Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 11, 2010

Phil the Thrill, Thrills

Augusta National Golf Club is almost unnaturally beautiful. That was literally true one year, when Spring came late to Georgia and the lords of The Masters golf tournament installed plastic azaleas at strategic spots for the benefit of the TV cameras. But even without synthetic aid, the fairways and putting surfaces are a shade of green that other golf courses can only dream of. The crushed marble in the bunkers is blindingly white. The towering pines sway in the breeze as if professionally choreographed. It is a High-Def course built three-quarters of a century before High-Def existed.

Having been there once, I can say that it is every bit as beautiful in person. About the only thing that TV viewers can’t fully appreciate are the dramatic changes in elevation.

Augusta National Golf Club is also sociologically unnatural. As one of the most exclusive private clubs in the world, it is a high-profile symbol of everything wrong about such exclusivity. Overwhelmingly white and entirely male, it remains a bastion of aging captains of industry. Augusta is a private club and The Masters is a private tournament. Eligibility is determined by the Augusta National leadership. CBS has broadcast the tournament since 1956, but always on an unending series of one-year contracts. Television analyst Gary McCord once famously used the term “bikini wax” to describe the slick greens and was promptly banished from the broadcast booth. The assembled fans are not fans at all but “patrons” and upon entry each is handed a pairing sheet that includes a list of rules that are strictly enforced.

The main story in the prelude to this year’s tournament was of course the return of Tiger Woods to competition after four and one-half months of self-imposed exile. But that was then, and the tournament is now.  Once play begins, any number of compelling story lines emerge.

Thursday is the day for improbable names at the top of the leaderboard. Fifty-year old Fred Couples seizes the lead with a six-under 66. Not to be outdone, sixty-year old Tom Watson, who thrilled us all for seventy-one and one-half holes at last year’s Open Championship, is just one back. Both will make the cut and while neither will win, Couples remains in the hunt until a three-putt bogey at the 11th is followed by a tee shot into Rae’s Creek at the 12th on Sunday.

Friday is international day, with Brits Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood surging into the lead at 8 under par. With South African Trevor Immelman and Argentinean Angel Cabrera winning the last two Masters, can a foreign-born player win for the third year in a row? Remarkably, given the always strong international presence at this tournament, that’s happened only once before, when Welshman Ian Woosnam won in 1991 following Englishman’s Nick Faldo’s back-to-back victories in 1989 and 1990.

Paired together in Saturday’s third round, Poulter falters a bit, but Westwood remains remarkably steady in pursuit of his first major championship. At the end of the day he has shot his third straight round in the 60’s and leads at minus-12. Meanwhile Phil Mickelson shoots his second 67 of the tournament. Those two rounds added to a 1-under 71 on Friday leave him at minus-11, and put him into the final pairing on Sunday at a major for the first time since the 2006 U.S. Open.

And so it is Sunday at The Masters. The two leaders plod along, Mickelson making seven consecutive pars to open, while Westwood matches two birdies with two bogeys and is also even for the day. But at this point the best rounds of the day are being shot by players well back in the pack. Among the closest pursuers only K. J. Choi is making a move, shooting 33 on the front nine to move to 11-under.

Finally Mickelson ties Westwood with a birdie at #8, and when he saves par after a poor drive at the 9th while Westwood three-putts for bogey, Phil makes the turn in sole possession of first place. And he immediately hits a horrendous hook on #10, a crucial error in a distinguished career of crucial errors in majors. Moments later Choi sinks a birdie putt on the tenth green to tie for the lead. Surely this is the turning point. But then Phil hits a low burner under the magnolia branches and down the hill to the front fringe. One magnificent chip to a foot later and he’s saved his par and his share of the lead.

On into Amen Corner they go. One year after a final round double-bogey five at #12, Mickelson hits 9-iron safely to the back of the green and then rolls in a 30 foot putt for birdie and sole possession of first place at 13 under par.

Meanwhile up ahead the next generation is demanding to be heard. Twenty-four year old Anthony Kim rolls in a putt for eagle on #15 and moves to 11 under. On the par-3 16th his iron comes to rest 25 feet below the hole, and suddenly the 24-year old is looking at a birdie putt to tie for the lead. Minutes later he makes that putt, but in the interval Mickelson has made the birdie on #12. Still, Kim has gone birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie to make up five strokes in four holes and move to just one back with two holes left in his round.

And then at #13 comes at last the defining moment of the 2010 Masters. Both Phil and Lee overcook their drives through the fairway and up into the trees. Westwood has no choice but to chip out down the fairway. But Phil The Thrill has other ideas. Peering through a narrow opening between two pine trees, he lashes a 6-iron at his Callaway golf ball. It rises off the pine straw and 207 yards later lands softly on the front of the green, rolling to a stop four feet from the hole. It’s the shot of the tournament; for most it would be the shot of a lifetime. A two-putt birdie ensues. With one incredible shot Mickelson, he of the goofy grin and incomparable shot-making ability, seizes control of the tournament.

As the shadows start to lengthen, Phil splits the fairway on the 15th. He lofts a seven iron second shot hole-high on the par five. When Westwood misses a five-footer for birdie, Mickelson’s two-putt birdie for 15-under gives him a three stroke lead with three holes to play. Thirty-five minutes later, it is done. Phil Mickelson wins his third Masters and fourth major championship. Behind the 18th green, he shares a long, long embrace with wife Amy who, like his mother, is in the midst of a fight with breast cancer.

Yes in the run-up to this tournament all of the talk was about Tiger Woods. To be sure, he was there and generally played well, finishing in a tie for fourth, five strokes behind Phil. And no doubt somewhere down the line the day will come when Tiger will break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. But we are just at the beginning of a necessarily lengthy process of learning whether Tiger’s pledge to change is genuine or not. He made that pledge not just about his personal behavior but also about his respect for the game and demeanor on the course. The former really isn’t any fan’s business. The latter, especially when it relates to the greatest player in the game, is the business of every fan. So for me at least, I think it’s just fine to be able to give a full accounting of all the action that made the 2010 Masters so exciting to watch, without once mentioning his name.

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