There is so much to like about Masters Week, especially for people in our neck of the woods. We have been longing to see our yards change colors, and seeing the sea of green grass, so perfectly coifed at Augusta, makes viewing the event enchanting.
We tune in to see the premises. The images of the white sand bunkers, the azaleas and dogwoods in full bloom - everything in nature in perfect harmony - are indelibly etched in our minds. Some day all of this will reach our little corner of the globe. Well, all right, not quite everything, but at the very least we can expect green grass. Actually the rain has greened things up nicely here, if we can only get the precipitation to stop long enough to be able to go outdoors and enjoy it.
You do have to marvel at what is Augusta National. One of the greatest golf venues in the world, the course is so beautiful it almost makes the game secondary. Almost, I said. As beautiful as it is, we all sit in front of the TV to watch the game of golf, played by the best golfers on the planet. One cannot simply say he is going to play in the Masters. You must qualify for the event. It is a restricted field that includes the top professionals, as well as the best amateurs in the world.
The viewing begins Wednesday at Augusta. One of the traditions, that is indeed like no other, is the Par 3 Tournament. This event has only been on television for the last couple of years, though it has been a part of Masters Week for a long time. It is a treat for golf fans to tune in and watch this fun, family oriented outing.
Recently the most prominent pairing for this event is the threesome of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Though their best days of golf are behind them, fans my age still love watching them exhibit charisma that many of today's young players would be wise to emulate. Sometimes a shot brings back memories. Last year Arnie drained a 40-foot putt that brought out a fist pump to the delight of the throngs assembled, and a smile to me as I watched at home.
The Par 3 Tournament brings the children of the golfers to the fore, as they are dressed in the white caddy uniforms unique to Augusta. Many of the kids seem more intent on watching a turtle along the edge of a pond than following dad's performance, but that's part of the beauty of the day. Where else can you see a professional golfer apologize for making a hole-in-one? Jim Furyk did just that as he aced the ninth and final hole of the tournament a year ago.
You see, Furyk had promised his little girl that she could putt out on the last hole as many of the young ones get to do. When his tee shot spun back and into the cup, the crowd cheered. The grief-stricken Furyk went to comfort his youngster as she realized her opportunity had been taken away. Only at Augusta, folks.
Luke Donald won this year's Par 3 Tourney, and that is exactly what he didn't want to do. No Par 3 winner has ever won the Masters in the same year, though as Donald pointed out after shooting 5-under par for the nine holes, "Someone will sooner or later, why not this year."
The weather for the whole tournament was perfect, and the golf scores seemed to reflect that. Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, one of the young guns at age 21, was as flawless as the hallowed grounds, taking a four-shot lead into Sunday's final round. At 12-under par he seemed to have a lock on the tournament, but strange things can and do happen at Augusta on Sunday.
The Masters is much more interesting when at least two or three players have a chance to win with the tournament on the line. With McIlroy threatening to run away with the title, many golf fans were wondering if it would be worth watching. An old adage suggests the tournament "begins" with the back nine on Sunday. This year that was not the case, and it had nothing to do with a runaway leader.
One of the thrills of watching the Masters is hearing the yells of the gallery Sunday. Someone did a great job with the acoustics at Augusta, because as you watch on TV you can hear the reaction of fans from several holes away from the one you are viewing. The cheers tend to become more vocal as the field hits the back nine. This year the thrills and thus the noise level began early.
Who was responsible for the uproar? Well, that would be none other than Tiger Woods. Many people view Tiger in a much different way these days with the documentation of his off-the-course lifestyle, but golf fans still want to see great golf and no one has provided more highlights in the last decade as Tiger. On Sunday he started his charge early. When he eagled the eighth he went to 5 under for the day and with McIlroy playing at 1-over par for the front nine, Tiger suddenly was in the hunt and the Augusta faithful let everyone know it.
By the time the last group made the turn no fewer than ten golfers were in contention to win and I was glued to the TV.
One golfer dropped out of the chase early on the back nine and believe it or not it was McIlroy. He ended up shooting a very "me-like" 80 for the day. Now stop laughing. I know I could shoot 80 at Augusta. I suppose they would make me play the last six holes though, once I reached that score. Don't feel too bad for young Mr. McIlroy. He has game and will be back. Mark my words.
As for who was going to win, that was very much in doubt. The leaderboard included golfers from all over the world. Bo Van Pelt joined Tiger as the only Americans with a chance. K.J. Choi from Korea was poised to charge, as was former winner Angel Cabrera from Argentina. Three Australians were bidding to become the first Masters champ from down under. Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott and 23-year-old Jason Day (another member of golf's brat pack) alternately surged and then fell back. England's Donald was in the mix. Perhaps his "someone" speech would be prophetic.
Great golf shots I couldn't hit were followed by stinkers that, well, I could. Player after player would get a key birdie only to give the stroke back on the next hole. It was great drama, however, and we watched with fascination. Tiger supporters were disappointed as he ran out of gas on the back nine. He finished in a tie for fourth with Donald and Ogilvy.
Scott stuck his iron shot on the par-3 16th to a foot. His birdie gave him a two-shot lead on the field, and the tournament seemed to be over. Then something happened that no one could have predicted. Charl Schwartzel from South Africa had an improbable birdie on the first hole Sunday by holing a chip shot from some 80 feet away. He followed that up with a fairway iron into the cup for an eagle two a couple of holes later. Despite those efforts he was standing on the 15th green when Scott made his birdie and found himself two shots down.
Schwartzel then birdied 15. Then he birdied 16. He then birdied 17 to take the lead. All he needed to win was a two-putt from 20 feet on the 18th. Instead, he drains the birdie to cap off an incredible final four holes. You just don't do that at Augusta, but he did and he now owns a green jacket of his own.
So the 2011 Masters is in the books, and it will go down as one of the greatest of all time. I enjoyed it, but I do have one regret. The weather was beautiful here on that Sunday. Temperature nearing 80 and it was dry. I spent about 20 minutes outside that day because I didn't want to miss any golf action.
I'm thinking true golf fans will understand.
Al Stephenson is The A-T golf columnist.
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