More than any major, dumb luck determines Masters winners (and losers)

Phil Mickelson loses Masters 2012 on fourth hole
DON EMMERT/AP
"That was the worst break in Phil's career," caddie Jim Mackay says of a bounce that might have cost his boss the 2012 Masters.

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."

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