Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 8, 2012

Louis Makes History, But Bubba Wears The Green Jacket

When he broke his long victory drought with a win two weeks ago at Bay Hill, Tiger Woods immediately became the odds makers’ favorite for the Masters. Many bettors looking for an alternative choice were drawn to Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who routed the field at last year’s U.S. Open and was impressive down the stretch in winning the Honda Open last month. But a potential showdown between the dominant golfer of the past fifteen years and the young star who many believe will rule the game for the next generation never materialized. Woods was never a factor, failing to break par in all four rounds. His five over par finish was his worst result at Augusta as a professional. McIlroy seemed well positioned just one off the pace at the tournament’s midpoint, but an ugly 42 that included three sixes on the front nine in the third round ended his hopes for a first green jacket.

But if the marquee matchup never materialized, that didn’t mean that the first men’s major of the golf season was lacking in drama. At one point or another on Saturday afternoon, eight different golfers had a share of the lead. By the time third round play finished, Sweden’s Peter Hanson had fired a then tournament-best round of 65 to take the lead at minus-9. Just one stroke back was three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, whose third round 66 included a back nine of just 30 strokes. One shot further adrift was South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, followed by Bubba Watson at minus-6, Matt Kuchar at minus-5, and a host of golfers at 4-under. The stage was set for Sunday at the Masters.

Having never started the final round of a major in the lead, it was not surprising that Hanson was the first to stumble. An opening bogey was followed by another at the third. Still at 7-under par he was still in the hunt when he stunned the crowd by shanking his tee shot at the par-3 12th hole, coming up short of Rae’s Creek. That led to another bogey that ended his dream of victory.

If Hanson’s early stumbles were predictable, the next two moments of high drama on the front nine were utterly unexpected. Standing in the fairway of the par-5 2nd hole, Oosthuizen had a 4-iron in his hand and 253 yards to the flag. His perfectly struck shot landed just in front of the putting surface, bounced once onto the green and then started rolling. The second green pitches steeply from front to back and from left to right. With the flag tucked on the far right portion of the green, Oosthuizen’s ball followed the green’s contours, rolling back and then turning sharply right down the slope. Moments later it found the bottom of the cup for a double-eagle two. It was the first double-eagle on the 2nd hole in seventy-six Masters, and propelled the South African from third place at 7-under to the outright lead at minus-10. It was a position he would hold alone for the next three hours.

A few minutes after Oosthuizen’s heroics, Mickelson stood on the tee of the par-3 4th hole. His tee shot sailed far to the left of the green, coming to rest in some bushes near the grandstand. He had the choice of taking a penalty and going back to the tee to hit his third shot; or of taking an unplayable lie penalty and dropping within two club lengths of his ball’s position. He chose not to do the former, and there was no place where the latter would give him room for a backswing. So he turned an iron over and tried to hack his ball out of the bushes by swinging right-handed. On his first attempt the ball moved barely two feet, still in the bushes. On his second it squirted out onto hardpan trampled down by days of walking spectators. From there he hit a flop shot that failed to clear a greenside bunker. Able to get up and down from the sand at last, Mickelson had triple-bogeyed one of the easiest holes on the golf course. It was his single worst hole in a major since he imploded on the final hole at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

Mickelson would work hard to recover, especially on the back nine. But eagle chances at the two back nine par-5’s turned into birdies instead. Others also made runs, including Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar. But in the end the battle for this year’s Masters came down to Oosthuizen and the man who had been an eye-witness to the South African’s 2nd hole miracle, his fellow competitor Bubba Watson.

Four behind after the double-eagle, the popular and long-hitting American was still two back after he bogeyed the 12th hole. Between the 2nd and the 12th Watson had played even par golf, with a birdie on the 5th offsetting the blemish on the 12th; but Oosthuizen had fallen from minus-10 to minus-8 with bogeys on the 4th and 10th. Oosthuizen birdied both of the par-5’s coming in, but Watson went on a tear, following his miscue on the 12th with four consecutive birdies. When his short birdie putt on the par-3 16th fell into the hole, both players were at 10-under par. Watson had the better chances on the final two holes, but both finished with a pair of pars to force a playoff.

After matching pars on the 18th, the first playoff hole, both drove poorly on the 10th. From far back in the rough Oosthuizen’s second came up short of the green, leaving him with an impossible pitch. He sent his third well past the hole; and after making countless pressure putts throughout his round, his stroke for par slid just past the hole. From deep in the woods Watson hit an incredible wedge, an intentional snap-hook that landed safely on the green within birdie range. After Oosthuizen’s par miss, Watson had two putts for his first major championship. When the second one fell in, the emotional self-taught professional who has never taken a single golf lesson dissolved into tears.

When Louis Oosthuizen won the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews he was largely unknown outside of his native South Africa. But in his homeland he was recognized as a great talent with a bright future. When he seemed to disappear after his major win, some discounted it as a fluke. But in fact he spent much of that time recovering from ligament damage to his ankle. But with a win earlier this season on the European Tour (his fourth overall) and his performance this week, it looks like Oosthuizen is finally healthy again and ready to join the burgeoning ranks of outstanding international golfers.

For Bubba Watson, a first major championship will only add to his already enormous popularity with the fans. His performance down the stretch also bodes well for his increasing maturity on the course. In the past Watson has struggled in final rounds and with short putts; by his own admission letting his adrenaline get the better of him. But with his steely comeback down the stretch on this Sunday at Augusta he proved that he is finally more than just a big hitter with a willingness and ability to pull off what amount to occasional trick shots; he is at last becoming a golfer in full.

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