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Schwartzel birdies last four holes to win thrilling Masters

Charl Schwartzel, Sunday, 2011 Masters
Al Tielemans/SI
Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to take home the green jacket and his first major championship.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Charl Schwartzel met Jack Nicklaus for the first time when the two played in the Els For Autism golf tournament in South Florida early last year, an introduction brokered by the Sunshine Tour's Johann Rupert. Schwartzel made polite conversation about hunting, which he knew was one of Jack's interests, until Rupert suggested they discuss how to play Augusta National, which Schwartzel would see for the first time in April 2010. Jack talked; Charl listened.

The meeting paid big dividends at one of the wildest Masters ever Sunday, when nine players, including three Australians and Tiger Woods, had an arm in the green jacket. In the end it was the unheralded Schwartzel who birdied the last four holes to shoot 66 for a 14-under total and a two-shot win over Jason Day (68) and Adam Scott (67) at the 75th Masters.

"It's such a special feeling I don't even know where to start," said Schwartzel, who learned the game from his dad, a former club pro who now sells eggs and corn from his farm in South Africa. "This morning — you know I'd never been in that situation before in a major — I felt surprisingly calm."

With Louis Oosthuizen's victory at the British Open last July, South Africans have won two of the last three majors. He and Schwartzel competed and traveled together as boys; it's no coincidence they've won majors nine months apart.

"We play almost every single practice round together," Schwartzel said. "So we know where our level of golf is, and to see him do it made me realize that it is possible."

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There were a number of people who abetted the 2011 Masters champion. Nick Price told Schwartzel to practice the fastest putt he could find on every green, everywhere, and Schwartzel did just that for the last three weeks. Although he was vexed by the speed of the greens while finishing tied for 30th in his first Masters last year, he made the most of Price's advice this year, taking just 107 putts for the week, second in the field to Luke Donald (102).

Rory McIlroy, who led Schwartzel and three others by four after three rounds, shot 80 to become the fourth player in Masters history to lose a lead of four or more strokes in the final round.

"I'll have plenty more chances," McIlroy said. "I know that. It's very disappointing what happened today."

Day and Scott both made a series of clutch putts down the stretch, including Day's short birdie on 18 and Scott's long par save on 17, but could do nothing about the man in the second-to-last pairing of the day.

"I played well today, and that's all I could ask for," Scott said. "Obviously I can't control Charl, and when you birdie the last four holes at the Masters and you're around the lead, that usually wins."

Woods shot 67, missing two short putts to finish in a tie for fourth place for the second straight year. At 10 under, he was four back along with Donald (69) and Geoff Ogilvy (67).

This marks Tiger's best finish since a T4 at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last June, but it could have been so much better. His yippy stroke led to a three-putt bogey on 12, and after he failed to birdie 13 from the middle of the fairway, he missed a short eagle putt on 15.

"I should have shot an easy three or four under on the back nine," Woods said, "and I only posted even."

This marks the first major and eighth professional victory for Schwartzel, 26, who collects $1.44 million. He also won the European Tour's Joburg Open in January.

"It's obviously the highlight of my golfing career by a long way," he said. "I always thought if there were one [major] I would win it would be this one. This is the sort of golf course that suits my eye. These are the sort of courses I grew up playing, with the tree lines, and I feel really comfortable around it."

For all the uncertainty of a wild final round, it didn't take long to see signs that this might be Schwartzel's day. Using a 6-iron to chip off the trampled grass left of the first green, he pitched in from some 80 feet for an unlikely birdie to get to nine under, three off the lead. He jarred his approach shot from 114 yards for a stunning eagle at the third hole, and he and his caddie, Greg Hearmon, looked at each other and laughed.

With McIlroy bogeying the first, the first in his handful of early putting gaffes, Schwartzel was tied for the lead.

Although McIlroy righted himself to card a one-over 37 on the front nine, he would soon go from bad to really bad. His drive on 10 nearly ended up in Butler Cabin, leading to a triple-bogey 7. The kid from Northern Ireland, who had led after every round, took three putts from 12 feet on 11, four-putted 12 for double-bogey, and plummeted off the board.

"You don't want to let too many chances slip away or it starts to weigh on you," said Lee Westwood, who has yet to win his first major, as he packed up his things in the locker room. "Trust me. I know."

Defending champion Phil Mickelson shot a 74 to finish one under for the tournament, in a tie for 27th place. Despite coming in as the clear favorite, he was never a factor on the weekend.

"I struggled with the blade again today, and it was a frustrating week, really, putting," Mickelson said.

Woods, who started the day seven back, blistered the front nine in 31 to tie for the lead. But his remarkable run stalled with two inexplicable missed putts on 12 (for par) and 15 (for eagle). Both misses came from about three feet.

The good news for Woods is that all that work on his swing with new coach Sean Foley seems to be working. The bad news is his flawless pressure putting, which used to separate him from the pack, has vanished.

Schwartzel was the one making all the pressure putts Sunday. As he sat before the media, he thought back to that fortuitous meeting with Nicklaus.

"I'm just thinking it's going to be just a vaguely quick little thing, and he actually took the time to take me through all 18 holes, the way he used to think around Augusta and the way he used to play it, which flags he used to attack," Schwartzel said. "The big thing for me was I had never, ever seen Augusta. Now he's taking me through how to play Augusta. I've only seen it on TV. And now I'm in the presence of Mr. Nicklaus, and it's such a big awe. I'm just staring at it and taking in what I can. But luckily Mr. Rupert was taking a lot of notes, so afterwards we had it all."

And he's got the green jacket to prove it.

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