Early monday morning, hours after he had stolen the 73rd Masters, broken the heart of all of Kentucky, dusted Tiger and Phil, avenged an embarrassed countryman's epic screwup and cemented his own legend, Angel Cabrera was whooping it up at a rented house in a stately Augusta neighborhood. Two dozen people had turned up for the party friends, players, caddies, friends of friends. Already a futbol chant had rung out in the night: "Ole, ole, ole, ole, Pa-to, Pa-to!" Cabrera's nickname has long been El Pato, the Duck. For the final round, Cabrera had worn his trademark Sunday yellow shirt, which turned out to match quite nicely with a green jacket. Now, holding court at his party, the Argentine was barefoot, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.
Cabrera's appetites are like his drives prodigious. Earlier in the evening a quaint Masters tradition had compelled him to eat a champion's dinner with the Augusta National members. Eschewing the lobster macaroni and cheese and other delicacies from the buffet, Cabrera settled on an irresistible item called the Tiger Woods Cheeseburger. The burgers were smaller than expected, so a famished Cabrera ate nine of them, washed down by gulps of red wine. Back at the house, as it neared 2 a.m., he took lusty sips of his favorite drink: Coke mixed with Fernet Branca, a bitter, aromatic spirit brewed from grapes and more than 40 herbs and spices. Suddenly a song broke out, to the tune of Happy Birthday: "Saco verde to you/Saco verde to you." Saco verde, of course, means green jacket. At the song's end Cabrera disappeared into a bedroom and then emerged wearing a huge smile and the prized blazer, size 46 regular. Everybody screamed, and the party raged on.
Cabrera's victory owed much to his brio. The closing holes of the final round were so taut, "you couldn't hardly spit," said Fred Sanders, caddie to Kenny Perry, and yet Cabrera seemed to be the only one on the course who was having fun, playing to the crowd with fist pumps and offering playful high fives to his playing partner, Perry, who didn't quite know what to make of the gesture. Before Cabrera took it away, this was supposed to be Perry's Masters, but the soft-spoken Kentuckian wanted it too much. Perry is a bighearted country boy, and he was desperate to win for his ailing mom, his hometown of Franklin (pop. 8,079), the raucous galleries that had embraced him and the loving family that had helped him unwind every night with games of cards and H-O-R-S-E. A back-nine birdie binge had put Perry two strokes up with two holes to play, but the immensity of the opportunity overwhelmed him. He skulled a chip on the 17th hole to make bogey only his fifth bogey of the week and his first since the 12th hole on Saturday and then played three messy shots at 18, ultimately leaving himself what every little boy dreams about until he grows up and has to face it: a 15-foot par putt to win the Masters. Behind the green, Perry's wife, Sandy, his sweetheart since the eighth grade, gathered with their three kids. Back home, the congregation at the Franklin Church of Christ was holding its evening Easter service, and more than a few prayers were muttered for a man who never fails to worship there when he's in town. Over at Country Creek Golf Course, on Kenny Perry Drive, dozens of regulars had gathered for the telecast. Perry's 85-year-old father, Ken, still picks up the balls on the Country Creek range most every day in denim overalls, but he elected to watch TV at home with his wife, who has been waging a long battle with cancer. With so much resting on one putt, it's no wonder Perry's ball couldn't get to the hole. The fight went out of him right then and there, even though Perry had a chance for redemption in the playoff. "It didn't seem like new life," said Sanders. "He seemed a little flat."
Cabrera, a powerfully built former caddie from Cordoba, is one of the heaviest hitters in the game, but he's a big man with soft hands. He further broke Perry's spirit with a spectacular par save on the first extra hole, Augusta National's 18th. After hitting his drive into the woods on the right, Cabrera got a lucky bounce when his desperate second shot ricocheted off a tree into the fairway. Cabrera then spun a wedge from 114 yards to within six feet and poured in the putt. (Chad Campbell, a taciturn Texan, was eliminated from the playoff when he missed a short par putt on the low side after finding the right bunker with his approach.) On the second playoff hole, the par-4 10th, Perry's second shot missed wide left, and Cabrera closed him out with a textbook par.
Perry, 48, had been bidding to become the oldest winner of a major, but after the crushing loss he seemed resigned to the fate of never winning the big one. His only other chance came at the 1996 PGA Championship, played in front of the home folks in Kentucky, but he made a mess of the first playoff hole in a loss to Mark Brooks that still haunts him. "Great players make it happen, and your average players don't," Perry said on Sunday night. "That's the way it is. That's why they are where they are, and we're all down here."
Cabrera's triumph elevated him into rarefied air. He's now one of only 14 players to have won both the Masters and the U.S. Open. He slipped on the green jacket 41 years after countryman Roberto de Vicenzo was denied a chance at a playoff at the Masters because he signed an incorrect scorecard, leading to his immortal statement, "What a stupid I am." Asked if his victory would ease the lingering sting of that gaffe for his country, Cabrera said, "This win, to take back to Argentina, it's going to help a lot."
Cabrera, 39, is halfway to the career Grand Slam, and he may just be getting started. Mickey Wright, the LPGA Hall of Famer known for the purity of her swing and her knowledge of others', once put Cabrera on her list of the game's five best alltime ball strikers. Cabrera's action was self-taught during spirited money games among the other caddies at Cordoba Country Club, where Cabrera began looping after he dropped out of school at age 10. He grew into a ball basher who viewed putting as an inconvenience, and his hasty work on the greens betrayed a belief that it was best to get the unpleasant act over with as soon as possible. Cabrera's putting has improved over the last two years as he experimented with long putters he's the first player to win a major with a belly putter, though he uses it unconventionally, without anchoring it to his stomach and committed to more practice and a consistent routine on the greens that includes spending more time examining his putts. He passed the ultimate test by draining a series of crucial putts on Masters Sunday, including a must-make 15-footer for birdie on the 16th hole after Perry had stiffed his tee shot to within a foot. "He has willed himself to become a good putter," says Charlie Epps, the Houston-based instructor who began working with Cabrera in 2007. There can be no doubting Cabrera's resolve. At the '07 U.S. Open at Oakmont, in which he nipped Tiger by a stroke, Cabrera was introduced to the world as a man of few words and many cigarettes, a living embodiment of the gauchos who populate Argentine folklore. Shortly after his U.S. Open win Cabrera quit smoking cold turkey, and it's saying something that he survived Augusta National's greens without a relapse. (Arnold Palmer never won another major after he quit smoking in the late 1960s.)