How Can It Get Any Better?
Photo by Michael Holahan
The Masters just keeps getting better and the 2010 tournament has to rank among the best. All week long the enthusiastic galleries were treated to great weather and dramatic golf. The roars of the galleries harkened back to the eras of Nicklaus and Palmer when the shattering suddenness of the cheers startled even those who were a part of it—and they echoed from around the course as great players kept making great shots.
Both youth and experience were served—50-year-old Fred Couples led the first round with 60-year-old Tom Watson one behind. In the same tournament 16-year-old M. Manassero of Italy became the youngest to ever play in the Masters, while finishing in a tie for 36th, and the only amateur to make the cut.
In the end it was the riverboat gambler, Phil Mickelson, who donned his third green jacket, finishing at minus-16, just two shots off the all-time Masters record. Then in the moment of the week, he greets his wife Amy on the 18th green with a kiss and a long hug. It was the first time she had been with him on the course since her breast cancer diagnosis the year before.The Masters does that—inspires the best. And that makes us all anticipate the thrills of the 2011 tournament.
Masters week greeted visitors from around the world as if the city was experiencing a yellow snowstorm. Thick pine pollen rained down on everything everywhere. It was a waste of time to wash your car or anything else the first few days.
At the tournament practice rounds, patrons were stunned as waves of pollen swirled on the breeze. But aside from that, the weather was perfect, with highs in the mid-80s.
Of course, almost the only golf news story starting the week—though not actually about golf—was the return of Tiger Woods. Woods had been absent from competitive golf for nearly five months of turmoil, therapy and rehabilitation after scandalous revelations about his personal life. He hadn’t played since winning the JBWere Masters in Melbourne, Australia, the previous November and speculation about whether he’d play the Masters was a preoccupation beyond the golf world almost up to the day of the tournament.
But he did return to the game at the most sheltered place possible—the Masters, where the membership of Augusta National Golf Club exerts far more control over the media and the madness than other regular PGA Tour stops ever could. And it was here that he had played some of the best golf of his extraordinary career, winning four times, and only here could he expect to find some shelter from the storm.
In practice rounds and in a contrite Monday news conference, he seemed to be a new Tiger Woods—signing autographs, laughing on the course, even skipping balls across the pond at No. 16 with friends Fred Couples and Jim Furyk. But could any golfer, even one of the greatest of all time, bring his game back in top form in a major championship after such a long and tempestuous layoff? It seems everybody had an opinion and everybody, including Woods, was going to have to wait until play started to find out.
The jaw dropper at the start of the week was the reveal of the new practice facility, built in 51 weeks where the main parking lot had stood for decades. Over the past several years the club was reportedly buying up properties in an adjacent residential neighborhood and in 2009 it announced that it would soon move tournament parking across the street from the course.
In an impressive demonstration of Masters clout, Monday morning revealed acres of green grass that constituted an enormous complimentary parking area, which made room for construction of the new practice facility. Just as impressive to longtime patrons, the practice facility looked just like three more holes of the course. Amazing.
There is nothing like it anywhere. To paraphrase Chairman Billy Payne at his annual news conference: That’s the way we like to do things at the Augusta National and the Masters, better than any other place in the world.
The 2009 Champion, Angel Cabrera, made great friends at the annual Tuesday night champions’ dinner serving asado, the traditional beef barbecue of his native Argentina. Another early highlight came when Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver gave 1970 Masters Champion Billy Casper the keys to the city at the annual Mayor’s Masters Reception.
What little talk there was about golf included speculation about Phil Mickelson’s flagging game, the English invasion of eight great players led by Lee Westwood and 1976 Champion Ray Floyd’s announcement that this was to be his last Masters. South African Louis Oosthuizen kept the curse alive by winning Wednesday’s family day at the Par 3 Tournament and not winning the actual tournament—although he did win the British Open three months later.
As if ordained by the golf gods, rain came Wednesday night, washing away the pollen and softening what had been Augusta National’s trademark brutally hard and fast greens and fairways. Scores would be manageable on Thursday.
In so many ways the 2010 Masters Tournament was one for the ages and all day Thursday it remained one for the aging. A combination that patrons had been dreaming of for years came to fruition when the giants of the game, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, took the first tee at 7:40 a.m. as the tournament’s ceremonial starters. In one of the many feel-good moments of the week, the two golf greats obviously enjoyed their roles as Masters icons. Owning 10 green jackets between them, the pair joked and laughed and, mercifully for both of them, hit those drives right down the middle of the first fairway.
symbols of past Masters.
And the Masters was on.
Windy, but warm enough and with some overnight rain and accessible pin placements, the best golfers in the world put on a birdie barrage all day long.
At day’s end it was two veteran players in the field atop a dazzling leaderboard. Fred Couples, 50, the champion here 18 years ago, shot his best-ever 6-under 66 to take the lead. Right behind him, the legendary Tom Watson, 60 (champion here 29 and 33 years ago), was tied at 67 with another two-time champion, Phil Mickelson, along with highly ranked Lee Westwood of England and Koreans K.J. Choi and the reigning PGA Champion Y.E. Yang.
Watson did not have a bogey all day and needed just 10 putts on the back nine. Couples came out with birdies on the first two holes, made bogey at 5 and birdie at 8 before running off birdies at 12, 13, 15 and 17, appearing as calm as if he were out for a spring stroll.
Choi was paired with Tiger Woods and Matt Kuchar amid speculation that both players would suffer from the circus around Woods’s return to the game. But Choi stood one better than Woods who shot a solid 68 and Kuchar came in with a fine round of 70. At one point Choi birdied four holes in a row and Woods went 5-under on the par-5s with eagles on No. 8 and No. 15 and a birdie on No. 13 that dropped halfway into the hole for what would have been a third eagle before lipping out. Tied with Woods, two shots behind Couples, were more stars of the game—Anthony Kim, Ricky Barnes, Nick Watney and Englishman Ian Poulter.
If either Couples or Watson should win they would be the oldest player to win a major championship. After Watson had lost a playoff to Stuart Cink at the (British) Open Championship at Turnberry, Scotland, just nine months earlier at age 59, neither of their chances to win was dismissed.
Indeed, Couples, playing his first spring on the Champions Tour, had won three of his first four tournaments and was second in his other—to Tom Watson.
“It’s my favorite tournament,” said Couples after the round. “Sure, winning the Masters at 50 is a pipedream, but it’s a nice dream.”
Westwood had been involved in the drama at Turnberry, finishing one shot out of the playoff. Asked if he thought he could win from his 5-under start, he said matter-of-factly, “I can’t see any reason why not.”
From his position one-back on the leaderboard, Mickelson said, “It was a good day. I played well and the greens were receptive. My expectations are high.”
The nostalgia for our heroes of the past faded along with their pipe dreams. Couples shot 75 and Tom Watson shot 74, leaving them both at minus-3 and five strokes out of the lead at the halfway mark of the 2010 Masters Tournament. Friday’s leaders were a pair of well-established English stars, the flamboyant Ian Poulter after a 68, and the methodical and determined Lee Westwood, standing at a minus-8 69 at the end of the day.
Two strokes back were the game’s biggest stars, world number one Tiger Woods after shooting 70 and number three Phil Mickelson with a 71. Rising American stars Ricky Barnes and Anthony Kim also stood at minus-6 after shooting a pair of 70s with Woods’s playing partner, Korean K.J. Choi, at 71.
The last Englishman to win the Masters came with Nick Faldo’s victory over Greg Norman in 1996, a few months before Tiger Woods turned professional. Although neither Poulter nor Westwood has a major championship, they were certainly deserving of respect for their places on the leaderboard standing at number seven and number four in the World Rankings, respectively. Poulter had won his first tournament in America at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February and has nine wins on the European Tour.
The last two Masters had gone to international players, South African Trevor Immelman in 2008 and Argentine Angel Cabrera in 2009.
Poulter had the lead when he reached minus-9 for the tournament and minus-5 for the round with a roaring birdie on No. 16, before taking bogey on the 18th. “Just a bit of a shame to bogey the last,” said Poulter.
Westwood actually reached minus-10 when he toured the front nine in 32, including an eagle at No. 2, before taking double-bogey at No. 14. “It’s the only thing missing in my career, winning a major championship,” said Westwood after his round. “I’ve come close over the years—three third-place finishes in the last two years. It would be nice to finish it off.”
Making his comeback after a five-month hiatus from the game, Woods told the media after his round, “It feels good. As of right now, I’m only two back. It feels good to be back and in contention.” Woods hit a shot for the ages Friday on No. 17. After a terrible slice that left him in the 15th fairway with a stand of pine trees between his ball and the hole, he hit a towering iron shot that gracefully drew over the trees to pin high, just right of the green. Unfortunately, a somewhat loose chip left him a par putt he wasn’t able to make. But golf fans who saw that iron shot walked away shaking their heads at his mastery.
Mickelson’s two-bogie, three-birdie second round might have seemed like a quiet day for him, but he was very pleased to be tied for third, two shots back, going into the weekend.
He hit 10 of 14 fairways, pretty good for Lefty, and for a second straight day needed just 24 putts. “It feels great,” he told the media. “There’s nothing like being in contention on the weekend at Augusta National. There’s no better feeling in the game.
“I’ve rolled the ball as well as I have in a long time,” Mickelson continued, his confidence evident. “The balls are tracking and as soon as a couple of the 12 and 15 footers start going in the hole rather than catching the lips, I think I’m going to have a really low round.”
Since nearly everyone who tees it up at the Masters is a star in the game of golf, the cut after the second round always sends home some who were favorites less than 48 hour earlier. Not qualifying for the weekend in 2010 were three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland, reigning (British) Open Champion and Georgia Tech grad, Stewart Cink, prominent British players Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and former champion Vijay Singh. The 1988 Champion Sandy Lyle, who had added to the buzz about the resurgence of the veterans in the field when he shot 69 on Thursday, came back Friday with the highest score of the week, an 86, and missed the cut by eight strokes
If the roars had returned to Augusta during Angel Cabrera’s thrilling victory over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell in 2009—the patrons turned it up a couple of notches in 2010 and Saturday was as electrifying as Sunday.
Three of the world’s top-four ranked players streaked their way to the top of the leaderboard led by Lee Westwood, (68) at minus-12, one shot ahead of Phil Mickelson (67). Tied for third, four strokes behind Westwood at minus-8, were Tiger Woods and K.J. Choi after both shot 70 and would be paired again on Sunday for the fourth time.
Fred Couples (68) got back in the game at minus-7, sitting in fifth place, five shots out of the lead. Six shots back and tied for sixth were Hunter Mahan (68), Ricky Barnes (72) and second round co-leader Ian Poulter (74).
Several other low scores emerged on a perfect spring afternoon filled with flowers, high fashion in the galleries and fabulous golf. Jerry Kelly threw in a fine 67. Steve Marino, Geoff Ogilvy and last year’s champion, Cabrera, each posted roar-provoking 69s, while seven other players shot under par.
Among the first leaders out Saturday, Fred Couples made birdie on No. 1 and No. 2 as the winds died down and was just three strokes back.
The air was electrified as Woods made birdie at No. 1 and No. 3, the latter with a putt from 35 feet and six feet of break. With Poulter in the trees and Westwood in the left rough on No. 1, a huge roar came up the hill as Mickelson made birdie at the must-birdie No. 2 and then struck for birdie again at No. 3.
Westwood struck early with a brilliant shot from the rough and sunk a 15-foot birdie putt while the colorful Poulter made a great up-and-down par. It was minus-9 Westwood, minus-8 Poulter, Mickelson and Woods at minus-8.
Forty-five minutes into the showdown and the pines were already rockin’ with roars. Ramping up the volume, Steve Marino birdied five of his first 10 holes in what was now a warm and windless day, ideal for scoring. Jerry Kelly was already in the clubhouse at minus-3 with a 67 and Hunter Mahan made three birdies on the front nine.
Couples made birdie at No. 8. After dropping shots at No. 5 and No. 6, Poulter made birdies at No. 7 and No. 8 and Westwood, with birdies at No. 1, No. 4 and No. 8, reached minus-11 to pull three strokes clear of the pack.
The gap widened as both Mickelson and Woods made bogey at No. 10 where Westwood dropped yet another birdie putt.
That’s when Mickelson landed a one-two-three-punch combination that took over the lead and, looking back, the tournament. He reached the par-5 No. 13 in two strokes and made the eagle putt that startled even those who were part of it with the volume and suddenness of the roar from his gallery. Within 15 minutes, there was another startling roar from No. 14. Mickelson had sunk one from 139-yards out on the fairway for a most improbable second eagle in a row.
Playing in the group ahead, Couples chipped in for eagle at No. 15 and now he was just two back at minus-8 as Westwood’s bogey from the bunker on No. 12 was posted.
Now tied, Mickelson had to lay up from behind the trees on No. 15, but he missed a third eagle in a row by inches with his 90-yard chip and took the lead with a tap-in birdie, picking up six strokes on the leader and passing him in three holes.
The lead flipped once more as Westwood made birdie at No. 15 and Mickelson bogied No. 17.With one stroke separating them, Westwood and Mickelson would take the measure of each other in the last group on Sunday at the Masters.
After such thrilling play on Saturday, the patrons walked through the gates in perfect weather, certain of a great Sunday at the Masters.
Walking out, those same patrons couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of the top feel-good days of all time. Great sport, the most popular of victors and a love story played out for all to see.
The leaders didn’t do much leading on the front nine.
Overnight leader Lee Westwood dropped into a tie with Phil Mickelson with a bogey on No. 1. He posted two more bogeys and two birdies for a front-nine, one-over 37. Mickelson posted eight pars and a birdie at No. 8 that gave him a one-stroke lead going into the fabled back nine on Sunday in Augusta.
Woods made a lot of noise early, both cheers and groans. He bogied three of his first five and then started an eagle-birdie-birdie run at No. 7 through No. 9 when his fairway shot found the hole for a 2 on the par-4. That put him at minus-9 and three back of Mickelson.
Woods’s playing partner for the fourth day in a row, K.J. Choi, got everyone’s attention with a 3-under 33 on the front that had him at minus-11 and one stroke back. He got to 12-under, briefly catching Mickelson, with a birdie on No. 10. But bogeys at No. 13 and No. 14 left him at minus-11 for the tournament and eventually in a tie for fourth with Woods.
Anthony Kim and Nick Watney shot the best rounds of the tournament with 65s. Kim shot a brilliant back-nine 31, where he sandwiched birdies on No. 13, No. 14 and No. 16 around an eagle on No. 15. Kim finished third and Watney earned a seventh-place finish.
Fred Couples got the galleries cheering with a 3-under front nine to get within two of Mickelson at the turn, but a bogey-double bogey snap at No. 11 and No. 12 cost him a final-round 70 and a sixth-place finish.
Woods shook roars out of the galleries with his birdie on No. 13 and eagle on No. 15, but bogeys on No. 11 and No. 14 made his final-hole birdie a bit anti-climatic and he finished five behind, tied with his playing partner for fourth.
With all due respect to the supporting cast, the day was always about the two-man duel between the oh-so-steady Westwood and “Phil the Thrill” Mickelson. The back nine determined which of those techniques would prevail today, punctuated with one of the most thrilling shots in Masters lore.
The pairing began the back nine with Mickelson up by one. Despite pull-hooks into the trees on No. 9, No. 10 and No. 11, and seemingly playing with an out-of-control driver, Mickelson called on his unmatched short game to produce brilliant pars each time.
Then the master started to take command.
Mickelson gave a determined fist pump when his 15-foot birdie putt dropped on the treacherous No. 12. He then powered a drive on No. 13, but it went through the fairway into the majestic long-leaf pines at the top of the curve on the dogleg par-5. With a two-shot lead, surely Mickelson would punch out and try to make his birdie with his brilliant wedge play.
“I would have had to hit it between those trees whether I’m laying up or going for it,” said the smiling “Lefty” to the media when the day was done and he was wearing his third green jacket.
Off the pine straw and through the trees, Mickelson ripped a six-iron shot over Rae’s Creek and onto the green, settling within four feet of the pin. That one daring shot was already an icon of the Masters, a tournament that has produced more brilliantly dramatic shots than any other. He missed the eagle putt, but tapped in for birdie and a two-stroke lead after Westwood also made birdie.
Dominating the par-5s, Mickelson played No. 13 and No. 15 in a combined 9-under par over the eight times he played them for the week. On Sunday he narrowly missed another eagle at No. 15 and, when Westwood failed to make birdie, Mickelson’s tap-in gave him a three-shot lead with three to play.
After a six-foot par putt by Mickelson and a birdie by Westwood at No. 17, the lead was cut to two strokes with just one to play. But Mickelson took any drama out of the last by hitting to 12 feet from the cup and sinking the birdie putt. With a broad satisfied smile and another fist pump, Mickelson walked off the green with a three-stroke victory.
As Mickelson stepped out of the scoring tent at the back of the 18th green, his wife Amy, watching her husband play for the first time in a year since her breast cancer diagnosis, greeted him with a kiss that brought yet another cheer from the adoring gallery.
“To have her here and share this moment and to share the joy of winning on 18th and with our kids is something we’ll look back on the rest of our lives,” said Mickelson to the media later. “I don’t normally shed tears over wins, but when Amy and I hugged off 18, that was a very emotional moment for us. This has been a very special week.”
A week that began with one of the giants of the game answering questions about his infidelity ended with another great champion celebrating his third Masters victory in the embrace of his beloved.
What a wonderful week in Augusta.