More than any major, dumb luck determines Masters winners (and losers)
At 400-some pages, Augusta National's Masters Media Guide weighs a little less than a smoked pig and contains statistics, ephemera and curiosities culled from every round in the tournament's history. Included are the lyrics to "The Masters Theme" and a butler's pantry list of every goblet, bowl and vase awarded.
But there is no chapter, not even a fat footnote, on Masters luck.
This makes no sense. Luck -- and its disreputable cousin, bad luck -- has determined who wears the green jacket in almost every Masters, excepting a few blowouts (see: Tiger Woods, 1997). All the other champs owe their victories to benign bounces, obliging lies, serendipitous rulings and sympathetic puffs of wind.
Admittedly, this case is hard to convey in facts and figures, but it just feels correct, doesn't it? The words "Masters luck" probably make your brain download a 21-year-old image of a ball clinging to a grassy bank, a mere foot above Rae's Creek -- the break that preserved Fred Couples's victory in 1992. ("You don't ever get a break like that," Couples said.) The phrase "bad Masters luck" conjures images of poor old Roberto De Vicenzo, who handed the 1968 Masters to Bob Goalby when the former signed for a final-round par instead of the birdie he had actually made on the 17th hole.
Last year, the Tupperware goblet for worst break went to three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson. Vying for the lead on Sunday, Mickelson smacked a judicious 4-iron toward the left green-side bunker on the 240-yard 4th hole, confident that any landing site left of the front-left pin, including the grandstand, would leave him an up-and-down for par, bogey at worst.
"Augusta's all about angles," explains Mickelson's caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, "and Phil's put in hundreds and hundreds of hours practicing there and strategizing. He knows where you absolutely cannot hit it with that pin." That would be the right-front trap, which pretty much guarantees the bunkered a 30-foot putt for par.
"From the tee," Mackay continues, "I'm watching the shot cut a little and I'm thinking, 'Mission accomplished -- he'll be in the bunker or slightly left.' " But instead of the communal groan that greets Mickelson's typical plunge into sand, the bleacher fans emitted a crescendo of alarm, followed by a collective gasp. Mickelson's ball had struck the grandstand railing and bounced high in the air before landing way left, behind spectators standing at the edge of the woods.
Neither Mickelson nor Mackay were particularly worried -- until they worked their way through the crowd and spotted the ball. It was under branches at the foot of a stand of bamboo in a position that allowed for no conventional stroke toward the green and no point of relief if Mickelson took an unplayable. And since our subject is luck, a question: What the hell is bamboo doing on a Georgia golf course?
Concluding that he could make no better than 5 by returning to the tee, Mickelson took two right-handed scrapes at the ball to escape the shrubbery and three more strokes to hole out. Triple-bogey 6. He finished two shots out of the playoff between Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen, so it's fair to argue that a rogue handrail cost Lefty his fourth Masters title. "Everybody gets bad breaks," Mackay says, "but that's the worst break in Phil's career by a hundred miles. And it came on a Sunday in a major when he had a chance to win."
Should Mickelson grumble about his bad luck at this year's Champions Dinner, he will be reminded that almost every man at the table owes his green jacket to at least one fluky bounce. Take Mark O'Meara. The winner by a stroke in 1998 snap-hooked his drive on the par-5 2nd hole that Sunday, but his ball didn't disappear into the shrouded ditch; it ricocheted back into the fairway and set him up for a roll-your-eyes birdie. O'Meara later said, "The golfing gods were definitely on my side."
Angel Cabrera got similar treatment in 2009. Having pushed his drive deep into the trees on No. 18, the first hole of his playoff with Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry, Cabrera went for the green with a punched 4-iron. The gamble failed -- he hit a tree trunk -- but his ball caromed out into the fairway, leaving a clear shot at the flag. Feeling like a Lotto winner, Cabrera got up and down for his par and went on to defeat Perry on the second extra hole.
Yet another Augusta rotura afortunada ("lucky break") went to José María Olazábal, whose second shot on the par-5 15th avoided the pond by a matter of inches, helping him win in 1994. This explains Tiger Woods's answer to the reporter who once asked what it would take for two-time runner-up David Duval to finally win a Masters. "Luck," said the four-time winner. "I'm not joking. You can't afford to make mistakes down the stretch, but you've got to have some luck."
It's not a new phenomenon, this thing called Masters luck. Billy Casper, the 1970 champ, torched Gene Littler in an 18-hole playoff, but it was fate's fickle finger that got him to extra holes. Leading by a stroke on Sunday, Casper was already butchering the uphill, par-5 8th hole when his third shot, a pulled 2-iron, bounced left and rolled onto an asphalt maintenance road. Under normal circumstances his ball would have rolled back down the hill toward the second green, but rain had washed some pine needles up against the curb, and Casper's ball came to rest on the needles. The road was considered part of the course, so Casper wouldn't have been entitled to relief, but because the curb interfered with his swing, he was allowed to take a free drop. Following the rules, he dropped twice on the asphalt and watched his ball bound down the hill, then got to place his ball on another nest of pine needles and smack it back to the fairway.
"It was probably the best break I could have had," Casper says. "If my ball hadn't hung up on the pine needles, it might have rolled two or three hundred yards down the road." Double-bogeys don't often lift the spirits, but Casper was relieved to walk off the green with a 7. "I was very happy," he recalls, "because it enabled me to stay in contention and ultimately to win in the playoff." He adds, "Luck is always an element in the game."
Okay, strike that last quote. "Always" implies that the Masters is like any other major, where luck is concerned. Wrong. Yes, Lee Janzen won the 1998 U.S. Open because on Sunday his errant ball fell out of a cypress tree at the last minute, and Jean Van de Velde lost the 1999 British Open after his 2-iron approach to the 72nd hole bounced off a grandstand. And you might agree with Gary Player and insist that luck rarely, if ever, determines the victor. "There are no gifts in sports," says the three-time Masters winner. "They didn't give it to us. We had to win it."
As a rebuttal, you are advised to visit the 12th tee at Augusta on a typical spring day and hit four balls to the green. After you watch the erratic flight of those four balls -- at least two of which will find the bottom of Rae's Creek, a third disappearing into the azaleas behind the green -- you'll see why "Masters luck" is no oxymoron. With its shallow green and swirling winds, No. 12 is golf's Wheel of Fortune.
This is not mere opinion. This was the finding of scientists hired by Sports Illustrated. In 2002, they built a 10-foot-in-diameter scale model of Amen Corner and placed it in a wind tunnel that simulated Augusta's southerly April winds. The tests confirmed that the prevailing breeze followed different paths through the trees and swirled over the creek, disrupting the flight of balls already stunned by a wind shear 65 yards from the tee. They attributed the landing place of 12th-hole tee shots to "blind luck."
You distrust science? Plenty of anecdotal evidence makes the same point. You've got four-time Masters runner-up Tom Weiskopf, who in 1980 famously dunked five balls in the water on his way to a tournament-record 13. And there's PGA Tour veteran Scott Verplank, who birdied the hole all four rounds in 2003. You don't see the hand of a golf god in those results?
For his part, 1976 Masters champ Raymond Floyd says, "You can have some horrendous breaks, and you can have some really good breaks. The old cliché says that they tend to even out."
True enough, but at the Masters, luck is a zero-sum game. In 1992, when Couples's final-round tee shot landed on No. 12's steep bank -- and magically stopped tumbling at water's edge -- Floyd was in contention and hoping, at age 49, to become the oldest major winner. Floyd insists that he never resented the younger man's good fortune. "I never thought 'Woe is me!' I was happy for Fred. If I couldn't win, I couldn't have been happier for someone."
Nor does Floyd invoke Lady Luck to explain the Velcro lie that let Couples get up and down for his par on 12. "It had rained," Floyd says, "and they weren't able to mow the bank. Wetness dictated that the ball didn't go into the water."
Come on, Ray. At least concede that Fred's good luck was your bad. "I didn't see it that way. I controlled my own destiny."
But asked if any other stroke of misfortune had ever cost him so much, Floyd gives away the game. "Nothing like 1992," he says. "I never had a ball go in the hole and then a frog kicked it out."
Note to Augusta National: That should be in your media guide.