A Masters to Be Remembered
AUGUSTA, Ga. - The tales are about the azaleas and the green jacket and the difficulty in purchasing tickets. But what makes the Masters the Masters is the golf.
It's wide open, and wild scoring. It's golf the way the NBA plays basketball, dramatic and entertaining, where the best - Charl Schwartzel's historic four closing birdies Sunday - and the worst - Rory McIlroy's awful collapse - are as close as the next shot.
It's not golf for the faint of heart. On the fairways or along gallery ropes. It's golf on a bold, challenging course, Augusta National, where an eagle is as likely as a double bogey.
Or in the case of the star-crossed McIlroy, a triple bogey.
Schwartzel, a man you're probably unfamiliar with but will be soon, won the 2011 Masters on an afternoon that offered all the excitement available, lead swings, mood swings and an enjoyable tease by Tiger Woods.
An unpretentious 26-year-old from South Africa, a nation that also provided 2010 British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen, Schwartzel showed what is possible. Tiger perhaps showed what might again be possible.
McIlroy, the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, showed what can befall any golfer. At almost any time.
Schwartzel took the lead with that unprecedented stretch of birdies on 15, 16 17 and then, in the rays of a setting sun, 18. And with a final round of 6-under-par 66 and a 72-hole total of 14-under 274 took the Masters by two strokes over Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott.
Took the Masters that Sunday morning seemed clasped firmly by McIlroy.
In golf, unique in sports, you don't always keep what you've gained. The Yankees get three runs in the first, the Red Sox have to score three runs to tie. Or if the Lakers are 10 ahead of the Bulls, then the Bulls need 10 points.
But in golf, the guy in front can give away that lead without the people behind him doing anything. So even though McIlroy, the great new hope in the game, had a four-shot advantage going into Sunday, and even though only three times in the previous 74 Masters had someone with a four-shot lead the final day not won, he wasn't that secure.
And when he hit a ball so far off line on the 10th hole it was almost in the next county and took a triple-bogey 7, followed that with a bogey and on 12 posted a four-putt double bogey, he wasn't even on the leaderboard.
Swings. With a club. In the standings. Woods began the fourth round seven shots behind McIlroy and ended it six shots in front of him. And even though Woods tied for fourth, one understood why golfers always insist nothing is certain.
Except if you shoot 80 in the last round, as did McIlroy, who had only three bogeys through 54 holes, you're not going to win.
"I just sort of unraveled,'' said McIlroy.
The Masters, however, did not unravel. It stayed tightly woven, with Woods briefly in front, Scott briefly in front and at last Schwartzel ultimately in front.
"Golf is a funny game,'' said Schwartzel, a lean 5-foot-10, 146 pounds. "One moment you're on top, and the next minute it bites you. Rory is such a phenomenal player. He'll win one."
Tiger has won four Masters and 71 PGA Tour tournaments. But since his return to the game exactly a year ago, after his disclosures of infidelities and subsequent rehabilitation, he hasn't won at all.
This Masters was an indication that Woods' skills have not eroded. A 31 on the front nine Sunday was one shot off the record. The Masters was an indication he's the golfer he used to be and never may be again, now unable to play well in consecutive rounds or hole the critical putts he did before.
"I could have been,'' he mused about missed putts and missed chances, "but we say that every week. I was right there in the thick of it. This weekend I hit it good. It was a nice feeling."
Woods, Bo Van Pelt and Ryan Palmer were the only Americans in the top 10, and with Steve Stricker the only ones in the top 14. The last four majors have been won by, in order, a Northern Irishman (Graeme McDowell, U.S. Open), South African (Oosthuizen, British), German (Martin Kaymer, PGA Championship) and South African (Schwartzel, this Masters).
Maybe that shouldn't matter as much as how they were played.
The 2011 Masters was played the way a tournament should be played, with plenty of memorable shotmaking and the winner not determined until the final nine holes.
Charl Schwartzel will remember this Masters. Rory McIlroy will remember this Masters. They will not be alone.