Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Masters Finale

Chaos is not a term typically synonymous with Augusta National, but that is exactly what was happening on Sunday afternoon at The Masters. I heard a patron ask why The National doesn’t have electric scoreboards and hand held TV’s like other golf majors. The answer is simple. The Masters doesn’t want to and it doesn’t don’t need to.
For those that have never experienced a final round at The Masters let me paint you a picture. Manual scoreboards with slots that open like little windows house the hole by hole under par scores for each player on the leaderboards. The windows open in groups of three and when that happens there is a collective inhale across Augusta National. When the new total is posted there is a roar or a groan.
On Sunday the roars came in abundance.  The groans, while few, were just as telling. The largest roar was not caused by a lion, but from a Tiger who snatched up an eagle on Hole 8. That same Tiger had devoured a whole flock of birdies in the two hours leading up to his arrival at the par-5 eigth. This Tiger’s presence, who some had said had been missing,  was now felt all over Augusta National. 
From my rules post on the 10th green I could experience the final round through my ears. Like claps of thunder, there were constant eruptions all over golf’s most hallowed grounds. You knew where the leaders were and the roars predictably told where the birdies and eagles were being made. Really, you didn’t have to see the action, the roars told the story.
There was one particular groan I didn’t need to hear.  “The groan” wasn’t something you just heard, you felt it. And for me, sitting near the 10th green, I saw it as well. Rory McIlroy, the 21 year old Irishman who had been leading or co-leading for three and a half rounds, made a fateful triple bogey on the opening hole of the back nine in route to an inward 43. I watched the window open on the leaderboard, saw his 11 go to an 8 and waited to hear the groans from the crowds in front and behind my post. Each groan felt made my heart sink little more for the kid. I can only imagine how he felt.
As McIlroy was making his 7 on Hole 10, that same Tiger that had produced so many roars earlier was supposedly on the prowl back in Amen Corner. But the silence told the story. A three-putt bogey at Hole 12 and a pedestrian par at Hole 13 crippled the Tiger in his quest for another Green Jacket.  If the roars and groans can tell a story, so can the quiet disappointment of fans.
 But the story was still getting told and still getting better. A slew of other players who would grab a share of the lead at some point, seven others in fact. I started to run the logistics of a eight, nine, ten-man playoff.  It was mind-boggling.
But alas, a little known South African named Charl Schwartzel emerged from the chaos. All he did was birdie the final four holes laying claim to the 2011 Masters. No player had ever birdied the last four holes to win a major golf championship. Great nerves, clutch shots and a world of talent can produce some incredible golf. I look forward to seeing Mr. Schwartzel at more tournaments including our PGA Championship outside of Atlanta and of course, at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.
Was this the greatest Masters ever? That is debatable. I would argue that if Tiger had won, especially in a four-birdies-to-finish fashion, we would say that this year’s Masters was the greatest of all time. But it was Charl Scwartzel who emerged from the pack. How he plays the rest of his career may determine how great a Masters this was. If he were to go on and win multiple majors, people will look back on this tournament as a defining moment in golf. But regardless, no one can deny that this was one of the most chaotic, intense and dramatic Masters - with more eagles, birdies and roar producing shots - than Augusta has seen in a long time.
It wasn’t that long ago when some pundits thought that the course was too penal, that scoring conditions had muted those famous roars.  You won’t hear those voices any more, at least, not for a long time.  This year’s weather conditions helped the tournament staff to control moisture levels allowing the greens to be responsive to high shots. The edges around most water hazards had longer grass, which held up many shots from going into the water and actually gave players fluffy lies, which made recovering a possibility.  Our friends at Augusta National knew the type of tournament they wanted, and boy did they ever get it.
But, in the end it was the players who still had to hit the shots, make the putt, to produce the roars. And they did. Forget McIlroy’s final nine holes, let’s remember his sterling play in the first 63. That momentum opened the door for the likes of Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, two Masters’ rookies who produced some fireworks of their own. It’s not a coincidence that these three were playing partners on Thursday and Friday – and all played outstanding golf.
These young studs strolled the sacred grounds with no fear, lots of confidence and gave us a peek into the future. All three talked about the inspiration that they had gained as kids watching Tiger win the 1997 Masters by a double digit margin. McIlroy was 7 years old; Day was 9 years old and Fowler was 11 years old when Tiger lapped the field 14 years ago. And we should not forget Schwartzel who was the elder statesman of 12 years old at the time!
So, just how significant was the 2011 Masters? We know that Tiger can produce plenty of roars, but now there are the young lions who beckon the roars also! It’s a shame we have to wait another year for another Masters. And who knows if we’ll ever get another one as exciting as this one.

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