At the risk of waking up at 4 a.m. with the ghost of Bobby Jones hovering over my bed, wielding a sand wedge and humming the Masters theme song in the most creepy way possible, I have something to declare:
This was my favorite Masters ever. Bar none. If pressed, I would call it A Masters Unlike Any Other.
It became clear that the 2013 version of golf’s most glorious tournament had a shot at G.O.A.T. status on Thursday, when 14-year-old Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan — the youngest male to even play at a major since Young Tom Morris in 1865 — holed out a snake of a putt on 18 to finish with a remarkable 73 as Ben Crenshaw looked on. That was special. But special alone isn’t enough. After special, things need to get weird. And it got weird on Friday, when the Augusta rules people assessed Guan a one-stroke penalty for slow play on the 17th hole, when the group behind him hadn’t even begun the 16th hole.
Oh, and it got weirder. The Tiger Drop. A Decision Unlike Any Other, to quote a Twitter genius or two.
But special and weird alone aren’t enough. It needed a great finish, complete with minor chokes, total meltdowns, more Tiger, revenge, clutch shots, and a playoff. And we got it all.
So let’s go at this thing retro diary style, starting at 6:04 p.m Sunday. The DVR is fired up, I got myself a Coca-Cola and some water, and we’re ready to relive the magic.
6:04 p.m.: It’s raining in Augusta. That’s something I forgot to mention earlier, but it’s important. We all know Augusta National is a beautiful golf course with pristine landscapes and blooming azaleas and ponds filled with indigo1 or blue Kool-Aid or something. It’s part of the mystique, but the problem with the mystique is that it’s force-fed. It can become sort of cloying and awful, even if you acknowledge that the Masters really is special.
But the rain? It changed the view. It made Augusta look like an honest-to-god golf course, rather than some sort of 365-acre antebellum nostalgia museum. The rain made it darker, took away the sparkle, and gave it that same grim sense of man vs. the elements that always makes the British Open so compelling.
Maybe it was that even Augusta — which doesn’t bend to modernity or progressive behavior or capitalism or anything, really — still must bend to nature.
6:06 p.m.: CBS has just shown a montage of Jason Day’s excellent bunker play that carried him to -9 on the day, two shots ahead of Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera. He’s been excellent under pressure all week, minus a hiccup at the tail end of Saturday’s round, and he’s been bold and exciting, too. The 25-year-old Aussie keeps doing things like going for the green on the par-5s from 250 yards out, or taking aggressive lines on long putts. He looks perfect, and I have to wonder: Has he mastered Mushin?
What’s Mushin? Oh, just a Japanese concept similar to being “in the zone,” currently being marketed by a company called Focus Band that teaches golfers and other athletes the art of concentration. For more detail, read what Day told a group of reporters at the Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, but the summary is that he practices with a machine attached to his hat, buttons extruding. The bleeps and bloops from a nearby computer indicate if he’s using the left side of his brain (bad) or right side (good). Yes, it sounds like an absurd invention from a bad sci-fi show or the brainchild of a 19th-century snake oil salesman. But look, Day is leading the Masters by two strokes, and he’s just birdied 13, 14, and 15 under intense pressure. So who are we to impugn Mushin?
But on 16, we see the first crack in the armor when Day’s tee shot on the par-3 flies over the back. And now, here’s Scott under a Titleist umbrella, staring at an eagle putt at 15. He comes up short, but it’s an easy birdie, and now he’s -8, just one shot back of Day … and now Day’s putt from the fringe isn’t great, and he misses the par, too, and suddenly the two Australians are tied at -8 and Day’s Mushin is rocked to the core.
6:09 p.m.: Here’s Tiger on 17 with a birdie putt to go to -6. As Peter Oosterhuis notes, he needs to finish birdie-birdie to even have a faint hope of making it into a playoff. So when the putt comes up short, it’s the death knell for the greatest golfer of our generation.
And I suppose that’s a good segue into what happened Friday. In situations like these, my least favorite people are the ones who say, “Well, I can see both sides.” That’s noble and all, but then again, neutrality is for the weak. And the Swiss. It’s our duty to get to the bottom of this mystery. And because it’s so serious, let’s take it to the sidebar. Look to your right … NOW!
6:10 p.m.: Brandt Snedeker just hit his second shot on 15 and came inches away from putting it in the water. He’s on his way to shooting a 75 after being tied for the lead coming into the day. And this should teach us an important lesson: Before a golfer with a bad track record of performance under pressure actually performs well under pressure, let’s just stop assuming he’s going to perform well under pressure. Because he probably won’t.
Snedeker collapsed in the 2008 Masters, shooting a final-round 77 after entering Sunday in second place. He gave away critical matches in the Ryder Cup in Chicago last fall, one of many who doomed the U.S. to a soul-shattering loss. There’s a lot of talk about how he’s an intense competitor who loves the big moment, but at age 32, the verdict is in: The nice guy from Tennessee can’t handle the spotlight. And that’s who he is, at least until he’s not.
But — foreshadowing — there’s hope. As we’ll see in about an hour, a choker can be redeemed.
6:16 p.m.: Nick Faldo: “Adam Scott’s really stepped it up … we’ve already seen it with Jason Day … this man’s got bravery. He’s got confidence and bravery, where Cabrera’s still going, doing his own thing. Angel is starting to lose his balance, he’s starting to force things. So it’s looking very much like the two Aussie boys will be fighting this out, maybe up 18, maybe in a playoff.”
Wait a second, Nick. Let me get this right. Did you just count out Angel Cabrera, a.k.a. EL PATO (“the duck”), in a major? OH MY, NICHOLAS. You will pay for this insolence … with your life.
Yikes. Got carried away there. But seriously, don’t sleep on El Pato.
6:19 p.m.: “The patrons are jeering the umbrellas!” says an announcer.
Trivia: Was this announcer British or American?
I love British announcers. Why isn’t Ian Darke doing the Masters?
6:22 p.m.: El Pato just hit his tee shot on the par-3 16th 25 feet away. Surely no man could sink such a lengthy putt under such pressure …
6:25 p.m.: … Unless he is not a man at all, but EL PATO! It’s down, baby. And now we’ve got three golfers at -8 with just two holes to play.
Here’s the thing about Cabrera: The man doesn’t contend at many majors, but when he does, he wins. Consider this: He has two victories on the PGA Tour in his career. What were those victories? The U.S. Open and the Masters. His only other tour wins — three of them — came on the European Tour before 2006.2
And coming into Sunday, I thought for sure he would win. I thought Snedeker would choke (correct), I thought Day would choke (mostly incorrect), and I thought Scott would be dealing with the demons from his ungodly meltdown at last year’s British Open, when he bogeyed the last four holes to throw away what looked like a sure victory to Ernie Els. I didn’t trust Marc Leishman and Tiger was too far off. Cabrera was my horse.
And at this point, I still thought El Pato would be the champ.
6:26 p.m.: Day misses his par putt after a bad iron on 17. He’s at -7 now, and needs a birdie on 18 to even have a chance. That’s two bogeys back-to-back, and now he’s on life support. But remember, 22 minutes ago, he was leading the Masters by two strokes with three holes to play. They say golf is cruel, but that doesn’t go far enough. Golf is a bastard.
6:30 p.m.: In case you missed it, no Australian has ever won a Masters title, and it’s become the story of the day for CBS. After Scott hits his iron on 17, they cut away to an interview with him about the possibility of becoming the first Aussie champ.
Well, I mean it would be an amazing little side note to just achieving a childhood dream of winning a major and winning the Masters. And if I become the first Australian to do so, it would be a nice little asterisk by my name, I think.
I love that answer. Here are those same words, with the polite filter removed: “Guess what? Golf is an individual sport, dudes. This isn’t the fucking Olympics. If I won the Masters, you know who it would be really awesome for? Me. Adam Scott. The guy who just won the Masters. And, like, yeah, Australia. Great. But seriously, hooray for Adam Scott, because he’s the non-symbolic actual human who just won the Masters. If he does.”
6:31 p.m.: Cabrera crushes his drive on 17, and here it’s worth noting that on the final five holes El Pato played, he either birdied or came seriously close to birdieing every single one. On Sunday. At Augusta.
6:34 p.m.: This is the part of the tournament where it feels like Cabrera or Scott could win the thing with a putt. Scott comes up inches short for his birdie on 17.
6:35 p.m.: Time for Tiger’s postround interview in the Butler Cabin. What always strikes me about Tiger when he trails at a major is the way he picks a specific number he needs to leapfrog the field and win. In this case, he thought he could take the whole thing by shooting a 65 and getting to -10 (he was right). But is that helpful? Don’t most athletes want to take the approach of just trying to get the best result in each moment, and letting the pieces fall where they may? Isn’t trying to analyze the “big picture” in the midst of competition the opposite of most sports psychology theory?
It’s worth noting that, in the 52 times when Tiger doesn’t have at least a share of the 54-hole lead at a major, he’s never won. When he does, and he only has to focus on playing a solid round and not shooting some specific score, he’s 14-1. Dude needs some Mushin, bad.
6:38 p.m.: Cabrera’s son is his caddy. Have not heard anyone refer to him as “El Patito.” Consider me the first.
6:40 p.m.: Variation on the “golf is a bastard” theme: Day just hit an iron on 18 that would’ve stopped about 4 feet from the flag if the green weren’t wet from the rain. Instead, it’s more than 20 feet, and he really, really needs that birdie.
6:41 p.m.: Steve Williams, by the way, is Scott’s caddie. He served as Tiger’s caddie for 12 years and most of his major victories, and it didn’t end well. Knowing how fiery Williams is, and how competitive, I think it’s pretty safe to say that reaching the major mountaintop before Tiger would be pretty satisfying.
6:42 p.m.: Cabrera misses his birdie putt on 17 by inches, and he looks stunned. Just like Scott’s putt from moments ago, it felt like that one could’ve won the whole shebang. Watching the replay, it’s hard to understand how it stayed out … the ball was coming left to right, tracking perfectly, and suddenly at the finish it just went straight. Without explanation. The ball never explained its motives. Did I mention that golf is a bastard?
6:44 p.m.: Day’s putt on 18 sails by. “Gotta have it,” says Jim Nantz, and he’s right. Day finishes at -7. He smiles, picks up his son Dash (my wife is really into that display of fatherhood … I’m screwed on the baby issue), and walks off, knowing that only a miracle will bring him back from the dead.
And that leaves Scott and Cabrera, both on 18, both at -8. Things are about to get great.
6:47 p.m.: Scott’s iron into the green is another like Day’s — if the conditions were dry, he’d be within 10 feet easily.
In Arizona this February, I saw Scott for a brief moment on the 17th hole. He was about to lose to Tim Clark, but he looked inscrutable. He reminded me of the “Come Together” lyric — “Got to be good looking / ‘Cause he’s so hard to see.” Tall, slim, aristocratic, handsome, and stoic. Which made it so shocking when he collapsed at the British Open last year. He looks like a fashion magazine’s idea of a golfer, and moments of weakness seem out of place. But it’s just that he’s so hard to see. This is the man who, at age 15, skipped school in 1996 to watch Greg Norman become the first Australian to win a green jacket. Except Norman didn’t win — he suffered a horrific meltdown, dropping a six-stroke lead and shooting a painful 78.
Which must have made for a strange feeling when Scott went through a similar experience at Royal Lytham & St Annes last summer. He handled it with class — “I learned a long time ago to look for positives,” he said afterward — but we had to wonder: Would this be a career-long plague, as it was with Norman? Would he ever recover?
6:48 p.m.: Cabrera, staring ahead, jaw set in his determined Sunday grimace, rips a drive down the right side of fairway. “He’s found his balance,” says Faldo. NOW YOU BEGIN TO SEE, NICHOLAS. NOW YOU KNOW EL PATO! NOW YOU ARE IN THE DUCK’S DEN!
6:52 p.m.: Scott stands over his 20-foot birdie putt on 18, the rain coming down harder than ever, and nails it. And as far as I was concerned, he had answered the choker question. It didn’t matter what happened afterward. Nobody plays like he has on the back nine at Augusta, making three birdies and hitting a putt like that, without iron guts.
And by the way, remember how he dismissed the Australian question in the interview? His reaction after hitting the putt was to pump both fists and shout, “Come on, Aussie!”
He’s at -9 now, and surely no man in the last group, who might be at -8, could ever birdie the 18 after that reaction. Surely no man could be capable of such an act …
6:56 p.m.: HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING? EL PATO IS NOT SOME ORDINARY “MAN.“
On the fairway, he just stares. He yells at someone to be quiet. He gets quiet himself. He takes his swing and walks after it. He barks out something in Spanish that sounds like “Cuac, Cuac!” Which is the Spanish version of “Quack, Quack,” if Google is to be believed. He seems optimistic, if intense. The ball lands. The ball bounces. The ball stops.
Three feet away from the hole.
El Pato, you unrepentant son of a gun.
In a second, he’ll hit the putt and hug his son. He and Scott will both be at -9 and headed to a playoff. And what’s so great about it, the duel that awaits us, is that you know someone is going to win the damn thing. This is not a tournament that will be lost with nerves or cowardice or caution. It’s the gamer against the man who just stopped being a choker.
So they go back to 18, and both hit booming drives down the fairway. Scott’s iron lands on the green, but starts trickling backward, ending on the fringe. When El Pato’s ball does the exact same thing, stopping maybe 2 feet away from Scott’s ball, there’s a sense that it’s going to take a legendary shot to separate the two. Just minutes ago, they made Masters history when they both birdied 18 to reach the playoff — never happened before — and now they seem cosmically tied at the hip, and you feel like this could go on for another 18 holes. And you hope it does. But then El Pato nearly sinks his chip, coming so close that he falls into his patented “agony pose,” where he leans back, mutters a few words to the gods, and just lets his mouth hang open in disbelief. He was that close, and he knows it. Both players are too good right now, and it won’t be long before somebody makes a shot.
Hole 10 is next, and again we see two good drives — Cabrera uses a long iron off the tee, which panics the announcers until it turns out to be the perfect choice — and two good approaches onto the green. We know El Pato will either sink his putt or miss by inches. He misses by inches. It’s the agony pose one more time, but now he adds a flip of the putter to the routine.
But he hasn’t lost. Adam Scott has to win.
And Adam Scott does.
7:52 p.m.: It’s natural, when you’re constantly being reminded about Augusta’s history and tradition, to become a little fatigued. There are moments when it loses its magic, when you have to become cynical so you don’t feel like some kind of credulous sheep-person. And just shy of 8 p.m., here we are at Butler Cabin again for more ceremony, with Bubba Watson, last year’s champ, holding the winner’s green jacket, and Scott politely answering all the questions, and you think, OK, we’ve seen all the good stuff. It all happened out in the rain.
And then the talking is over, and Scott stands, and before he has time to process what’s happening, Watson is draping the jacket over his shoulders. That’s when you see his face change. It turns out that the jacket itself, as a symbol, retains its power. You can make fun of the pretension, but you can’t make fun of the idea that this green coat was something Scott dreamed about while he played hooky in 1996 and his hero let him down. The moment when he’s finally wearing it comes on fast and clear, and what I gather, watching the scene from home, is that it really cuts through the shit. On Scott’s face, and in your head, the words Oh my god are all you can find.