Between his first and second sky-punching celebrations, Adam Scott sat alone on Sunday evening in a golf cart at the business end of Magnolia Lane, protected from a sullen rain by overhanging limbs. He picked at his cuticles. In the cart behind him, his jumpsuited caddie, Steve Williams, solemnly thumbed through a yardage book. You wouldn’t have known that their ears were still ringing from two 72nd-hole roars—the cheer for Scott’s 25-foot birdie putt, which had seemed to clinch his first major championship, and the cheer for Angel Cabrera’s playoff-forcing seven-iron to three feet.
“On 18, for a second, I kind of let myself think I had won,” Scott said at the end of the day, when his fingernails no longer seemed to need attention. And by “think” the handsome Australian meant arm-waving, shrieking, hugging, hand-slapping, delirious joy, followed by a fulfilling, eyes-on-the-spokes-of-his-umbrella sigh. He practically sprinted to the scorer’s table with an Australian flag clutched in one hand, while a sonorous voice on the BBC wondered, “Are the Fosters ready?”
“Then,” Scott said afterward, “I saw Angel hit that incredible shot.”
Some will tell you that Scott’s victory in the 2013 Masters was important for a variety of reasons: He’s the first Australian to win at Augusta National, accomplishing what Jim Ferrier, Bruce Crampton, Jack Newton and three-time runner-up Greg Norman had failed to do; he completed the Anchored-Putting Grand Slam, joining 2011 PGA champ Keegan Bradley, 2012 U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson and 2012 British Open champ Ernie Els as broomstick-belly behemoths; and he established a club record for wanton glances from appreciative females, such as the thirtysomething fan who blurted, “That’s the best-looking thing in a green jacket ever.”
Others will see Scott’s win as mere solace for a week of ugly rules imbroglios -- a slow-play penalty for 14-year-old amateur Guan Tianlang, a penalty-drop scandal involving Tiger Woods -- and a dreary Sunday that turned the old Fruitland Nursery into an umbrella farm. Defending champion Bubba Watson captured the dispiriting mood by dumping three balls in Rae’s Creek at the 12th, leading to a 10 for the hole and a 50th-place finish. Third-round co-leader Brandt Snedeker, last year’s FedEx Cup champion, reprised his final-nine swoon of 2008 and finished with a 75 (four-under 284 total) and in a tie for sixth. And then you had two-time runner-up Jason Day, another Aussie, who after walking off the 15th green with a two-shot lead, made careless bogeys on 16 and 17 to finish two back. Asked about the incongruous smile that accompanied some of his misses, Day said, “That’s just a coping mechanism, maybe. If I smile and try to enjoy myself when I hit bad shots, I won’t be so disappointed.”
But Scott’s Masters win, weighed properly, resembled that of Phil Mickelson’s in 2004. Mickelson was 33 when he broke through at Augusta; Scott is 32. Mickelson was “the best player never to have won a major,” and before Sunday, Scott shared that dubious distinction with Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Sergio García. Winless on the eve of his 48th major, Scott was seen both as a player on the rise (13 top 10 finishes since Woods-reject Williams began toting Scott’s bag in June 2011) and on the mend (due to his final-round collapse at last year’s Open Championship, where he bogeyed the last four holes and lost by a shot to Els). But nobody questioned Scott’s shotmaking or -- since he married the broomstick in early 2011 -- his putting.
“He’s got no weakness; he’s got everything,” said Wayne Grady, an Australian golf analyst and a former PGA champion. “Maybe if he had the motivation of a Tiger Woods he might have won seven or eight majors by now.” But for Scott it is less about motivation and more about confidence. Citing the rut he was in when Norman made him a captain’s pick for the 2009 Presidents Cup, Scott said, “It was kind of gut-check time. There’s no hiding in the Presidents Cup.” Forced to hit shots under pressure, Scott regained his self-belief, “and shortly thereafter I was playing well again.”
On Sunday, Scott showed how far he has come. He was the only contender (unless you count Woods) to go bogey-free on the final nine, and he turned near disaster into alabaster when he got up and down for birdie at the par-5 13th from the grassy bank fronting Rae’s Creek. “That was a great break,” he said, remembering how his ball had spun back off the green before stopping on a tuft of grass inside the hazard line. “And everyone who wins gets those kinds of breaks.” Reconsidering, he added, “Not everyone.”
Even so, it was a dismal plod through rain until Scott woke up the crowd with his birdie putt on 18. Cool and self-possessed all day, he went off like Vesuvius to the noisy approval of the gallery. “I was pumped,” he said. “I felt I had to seize it right then, put all the pressure on the other guy.” Cabrera, meanwhile, waited down the hill with a seven-iron, oblivious to this arcane statistic: The Argentine star, who before he won a green jacket in 2009 was victorious at the ’07 U.S. Open at Oakmont, had never birdied the 72nd hole in 10 previous opportunities.
Cue the shot to three feet and the second roar -- and later a third roar (for Cabrera’s confident tying putt), which deflated Team Scott as effectively as a knee to the groin.
Which brings us back to the scene above. Forced to wait while Cabrera signed his card -- on the 45th anniversary, believe it or not, of Roberto De Vicenzo’s legendary scorecard foul-up -- Scott got out of his cart and stepped onto the clubhouse porch. He stared vacantly at the falling rain, wondering if fate were about to deal him another disappointment.
The playoff proved to be as exciting as a playoff could be under the circumstances, which included fading light and a rain-soaked hillside. Returning to number 18, both players came up short with their approaches. Playing first, Cabrera almost holed his shot. “That must have gone right over the edge of the hole,” Scott said. “My heart was about to stop as I was standing at the side of the green thinking, Is this it? Really? But, you know, I managed to skid one up there myself and knock it in.”
They then stepped over to number 10, the plummeting par-4 that settled last year’s playoff, won by Watson with his miracle wedge shot from the pines. This time both combatants hit brilliant approach shots. Cabrera putted first from 15 feet, and his ball threatened to fall before sliding past the right edge.
Scott’s putt, from 12 feet, was no easier, largely because it was too dark to read the green. “[Steve] said, ‘It’s at least two cups, it’s going to break more than you think,’ ” said Scott. “He was my eyes on that [and it was] an unbelievable read.” And then it was an unbelievable pleasure as Scott watched his ball trundle down to the hole and topple in for the winning birdie. He threw his shoulders back and thrust his arms at the sky.
Cabrera, who seems to play his best golf in majors (he has no other PGA Tour victories), walked off the green with his arm draped over Scott’s shoulders. “I was happy for him,” El Pato said through an interpreter. “I knew that he deserved it, and it was just a matter of time.” Cabrera then wished a happy 90th birthday to De Vicenzo, saying, “I hope we can have Roberto with us for a long time.”
Australia’s newest hero, meanwhile, had a hug in the pines for his dad, Phil, accolades for his “proud sporting country” and a shout-out for Norman, saying, “A phone conversation isn’t going to do it for us. I’d love to share a beer with him over this one.” But the line that best captured his flirtation with despair Scott saved for the televised green-jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin. “Never,” said the 2013 Masters champ to the world, “count your chickens.”
Scott’s count, as of Sunday, was one.