AUGUSTA, Ga. They played deep into the shadows of a warm spring evening, a middle-aged man with a hiccup in his swing and an Argentine with a going draw. Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera comprised the final act of a wild Masters Sunday, a day of high drama and loud roars that recalled the old-time magic of this beloved tournament.
When the 39-year-old Cabrera saved par from the trees to the right of the first playoff hole where the third man in the sudden death shootout, Chad Campbell, succumbed with a bogey he earned a reprieve to keep battling Perry, and an already special Masters became just a little more intense. From the middle of the 10th fairway, the second playoff hole, Perry pulled his approach shot wide left of the green and missed his 20-footer for par. Cabrera hit his approach just below the hole and safely two-putted.
At dusk, the former caddie became a Masters champion.
For much of the last half hour of regulation, Perry seemed destined to become the oldest major champion in the sport's history. Instead, the 48-year-old bogeyed the final two holes, spending a two-shot lead while fighting his swing. "I was determined to win," Perry said afterwards, "and I lost the tournament."
On the same day that Perry saw his major championship dreams die, the Masters made a triumphant return as the most glamorous, important and thrilling tournament in golf.
It became apparent as early as Thursday's first round that this year's Masters would be different, thanks to warm weather, soft greens and favorable pin positions. For the past two years Augusta National officials have received a barrage of criticism from players, fans and the media about the difficult course set-ups, which were further exacerbated by cold and windy conditions. The 2009 edition was reminiscent of the tournament's glorious past, when birdies and eagles altered the leader board in a flash. On Thursday Campbell made a record five birdies in a row to start his round. The following day, Anthony Kim carded a record 11 birdies in his round.
Still, disaster was always just a single shot away, with Rae's Creek claiming plenty of victims (including Mickelson's tee shot on the par-3 12th on Sunday, leading to a double bogey) and slippery greens that tested even the most confident of putters.
"You know," club chairman Billy Payne said on the eve of the tournament, "I think we have it about right."
But it was the titanic pairing of Woods and Mickelson on Sunday that propelled this Masters on a day-long thrill ride. The long-time antagonists almost turned the first major of the year into made-for-TV match play, pulling thousands to their gallery on a gorgeous spring day. Mickelson's wife, Amy, was part of the crowd. A dozen Nike employees, led by company founder Phil Knight, followed along wearing red shirts.
Trailing by seven shots as the day began, Mickelson shot a record-tying 30 on the front nine, carding six birdies in a seven-hole stretch in some of the best golf ever played at Augusta National. Woods, also seven shots down at the start, made his own ruckus, rolling in an eagle on the par-5 8th and threatening the leaders before a pair of closing bogeys sent him tumbling down the board. Woods finished with a round of 68, his best of the week but still four shots shy of the playoff.
Mickelson, too, was right in the mix, surging toward his third green jacket and fourth major title. He missed a four-footer for eagle on the 15th hole and then stalled with two straight pars and a closing bogey that left him with a round of 67 and solo fifth place, three shots back.
With Mickelson and Woods out of it, the Masters stage was left to Perry, Campbell and Cabrera. It was Cabrera who held off Woods and Jim Furyk to win the US Open at Oakmont Country Club two years ago, while puffing on a cigarette between shots. The burly Cabrera has since quit smoking, but he still hammers his golf ball like few in the business. After making birdies at 15 and 16, he made a four-footer to save par on the 72nd hole and earn a spot in a three-man playoff.
On the first playoff hole (No. 18), he looked finished after he pushed his tee shot into the woods on the right and then smacked his attempted escape off a tree. His ball ricocheted into the fairway, from where he made a superb up-and-down for par, rolling in a downhill, six-foot putt. One hole later he claimed the title.
"I had confidence," Cabrera said. "I was just trying to enjoy the moment."
He wasn't alone. Golf shirts, sun dresses and birdie roars ruled the day, as expert shot making, heart-breaking bogeys, and various plotlines defined the tournament: Woods bidding to begin a run at the Grand Slam; Mickelson trying to break a major-less streak now three years long; Padraig Harrington searching for his third major in a row; Perry wanting to win a major for his elderly and ailing parents.
Everyone in the field had a story and, once again, Augusta National offered a great stage for them to be told.
"This is the Masters," Cabrera said, the green jacket snug on his large frame. "It's a course that you can do a lot of birdies, a lot of bogeys. A lot of magical things happen. It's simply the Masters."
Once more, it was simply the best.