When the Masters started, it was supposed to be a three man race. The top of the field was so clearly delineated by Tiger, Rory and Phil that imagining a different outcome was difficult. If last year’s tournament was a wide-open sprint at the finish, this year’s was going to be a four-day heavyweight battle. Golf rarely plays to a script, though, and over the last three years the history books are dotted with far more first time winners than repeat major champions. By Saturday afternoon, Mickelson was the only favorite still with a chance to win the tournament and he became the overwhelming favorite. When Peter Hanson bogeyed the first hole, you expected Phil would never relinquish the lead, but then Louis Oosthuizen holed out from 260 yards and the tournament was dumped on its head.
Oosthuizen’s incredible shot not only vaulted him into the lead, it removed the sense of inevitability that was forming early Sunday afternoon. Phil Mickelson was coming off a back nine 30 on Saturday, Peter Hanson didn’t appear up to the task of holding the lead, so without Oosthuizen’s shot a challenger hadn’t announced himself. When Louis vaulted to 10-under, though, I think it breathed life into the whole field. OK, we’re not just waiting around to hand Phil another green jacket.
The other definitive shot was Mickelson’s errant and unlucky grandstand missile on the fourth. So often the crowd and grandstands bail out guys on Tour, but this time it was a violent bounce that sent Mickelson into an unplayable situation and set him up for a triple bogey. It threw Mickelson five shots behind Oosthuizen and from that point on, the entire field was in a race to get to 10-under–the number Oosthuizen hit on the 2nd hole. The affable and unflappable Oosthuizen who when he is on (an every other year occurrence apparently) is very difficult to beat played a conservative brand of golf over the last 16 holes that allowed some others to make a run.
Matt Kuchar was around, Lee Westwood’s rally ended at 8-under par, Phil couldn’t summon a back nine eagle to kick-start his charge and that left Bubba Watson as Oosthuizen’s only competition. To his credit, Watson waited for the right time to push, starting the run on the par-5 13th and running off four straight birdies after a bogey on 12. Oosthuizen and Watson setup the playoff and closed the door on the rest of the field with pressure packed pars on the 17th and 18th holes.
Oosthuizen nailed a testy five footer to get into the playoff and then looked to have it won on the 1st playoff hole, but his putt impossibly slid by the edge. They moved onto the 10th, a hole that has an uncanny ability to settle playoffs. Bubba drove first into the right trees, opening the door for Oosthuizen, but he couldn’t take advantage and followed Bubba to the right trees. When you saw Oosthuizen’s ball had come back into play and Bubba was buried at the end of a pine straw corridor, the prospects for Watson became bleak once again. Oosthuizen was well back, though, and couldn’t make the green with his second. It set up what might become the most famous hook in Masters history.
Watson, known for his ability to shape the ball and curve it enormous distances took advantage of a space in the pines to snap hook his second onto the green. Without the benefit of an overhead camera shot, it was hard to envision exactly how much Watson had curved his second, but the way the ball reacted on the green proved that Watson had given it every ounce of hook he had. I imagine the shot had to fluster Oosthuizen a bit, or at least deflate him. His 3rd ran well past the hole and when his par putt scorched the edge again, Bubba’s win became a mere formality.
The only thing left were Bubba’s signature tears as he remains, along with Steve Stricker, one of the most emotional winners on Tour whether he captures a Major or the Hartford Open. The win appeared to be incredibly popular with the Masters galleries, and Oosthuizen was gracious in defeat. The tournament started as a three man race, ended in a two man playoff, but as always provided the proper drama.
For closing thoughts, the question is the same we’ve faced many times over the last couple of years–how is Bubba going to follow up his Major? The same has been asked of Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Kaymer, Bradley and McIlroy. When these guys are on top form it looks like they’ll easily win four or five majors. Especially Kaymer and McIlroy, who at different times have been crowned as the next big thing, but to this point winning a 2nd major has proven to be an incredibly difficult task for all of them. The depth of these fields is remarkable and it’s contributing to the variety of winners we’ve gotten, but you also have to wonder if some sense of complacency and relief comes with that first major.
As disappointing a week as it was for Tiger Woods, I think it may have been even more so for Rory McIlroy. Tiger never threatened. He was off his game all week, and while this is a setback, he didn’t waste a chance to win. McIlroy did. Rory’s rise up the leaderboard on Friday felt significant. Especially with Jason Dufner and Fred Couples on top, you could argue that McIlroy held the true lead heading into the weekend, but by the time the coverage started on Saturday, Rory had already gone up in a puff of smoke and double bogeys. Paired with Sergio, the two tried to out-ugly each other and they both quickly ended their chances of wearing the green jacket. McIlroy seemed at ease with his fate after the round on Saturday, shrugging off his implosion as no big deal. And, it might not be, but the longer Rory goes without picking up a Masters or validating his tremendous hype the more difficult things are likely to get. I imagine we’ll eventually see the end of jovial McIlroy after weekend 76s at Majors.
Moving forward, I have a feeling that by the time the US Open rolls around in June, we’ll be back to focusing on Tiger, Phil and Rory. And then when the play starts at Olympic we’ll get comfortable with a whole new cast of contenders one of whom will probably emerge to win their 1st Major.