Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 10, 2011

In Augusta, Novus Ordo Seclorum

Through the first three warm and sunny days in Augusta, Georgia, the 75th Masters was all about the kids. Rory McIlroy, the 21-year old from Northern Ireland, took the first round lead with a 7-under par 65 on Thursday. He backed that up with a second round 69 and a third round 70 to remain in front after 36 and 54 holes.

McIlroy’s playing partner in the final twosome on Saturday was 23-year old Australian Jason Day, playing in his first Masters. McIlroy and Day had been paired together the first two rounds as well, along with 22-year old American Rickie Fowler, the 2010 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. After an opening round of even par, Day scorched the course on Friday, firing an 8-under 64. On Saturday Day reprised his opening round of 72, which meant that after 54 holes McIlroy at 12-under was four shots clear of the field, with four golfers tied at 8-under and two more at minus-7.

In addition to McIlroy and Day, those seven players within five shots of the lead also included 26-year old South African Charl Schwartzel, and Australian Adam Scott, who just recently turned 30. The only major championship winner in the group was 41-year old Angel Cabrera, the Argentinean who won the 2007 U.S. Open and 2009 Masters.

But the first three days at a major championship are one thing; Sunday is quite another. While much was made of the young guns’ assault on Augusta National through the first three rounds, the real question was how they would stand up under the pressure of a major championship Sunday. After the third round one newspaper story even went so far as to suggest that “Sunday will be for grown-ups.”

Leading a tournament from start to finish is surpassingly hard. Wire-to-wire winners are a very rare breed. That difficulty has to be increased by an order of magnitude at any of the four majors, and then redoubled again if the leader is someone seeking their first major championship. Sunday was not Rory McIlroy’s day. That was apparent from the start, when he bogeyed the first hole and managed only par at the relatively easy par-5 second, where he put his tee shot in the fairway bunker and watched as his second caught the lip of the trap and advanced only a few yards down the fairway. Still, McIlroy managed to make the turn at just one over for the round, still clinging to a one-shot lead.

That lead evaporated when he snap-hooked his drive on the difficult par-4 10th, the ball winding up far left of the fairway, between two of the cabins used by members when staying at the club. After punching his ball back to the fairway, McIlroy put his lengthy third shot well left of the green, where he remained after his fourth hit a tree limb. The eventual triple-bogey 7 knocked him out of the lead, and began a back nine which McIlroy would need 43 shots to navigate.

Even before McIlroy’s sad implosion, it looked very much like Sunday would mark the long-awaited and much-anticipated return to the winner’s circle for Tiger Woods. After opening with 71, Tiger moved into contention with a second round 66. But an indifferent 74 on Saturday, which included a number of missed putts and concluded with a bogey on #18, left him at 5-under, seven strokes off the lead.

But on Sunday the putts started to fall for Woods. He birdied the second and third holes, then bogeyed the fourth when his tee shot on the par-3 went to the wrong side of the green. Undeterred, he birdied six and seven, then hooked a brilliant second shot up the hill of the par-5 8th, the ball curling onto the green and stopping perhaps 8 feet below the hole. When the eagle putt fell in the hole Tiger was 5-under for the day and 10-under for the tournament. He had caught everyone who had started the day in front of him except for the struggling McIlroy. He was energized and fully engaged. Although it was not yet four o’clock and much golf remained, it would have been easy, perhaps even understandable, to conclude that the 75th Masters was effectively over.

Easy, understandable, and as it turned out, quite wrong. What no one could know as he stalked off the 8th green was that Tiger was done for the day. His electrifying play suddenly turned pedestrian. Over Augusta National’s back nine, where over the years he has had so many great moments, Woods was just even par. A three putt bogey on the 12th was offset by a two putt birdie on the 15th. The latter was itself a crushing disappointment, as he first missed a virtual kick-in eagle from less than four feet.

With McIlroy tumbling down the leader board and Woods stuck at minus-10, the tournament became a wildly entertaining free for all. Twice over the remainder of the afternoon there was a five-way tie for the lead. At one time or another nine different golfers had a legitimate shot at victory. In addition to Woods, K.J. Choi, Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald, Bo Van Pelt, Cabrera, Scott, Day and Schwartzel all could reasonably picture themselves slipping into a green jacket at day’s end.

In the end, Sunday was for the kids after all. While the 21-year old McIlroy may have stumbled, it was the three youngest of those nine contenders who wound up separating themselves from the pack.

Adam Scott was the first to do so. He and Day came to the par-4 14th among the traffic jam at 10-under. Both hit excellent approach shots inside of ten feet. Using his new long putter, Scott rolled in his birdie to take the lead. Two holes later, the Aussie’s tee shot on #16 came to rest just a foot below the hole. The ensuing birdie moved him to 12-under par.

A couple of hundred yards away, Schwartzel’s chip from just off the 15th green nearly fell in for eagle. The ensuing birdie, knocked in while Scott was making the walk from the 16th tee up to the green, gave the South African a temporary share of first place.

Day joined the party over the final two holes. At #17, while Scott drove wildly and had to scramble to save par, the 23-year old looked at length over a twenty-foot birdie opportunity. Finally he stepped up and rolled it into the heart of the cup to get to minus-11. Moments before he did so, Schwartzel’s fifteen footer on #16 was good for birdie and another tie for the lead with Scott.

Firing up the hill to the final green, Day hit a beautiful approach that finished just above the hole. He would finish birdie-birdie to tie his countryman at 12-under par. But on this Sunday 12-under would prove two shots short.

That’s because back out on the course, Charl Schwartzel was matching Day’s consecutive birdies and adding two more. In a marvelous display of putting, the South African birdied each of the final four holes to claim his first major. On #17 his approach from the right rough was just left of the hole, leaving an excellent opportunity which he wasted little time in seizing. On #18 his approach was twenty feet right of the hole. While he didn’t need to make it, as the ball rolled toward the cup it was never in doubt.

For Schwartzel, that final putt capped off a dream round which began with him holing a birdie chip from well off the first green and continued on #3 where his iron approach from the fairway bounced on the green and rolled into the cup for an eagle. For all of the young guns on the PGA Tour, the final hour of this year’s first major capped off a week in which they could fairly claim that for men’s golf, a new age has begun.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: