” said Garcia. “Particularly this week here at Augusta. But I’ve definitely had some good breaks throughout all three rounds.

“13 obviously was one of them. I didn’t feel like I hit a bad shot. Obviously I hit a good drive that went into that little first cut of rough, and unfortunately ‑‑ I was hitting plenty of club, but it was one of those things that the ball just came out really soft. I had enough club to carry on that line, and unfortunately it didn’t.

“But fortunately for me, that bank seems to be a tiny bit longer this year, which is nice. Because, you know, it gives you the possibility of getting a break like that, and then, you know, I still had to hit a great chip to make 4. It wasn’t an easy chip.

“Yeah, I felt like I played 13 well every day, and I’ve gotten nothing out of it. And finally today, I got a nice break and made a nice birdie.”

He even cracked a joke when reminded of his long history of dismal third rounds at the Masters.

“I’m glad I took the scoring average down a little bit,” said Sergio, who shot a two-under 70. “That’s a big positive.

“But Saturday’s gone and now Sunday’s coming. A very exciting Sunday. So you know, we are going to go out there and do well again, and you know, just make sure we have a good chance coming into the last five or six holes and see what happens.”

Garcia is the only player in the field to post scores under par all three rounds this week.

In 2013 after yet another exasperating round, he reminded reporters that it wasn’t a secret that Augusta National wasn’t his “favorite place.”

At the 2009 Masters, Garcia said, referring to Augusta National: “I don’t like it, to tell you the truth. I don’t think it is fair. Even when it’s dry you still get mud balls in the middle of the fairway. It’s too much of a guessing game.”

Asked Saturday to describe his current relationship with his former nemesis, Garcia’s outlook was much more positive — not that it would have been hard, but he is truly in a better place, which has been attributed to his engagement in January to Angela Akins, a former Golf Channel reporter.

“It’s definitely improved,” said Garcia. “There’s no doubt about that. Nothing wrong with Augusta. I think that the main thing that has improved is the way I’m looking at it the last, probably, two or three years, and obviously this year.

“I think it’s the kind of place that if you are trying to fight against it, it’s going to beat you down. So you’ve just got to roll with it and realize that sometimes you’re going to get good breaks, like has happened to me a few times this week and sometimes you’re going to get not‑so‑good breaks. But at the end of the day, that’s part of the game.”

And just because I like his answer here, I’m throwing in this quote randomly:

I am a leaderboard looker or watcher, however you want to call it. Not like some of the guys that say that they don’t look at leaderboards, which I’m not sure I believe.

But I think that it’s not so much ‑‑ I mean, you’re trying to step on the gas at all times, because you’re trying to make as many birdies as you can to make sure you get ahead as much as possible. But you know, going into the last three or four holes, it definitely helps to know if you’re a couple ahead or a couple behind. You know, it might change a couple decisions here and there, but you still have to commit to everything you do no matter what the game plan is.

When a reporter brought up the 1999 PGA Championship — his first showdown and one-shot loss to Tiger Woods — and the moment all engrained in our memories where then-19-year-old Garcia ran up the fairway to see where his shot had ended up, and asked him for his reflections, Garcia said, laughing, “I was very skinny and very young.”

Though admitting age and weight gain may have curbed his jump height, he believes he can still run as fast nearly 18 years later. And here’s hoping Sergio can do what has eluded him time after time again, close out and win his first major championship. Now that’s something I think the majority of fans would love to see. At least 41%, according to a poll I conducted on Twitter. He’s the clear favorite out of the four options given and nearly 900 votes cast at the moment, with Rickie Fowler in second with 30% of the vote.


 

Real quick on Spieth because my brain (and all those pools and bets) says he’ll prevail. And he had some great lines in his presser, not to mention the conversation he had with his caddie Michael Greller before he uncharacteristically went for the green in two — which almost wen from the pine straw to the right of the fairway.

[Aside:Speaking of which, I very much enjoyed the lack of commentary on the live streams of Amen Corner, 15 and 16, along with the Featured Groups (I think?), allowing viewers to eavesdrop on the conversations between the players and caddies, particularly since Spieth and Phil Mickelson, who were paired together, are by far the most well-known and most intimate (I don’t know if that’s the right word, but you know what I mean) relationships with their caddies. I can’t think of another player-caddie tandem that talks out strategy as much as those two, which is always interesting to hear and gain insight into their thought process. So, thank you, announcers, for learning that less (from them) is more value for the viewers. (Finally…at least this week has been the most obvious IMO, but I know it’s gotten better for a while now; I just remember when I first started “studying” golf and religiously watching every second of the telecast that this was not the case7-8 years ago.)]

When asked about this amazing clip in his presser:

Q. There was that moment on 13, audio picked you up, you said, “What would Arnie do?”
JORDAN SPIETH: I’m glad it picked that up.

Q. That’s something you guys have been saying throughout the week. Is that the first time that’s come up?
JORDAN SPIETH: No, I think Mike was taken back. He was very much pressing for a lay‑up there, and laying up was the smart shot. I had 228 to the hole. I couldn’t see the green, given where the tree was located. I’m right‑handed. I could see the right edge on the tower, but my ball ‑‑ the actual shot wasn’t blocked. It was just about committing to what you can see and what you actually know is there.
And so he liked the lay‑up. I’ve made birdie at that pin, I think, the last two years by laying up down the left side and hitting a wedge in there, and I feel like I’ve done a lot of course knowledge to know where to lay up and how to hit that pitch in there. So it actually, even though it’s a hard shot to that pin, it’s the most difficult pin on the hole.
I had confidence in the lay‑up situation, but I had a great number. I had a 4‑iron number. It was going to cover if I struck it solid, and I just had to turn it off the tower. And if I overturned it, it would just be in that swale and I figured I would get it out of the swale to the same proximity that I would hit the wedge shot.
So all that went through my head. And I thought, in order to win this golf tournament ‑‑ I hit my favorite shot I’ve ever hit in competition in my life on that hole going for it when we had that decision in 2015. And so there’s good vibes. I just, you know, “What would Arnie do” was my way of expressing it to Michael, which we all know exactly what he would have done. And I’m proud that I pulled that shot off and it led to a 4, 3 and a half, almost a 3.

Other quotes that stood out to me in his presser:

Last part of the question, it’s hard to be more resilient than we were last year after No. 12. That was by far the most resilient I’ve ever been on a golf course in my life.
As to being 10 off the lead, the advantage to being 10 off the lead this year versus other years was one guy was four strokes ahead of everybody else. If Charley was going to go off the second round and continue on, there wasn’t going to be much that anybody could do. That’s kind of what we did in 2015 from the get‑go.
And once that second ‑‑ I knew that as we were playing another windy day, that anything under par goes a long way up the leaderboard. I was cut line after the first round, and I knew that. And I also figured that given the way this course is playing, given the conditions that were forecasted, we’re probably looking at something in the single digits as a winning score. So I knew if I could work my way somehow back to close to par in that second round, I know that I can shoot, you know ‑‑ I know that I can shoot 10‑under over two rounds because we’ve done it before. It’s very difficult to do.
But yesterday’s round was huge, and it was bigger than today’s in my opinion, because it gave me that chance. I went to bed with my heart pumping faster last night because of yesterday’s round than I probably will tonight, because I already knew ‑‑ I already knew I had a chance and we did what we needed to do today. And now obviously we just need one more day of it and probably a couple breaks to go our way.

*

“After the first round, I couldn’t ask for much better than this. You know, we fought back tremendously to have a chance to win this golf tournament, and no matter what happens at the end, we will have a chance to win with a really good round tomorrow.

So new experience for me, coming from behind on Sunday at the Masters, which is kind of fun to say. We have a great history here. Really, really enjoy playing this golf course, enjoy the imagination that’s necessary.

Tomorrow might free me up a bit, being behind. I plan to play aggressive because at this point, it’s win or go home. So you pull off the shots and you make the putts, then you know, I want to give myself a chance for that to be enough. And if I don’t, then so be it. Finishing fifth versus tenth doesn’t mean much to me, so that frees me up a bit tomorrow.”

*

“We’ve played the major championships really well going back, you know, a few years, and to have another chance at another one and for it to be here for the fourth conservative time, it was pretty easy getting into contention the last few years, given my starts were better.”

*

“I would obviously like to be a bit more in contention at the beginning. But at this tournament, at a major championship, to know that I have to make birdies just to get into contention, and then to do it on a golf course that wasn’t yielding many yesterday, and today, it was still difficult, I’m extremely pleased with that.”

*

Q. How can your experiences leading this golf tournament help you for a comeback tomorrow?

JORDAN SPIETH: “I know that anything can happen (laughs). I know that, you know, when guys press out to a lead to obviously ‑‑ if somebody gets hot on the front nine tomorrow that’s not myself, to stay in there, stay patient, you just never know. It’s tough protecting a lead on this golf course, because it’s one where you need to play aggressive to win. And protecting the lead, you don’t want to play aggressive.

“So I know that; if I am able to jump out into the lead, I know that you have to keep the gas pedal down and pretend you’re not. And I know that if you fall behind, to stay patient and just recognize that ‑‑ I mean, Rosey just shot 5‑under on the back nine, right? That’s something that you can do out here, given the opportunities that we have on these par 5s, these reachable par 5s.
“After 10 and 11, if you hit the right shots, you have a pretty good birdie opportunity on the Sunday pins on just about every single hole.
So staying patient tomorrow.”

*

Q. It’s pretty obvious, guys like Phil and Bubba, what elements of their game work so well here. What do you think it is about your game that has meshed so perfectly with this golf course?

JORDAN SPIETH: “I’m not sure. I mean, I guess the golf course was Tiger‑proofed at one point. You can’t really Jordan‑proof it. I don’t overpower it. I don’t hit ‑‑ my fairways hit is 55 percent. That’s not very good. These are very wide fairways.

“So to answer your question, I would say, first of all, hitting greens in regulation, I thought we’ve done a great job of ‑‑ especially yesterday in the conditions, I hit maybe 15 of them.

“It’s just been positioning: playing the golf course the way that it’s supposed to be played to where par could be your worst score, giving myself short par putts. So it’s really just kind of thinking around it and using a bit of experience.”

Saved the best for last. On Thursday evening, I kicked myself for switching out Rory for Spieth in the WUP Masters Pool, because I decided to go with my brain instead of heart. Someone made a bet with me in January (I think? Or was it after Riviera? I’m not sure, but it’s been a while) that Dustin Johnson would win the Masters. I responded by saying I’d take Spieth every time over DJ. I was a bit concerned after he missed the cut in Houston, but his comments following were reassuring and felt like it was more important to him to get to Augusta National earlier than playing the weekend.


Finally, check out the standings in the WUP Masters Pool heading into the final round. Can anyone say MOVING DAY??? I’m pretty pleased with my line-ups surge up the leaderboard. Fingers crossed for more of the same Sunday. It’s actually a good thing if I finish in the top 3 than anyone else because than fourth place will receive a prize.

By the way, I forgot to tell you guys this yesterday, but i’ve secured another prize for one of the winners of the Pool and most generous donors: The latest Cobra-Puma driver. (I’m assuming whichever Rickie Fowler is playing with.) Just to cover my butt, my friend and contact there said it was all good and then back-tracked kind of and said she had to check on Monday. I said that was fine and I’d just throw her under the bus and pass along her name and email and encourage everyone to spam her if she didn’t come through. Seems only fair, right??!?

Alright, good night and good luck. I need some sleep after what I’d qualify as “naps” not actual “sleep” since the tourney started. Looking forward to Masters Sunday! I’m going to try and do a late-morning/early-afternoon simultaneous Facebook Live and Periscope, depending on how I sleep and if I get the rest needed. Oh wait, I think I actually have brunch plans for a change. We’ll see. As I warned earlier in the week, I’m winging things. Living life on the edge!