Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 10, 2022

Woods Wins The Attention; Scheffler Wins The Masters

For a tournament scheduled to last 72 holes over four days on one of golf’s most iconic stages, this year’s Masters time in the spotlight was very, very brief.  The first men’s major of the year was initially subsumed by the Tiger Woods Invitational, which was limited to a field of one and began Tuesday afternoon.  That was when Woods, after two nine hole practice rounds to test, 14 months after a car accident that could have taken his life and came close to costing him his right leg, whether that reconstructed leg could withstand the rigors of walking the extremely hilly Augusta National layout, told the media, “as of right now, I feel like I am going to play.”

Like every golfer who has won a green jacket, Woods, who has five, will always be invited to the Masters and is free to tee it up in the competition for as long as he wants, or at least until club officials quietly suggest that perhaps it’s time to spend the day in the clubhouse, as they have reportedly done on occasion to an aging former champion.  Because the tournament is an invitational, past winners who opt to play, even when they are no longer competitive, don’t deprive some deserving young PGA Tour member of a spot.  They simply increase the size of the field for the first two rounds before the 36-hole cut.   

But if Woods’s decision reflected fierce determination, passion for the game, and an extremely high tolerance for pain, it also displayed no shortage of hubris.  For anyone doubting that element, Woods responded to the inevitable question of whether he believed he could win with “I do,” adding for emphasis that he wouldn’t “show up to an event unless I think I can win it.” 

By the time Woods limped off Augusta’s 18th green Sunday afternoon, the extent to which he had conflated self-belief with arrogance was sadly evident.  His opening round score of 1-under par 71 was his best effort, with each succeeding day producing more tortured play as his scores climbed, none of which mattered to the fans and sportswriters who cheered his every swing.  After Friday’s 74 ensured he would advance to the weekend, one story breathlessly reported that he trailed “only 18 golfers!”  That the writer penned those words with a straight face, sincere in the belief that a stirring weekend charge was possible, is just the latest of countless cases over Woods’s career of journalistic objectivity lost to the mindless fantasies of overt fandom.

Instead, Augusta’s hills exacted their inevitable toll, with Woods returning a pair of 78s on the weekend.  His 13-over total was his worst ever at the Masters, and the golfer who trailed “only 18!” at the tournament’s midpoint finished ahead of just five others out of the fifty-two who made the cut.  Yet he remained the center of attention until that final painful walk up the hill to the clubhouse.  That will again be true when he next tees it up.  While that date is not yet certain, Woods did commit to playing the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews in July.  Should he skip the PGA and U.S. Open, he’ll have three more months to rehabilitate his injuries and build up his strength and will find a venue that is like walking across a tabletop compared to rolling Augusta National.

Even at age 46, and with this tournament having made plain that whatever he may think, Woods is not yet capable of winning, he will remain the fawning focus whenever and wherever he does play.  But the hagiography also reflects a generational issue among both fans and reporters.  Younger members of both groups take pleasure in taunting the tendency of their elders to resist change while lamenting the loss of a gauzy past, criticisms that are usually justified.  But the arrogance of youth also leads many of those same writers and fans to the misplaced belief that no event of major significance could have occurred or singularly great athlete have performed prior to their own lifetime. 

Woods dramatically raised the image of his sport, thanks both to his own skill and singular style on the golf course and the exponential increase in the ways and speed in which information travels.  By doing so, he brought the finances of professional golf to new heights, benefiting every one of his fellow Tour members.  But the same could be said, and was six decades ago, about Arnold Palmer, with television taking the role that the internet has in this century.  Even if the Masters exposed how far he has to go to meet his own standards, that Woods could return to play at all after his horrific car crash is awe-inspiring.  Just as was Ben Hogan’s return to competition under eerily similar circumstances in the middle of the last century.  Hogan won six majors after his horrific car crash while driving home to Texas from the 1949 Phoenix Open.  While that number is a stretch – Hogan was ten years younger than Woods is now – the fact that he returned to the winner’s circle in his game’s most important events should cheer the legions of Woods fans.

With the putative comeback turned survival test over, the actual golf tournament being played at Augusta National finally became the center of attention, just as it was about to effectively conclude.  Newly minted world number one Scottie Scheffler began the final round three shots clear of playing partner Cameron Smith.  The two have been the hottest golfers on the planet this year, with Scheffler racing up the world rankings thanks to three wins in 2022, and Smith not far behind with a pair of victories including the Players Championship.  Smith began the tournament in better form with an opening 68, but that included a double-bogey at the last that seemed to stick with the Australian through a 2-over par 74 in the second round.  Scheffler started with a 69, then improved that number by two strokes on Friday to enter the weekend with a big five shot lead.  In cold and windy conditions Saturday, Smith rebounded with another 68, enough to put himself into Sunday’s final pairing, albeit three adrift of Scheffler after the leader posted a third-round 71.

Smith quickly closed the gap with a pair of opening birdies Sunday afternoon, but gave those shots back just as quickly with bogeys on the 3rd and 4th holes.  Scheffler’s lead was up to four shots at the turn, about the time Woods was exiting the stage and fans were recalling that there was a major championship going on.  A short time later, when Smith rolled in an exceedingly rare birdie putt on the treacherous par-4 11th, he was back to the starting deficit with most of the often dramatic back nine still to play.

Whether it was a gust of wind, uncertainty over club selection, or the psychic pressure of millions of fans suddenly focused on the tournament itself we’ll never know, but on the 12th tee Smith executed his worst swing of the Masters, sending a weak push high and right.  He knew as soon as he hit it the ball never had a chance of clearing Rae’s Creek, much less reaching the green.  When after his drop Smith put his third shot well right of the putting surface, eventually scratching his way to a triple-bogey while Scheffler was scrambling to a par, the 2022 Masters was effectively over.

The final twosome still had holes to play, as did the pairings still on the course in front of them.  CBS’s Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo still had commentary to offer, and surely the network and Augusta National wanted Mercedes, AT&T and IBM to have their full complement of commercials run.  Rory McIlroy, still searching for the green jacket that will complete his career Grand Slam, filled much of the remaining time with scorching play.  After beginning the final round ten shots back, McIlroy had already turned in 4-under and chipped in for another birdie at the 10th.  He added a perfect mid-iron second shot from the 13th fairway to set up an eagle.  After dramatic par saves at the 14th and 17th, his first two shots at the last left him in the broad white bunker that frames the right side of Augusta’s 18th green.  From there McIlroy hit what would have been the shot of the tournament, had he won.  The ball splashed onto the top of the green, caught the slope and started rolling down the hill, steadily curling as it went.  Down, down, down, turn, turn, turn, until with one final roll and one last turn it disappeared into the hole for a birdie and 64.

Yet even with that excitement, Scheffler was able to weather an embarrassing four-putt double bogey on the same hole and still finish three clear of McIlroy.  This Masters had been 25-year-old Scottie Scheffler’s since Cam Smith’s unfortunate dalliance with Rae’s Creek back on the 12th hole.  One thinks it’s not likely to be Scheffler’s last major victory.  Maybe next time, he’ll get the attention he deserves, from start to finish.

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