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

Bob Goalby wears green jacket at Masters 1968
Augusta National/Getty Images
Bob Goalby (left, with Gay Brewer) claimed the 1968 title after a "lucky" scorecard blunder.

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.
 

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