For all of his gifts, Cabrera's greatest strength may be a toughness that came from his hard-knock life. Cabrera was left by his parents at age three to live with his paternal grandmother, Pura Concepcion, in a tiny tin-roofed house on a dirt road at the edge of a garbage-strewn arroyo. He took on menial jobs to feed himself, and he survived on his wits and fists. In Cordoba there is an indigenous dance called the cuarteto, a lively, rhythmic step similar to the merengue. The cuarteto is a staple of the Cordoban social scene, and growing up, Cabrera forged quite a reputation at the dance halls. "He was always in the street fighting," says Rodolfo Monjes, a longtime caddie at Cordoba Country Club. "Usually over a girl." Three scars adorning Cabrera's face attest to his pugilistic past. No wonder, then, he wasn't the slightest bit intimidated when Woods and Phil Mickelson threw their best punches on Sunday.
The story of the first three rounds had been the return of the roars to golf's most symphonic stage as the lords of the Masters offered up more playable conditions than in recent years, nicely complementing the warm weather and mostly mild breezes. While Perry and Cabrera pushed the 54-hole lead to 11 under, Woods and Mickelson never quite got going, and both were stuck at four under through three rounds. Their matching scores gave golf fans everywhere the Sunday pairing they had been craving, even if Tiger and Phil were being sent off an hour ahead of the leaders. They hadn't tangled at a major since the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and hadn't been paired together when it really matters since the final round of the '01 Masters, both tournaments, it should be noted, won by Woods. Their complicated relationship has been analyzed in the kind of detail usually reserved for Lindsay and Sam, but for all the digs and slights through the years, even Tiger and Phil couldn't help but get into the spirit of their Sunday showdown.
"They both loved the pairing," said Mickelson's swing coach, Butch Harmon, who previously worked with Woods. "At lunch [on Sunday] in the champions' locker room they were needling each other like crazy."
Around Augusta, Tiger is revered but Phil is beloved, and Mickelson captivated the enormous crowds with a laserlike approach shot at the long par-4 5th hole. When he buried the putt (his third birdie in four holes), the crowd erupted and then bolted to the 6th tee. Tiger was left to putt a six-footer for par with a large part of the gallery having collectively turned its back on him. Woods finally showed some fight on the 570-yard 8th with two mighty blows to set up an eagle, but Mickelson answered with his sixth birdie in seven holes. After parring 9 from out of the trees where else? Mickelson stood within one of the lead, having tied the front-nine record with a six-under 30. (Fighting his swing throughout the round, Woods said he "Band-Aided" his way around in 33.) If you are a golf fan, you could barely breathe.
But even though he was playing the golf of his life, Phil is still Phil, and eventually, inevitably, he had to make a mistake. This one was a killer, as he pulled his tee shot on the nasty par-3 12th hole, the ball dying on the bank fronting the green and rolling back into Rae's Creek, leading to a double bogey. Mickelson was rattled enough to blow two ensuing golden opportunities: a 10-footer for birdie on 14 and a four-footer for eagle at 15.
In a Masters parable of the tortoise and the hare, Woods patiently chased down Mickelson, and when Tiger stuffed his tee shot at the 16th and made birdie, the two were 10 under and tied for second, setting Augusta National on its ear.
Perry still had a one-stroke lead, but he was looking shaky while laboring to 11 straight pars to open his round. (Cabrera had bogeyed 4, 5 and 10 but would get back in the game by birdieing both back-nine par-5s.)
The fun didn't last much longer. Woods's and Mickelson's bids both petered out at 17, when Tiger made bogey out of the trees and Phil missed another short putt, for birdie. Each left Augusta at a crossroads. Mickelson may have been buoyed by clipping Woods 67-68, but when the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage in June, Phil will be celebrating the dubious three-year anniversary of his self-immolation at Winged Foot. This Masters marked the first time since then that he had been a factor at a major. Mickelson turns 39 the week of the Open, and the window is closing for the onetime boy wonder. Woods, 33, will be the favorite at Bethpage, but in the meantime he is left to ponder another Masters that got away. After taking three of six from 1997 through 2002, he has won just one of the last seven. The evolution of the course into a tighter, more penal test has taken away much of his power advantage, and as he has entered his 30s he has displayed a distressing vulnerability on Augusta's treacherous greens.
At least Woods and Mickelson can be confident they'll have other opportunities at Augusta. What made Perry's failure so gut-wrenching was the knowledge he may never get a chance at redemption.
Cleaning out his locker, Perry tried hard to be philosophical. "Hey, life goes on," he said, but there was little comfort in the cliche. His family was waiting in a parking lot behind the clubhouse and still seemed stunned by the day's brutal conclusion. Perry's 24-year-old daughter, Lesslye, was taking it the hardest, sitting on the ground alone, clutching a handful of tissues. A few months ago Kenny had walked Lesslye down the aisle when she married a local boy in a ceremony that attracted much of Franklin. "She's so torn up," Sandy whispered. "She keeps saying, 'This can't happen twice to him. It's not fair. He's too good a person, he's too good a father. It's just not right.'" Kenny eventually materialized, carrying his oversized golf bag and a diet soda, the strongest stuff he drinks. ("To the best of my knowledge, he has never smoked a cigarette or tasted alcohol or said a bad word," says Perry's father.) For Cabrera the revelry had already begun. Meanwhile, Perry and his family wordlessly piled into a van and drove off into a cold, dark night.