AUGUSTA, Ga.—Don’t believe what they say. Unless you already own a green jacket or your name is William McGirt, only one contender left Augusta National happy on Sunday. Take a bow, Sergio Garcia.
For every feel-good story about a Masters championship won (and who couldn’t appreciate the utter joy that Garcia displayed?), there are countless tales of heartbreak. When you play golf at the highest level, PGA Tour titles are a goal and major-championship titles are special. The Masters? Let’s be honest: It is a tradition unlike any other, the tournament title most players cherish the most.
As Exhibit A, we present Ernie Els. Lost amid the excitement that unfolded on Saturday afternoon of this 81st Masters was the sad sight of Els, a four-time major champion, trudging up and down the hills of the National. At three over par, Els, 47, most likely knew he wasn’t going to win the 2017 Masters even before he teed it up in the third round. Then he went out and posted 83, his highest score in 80 career rounds here. (It would have been a stroke higher had he not holed a 65-foot birdie putt at the last.)
Els goes by the name Big Easy, but as much as he loves the place, it can’t be easy setting foot on the property every April. Too many painful memories. He could have won in 2000, when he finished second, three shots back of Vijay Singh. He could have—and arguably should have—won in 2004. All he did was eagle the 8th and 13th holes and fire a Sunday 67. But a then 33-year-old left-hander birdied five of his final seven holes, including the last, to clip Els by one. Damn you, Phil Mickelson!
Why the Masters? Tour pros play for cash—a lot of it—but have you ever heard them talk about the boatload they compete for at Augusta? That’s because it’s all about the traditions: membership in an exclusive club; the second-floor locker; the annual invitation to compete; the opportunity to bring family and friends to play the National; most of all, the champions dinner, at which older champions reminisce about Snead and Hogan and now Palmer and younger ones mostly listen. You think that Tuesday night soiree isn’t something special? Tiger Woods missed the Masters for the third time in four years, but pass up the opportunity to break bread with fellow champs? No chance.
Davis Love III, 52, is deserving of a spot at the table. In 1995 he sat teary-eyed on a bench outside the stately white clubhouse, undoubtedly replaying how he could have turned his Sunday 66 into a 65 or a 64. Ben Crenshaw was one better for the week; he birdied the 16th and 17th to win. Four years later, Love was second again, this time two shots behind Jose Maria Olazabal, who like Crenshaw, would become a two-time Masters champ at the expense of Love.
Next year, Love thought. Sure, he had a major championship, at the 1997 PGA, but the Masters just means more. He continued to talk openly about his desire to win at Augusta.
This year? The list of brokenhearted contenders is long. Lee Westwood is twice a runner-up at Augusta National and now winless in 18 career visits (and 76 majors overall). Westwood made another spirited run this week, but he was undone by nine bad holes of Friday golf. Rory McIlroy needs a green jacket to complete the career grand slam. We’ve been typing that since 2015. Rickie Fowler was in the hunt through the 10th hole on Sunday, only to fade coming home. Next year? Ask Davis Love about next year.
Charley Hoffman looks good in green. On Thursday he played one of the greatest rounds in Masters history, with nine birdies and a score—65—that was four shots better than anyone else in the field. Save for one bad swing on Saturday, who knows how his weekend plays out. Hoffman is 40. Chris DiMarco would like a word. In 2005, at the age of 36, DiMarco played 73 holes of brilliant golf, was seven clear of third place—and lost largely because Woods holed a ridiculous chip at the 16th hole on Sunday. DiMarco would play twice more at Augusta, but that was as good as it got.
Matt Kuchar and Ryan Moore are U.S. Amateur champions. Who can forget the show Kuchar (and his dad) put on at the 1998 Masters? Bobby Jones completed the Amateur-Masters double. Same for Arnold and Jack and Tiger and Phil. Who wouldn’t want to be on that list? Kuchar, who was third in 2012, made an ace on Sunday. A 1! He finished T4.
Justin Rose has won a major championship, at the 2013 U.S. Open at historic Merion, no less. He’s also the proud owner of an Olympic gold medal. He was second to Jordan Spieth at the 2015 Masters, and on Saturday night he talked about what a victory would mean.
“I’m a major champion, but I’m looking for more,” Rose said after grabbing a share of the 54-hole lead. “I’m certainly looking for my first green jacket and my first Masters. This is a place I dearly love, and I would dearly love to be part of the history here.”
As the shadows grew longer on the back nine on Sunday, Rose had one sleeve in his green jacket. Two up with five to play, then one under par over the last five holes. Certainly that would be enough. Wouldn’t it? In fact, nobody was better for 72 holes. But 72 holes weren’t enough.
Garcia, 0 for 73 in the majors at the start of the week, would win with a birdie on the first hole of sudden death. Close in so many majors but no better than fourth at Augusta National, Garcia, 37, had taken a seat at the table right out from under Rose, not unlike what Crenshaw had done to Love and Mickelson had done to Els.
“I think this is a tournament I’m going to win one day,” Rose, 36, said when it was over.
So how does McGirt fit into the narrative? Well, he’s the only professional who was just happy to be here. A 37-year-old journeyman from Lumberton, N.C., who toiled on the mini-tours for years, McGirt admits there were times he considered another line of work. As he kept grinding, he vowed he wouldn’t entertain offers to play the National (and he had several) until he had earned his way into the Masters. Then he won last June at the Memorial, Jack’s place. In! And from the moment he stepped on the grounds this week, he embraced the experience.
“Every time I drive down Magnolia Lane, it’s such a special moment,” McGirt said on Thursday. “I’d say that’s probably one of the most sacred drives in the game. Honestly, the first time I made that trip, I’m pretty sure I teared up. This is such a special place. Just try and enjoy it.”
So he and his family soaked it all in. They hit the concession stands, made the requisite shopping visit to the pro shop (“AMEX is going to be very happy to have me as a customer”) and attended the ceremonial tee shots (“We were never going to miss the opening ceremony”).
And then a funny thing happened. As is so often the case, the Masters produced an out-of-nowhere contender. This time it happened to be McGirt, who came out of the gate fast, with birdies at the 2nd and 5th holes. He turned in one-under 35, and when he birdied the 13th, his name popped up on the giant leader boards around the course, a sight that elicited a chuckle. He signed for a three-under-par 69. If not for Hoffman’s otherworldly round, McGirt would have been leading the Masters after day one. And while he may never be part of Masters lore, Dr. Girt will forever be the answer to a trivia question: first player to conduct a post-round interview at the palatial new press building (“Pretty impressed with this place”).
He refused to go away, shooting 73 in blustery conditions on Friday to pull within two. On Saturday he got to four under, only to stumble to the house in 39. The goal on Sunday: a top-12 finish, guaranteeing a 2018 return. He shot 74, four more than he needed.
And yet there he was afterward in the interview area behind the clubhouse, still soaking it all in, grinning ear to ear as he held his two young children—Caroline, 4; and Mac, 1. Wife Sarah stood proudly by.
“I feel like this is a place where I can win,” McGirt said into the cameras.
He plans on being back at Augusta National. If and when he returns, William McGirt will be like all the others—desperately trying to become a part of Masters lore, in search of that perpetual Tuesday night dinner invitation.