Angel Cabrera emerged from a drama-filled final round at the Masters with his second major title

April 20, 2009

Early monday morning, hours after he had stolen the 73rd Masters, broken the heart of all of Kentucky, dusted Tiger and Phil, avenged an embarrassed countryman’s epic screwup and cemented his own legend, Angel Cabrera was whooping it up at a rented house in a stately Augusta neighborhood. Two dozen people had turned up for the party — friends, players, caddies, friends of friends. Already a futbol chant had rung out in the night: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Pa-to, Pa-to!” Cabrera’s nickname has long been El Pato, the Duck. For the final round, Cabrera had worn his trademark Sunday yellow shirt, which turned out to match quite nicely with a green jacket. Now, holding court at his party, the Argentine was barefoot, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.

Cabrera’s appetites are like his drives — prodigious. Earlier in the evening a quaint Masters tradition had compelled him to eat a champion’s dinner with the Augusta National members. Eschewing the lobster macaroni and cheese and other delicacies from the buffet, Cabrera settled on an irresistible item called the Tiger Woods Cheeseburger. The burgers were smaller than expected, so a famished Cabrera ate nine of them, washed down by gulps of red wine. Back at the house, as it neared 2 a.m., he took lusty sips of his favorite drink: Coke mixed with Fernet Branca, a bitter, aromatic spirit brewed from grapes and more than 40 herbs and spices. Suddenly a song broke out, to the tune of Happy Birthday: “Saco verde to you/Saco verde to you.” Saco verde, of course, means green jacket. At the song’s end Cabrera disappeared into a bedroom and then emerged wearing a huge smile and the prized blazer, size 46 regular. Everybody screamed, and the party raged on.

Cabrera’s victory owed much to his brio. The closing holes of the final round were so taut, “you couldn’t hardly spit,” said Fred Sanders, caddie to Kenny Perry, and yet Cabrera seemed to be the only one on the course who was having fun, playing to the crowd with fist pumps and offering playful high fives to his playing partner, Perry, who didn’t quite know what to make of the gesture. Before Cabrera took it away, this was supposed to be Perry’s Masters, but the soft-spoken Kentuckian wanted it too much. Perry is a bighearted country boy, and he was desperate to win for his ailing mom, his hometown of Franklin (pop. 8,079), the raucous galleries that had embraced him and the loving family that had helped him unwind every night with games of cards and H-O-R-S-E. A back-nine birdie binge had put Perry two strokes up with two holes to play, but the immensity of the opportunity overwhelmed him. He skulled a chip on the 17th hole to make bogey — only his fifth bogey of the week and his first since the 12th hole on Saturday — and then played three messy shots at 18, ultimately leaving himself what every little boy dreams about until he grows up and has to face it: a 15-foot par putt to win the Masters. Behind the green, Perry’s wife, Sandy, his sweetheart since the eighth grade, gathered with their three kids. Back home, the congregation at the Franklin Church of Christ was holding its evening Easter service, and more than a few prayers were muttered for a man who never fails to worship there when he’s in town. Over at Country Creek Golf Course, on Kenny Perry Drive, dozens of regulars had gathered for the telecast. Perry’s 85-year-old father, Ken, still picks up the balls on the Country Creek range most every day in denim overalls, but he elected to watch TV at home with his wife, who has been waging a long battle with cancer. With so much resting on one putt, it’s no wonder Perry’s ball couldn’t get to the hole. The fight went out of him right then and there, even though Perry had a chance for redemption in the playoff. “It didn’t seem like new life,” said Sanders. “He seemed a little flat.”

Cabrera, a powerfully built former caddie from Cordoba, is one of the heaviest hitters in the game, but he’s a big man with soft hands. He further broke Perry’s spirit with a spectacular par save on the first extra hole, Augusta National’s 18th. After hitting his drive into the woods on the right, Cabrera got a lucky bounce when his desperate second shot ricocheted off a tree into the fairway. Cabrera then spun a wedge from 114 yards to within six feet and poured in the putt. (Chad Campbell, a taciturn Texan, was eliminated from the playoff when he missed a short par putt on the low side after finding the right bunker with his approach.) On the second playoff hole, the par-4 10th, Perry’s second shot missed wide left, and Cabrera closed him out with a textbook par.

Perry, 48, had been bidding to become the oldest winner of a major, but after the crushing loss he seemed resigned to the fate of never winning the big one. His only other chance came at the 1996 PGA Championship, played in front of the home folks in Kentucky, but he made a mess of the first playoff hole in a loss to Mark Brooks that still haunts him. “Great players make it happen, and your average players don’t,” Perry said on Sunday night. “That’s the way it is. That’s why they are where they are, and we’re all down here.”

Cabrera’s triumph elevated him into rarefied air. He’s now one of only 14 players to have won both the Masters and the U.S. Open. He slipped on the green jacket 41 years after countryman Roberto de Vicenzo was denied a chance at a playoff at the Masters because he signed an incorrect scorecard, leading to his immortal statement, “What a stupid I am.” Asked if his victory would ease the lingering sting of that gaffe for his country, Cabrera said, “This win, to take back to Argentina, it’s going to help a lot.”

Cabrera, 39, is halfway to the career Grand Slam, and he may just be getting started. Mickey Wright, the LPGA Hall of Famer known for the purity of her swing and her knowledge of others’, once put Cabrera on her list of the game’s five best alltime ball strikers. Cabrera’s action was self-taught during spirited money games among the other caddies at Cordoba Country Club, where Cabrera began looping after he dropped out of school at age 10. He grew into a ball basher who viewed putting as an inconvenience, and his hasty work on the greens betrayed a belief that it was best to get the unpleasant act over with as soon as possible. Cabrera’s putting has improved over the last two years as he experimented with long putters — he’s the first player to win a major with a belly putter, though he uses it unconventionally, without anchoring it to his stomach — and committed to more practice and a consistent routine on the greens that includes spending more time examining his putts. He passed the ultimate test by draining a series of crucial putts on Masters Sunday, including a must-make 15-footer for birdie on the 16th hole after Perry had stiffed his tee shot to within a foot. “He has willed himself to become a good putter,” says Charlie Epps, the Houston-based instructor who began working with Cabrera in 2007. There can be no doubting Cabrera’s resolve. At the ’07 U.S. Open at Oakmont, in which he nipped Tiger by a stroke, Cabrera was introduced to the world as a man of few words and many cigarettes, a living embodiment of the gauchos who populate Argentine folklore. Shortly after his U.S. Open win Cabrera quit smoking cold turkey, and it’s saying something that he survived Augusta National’s greens without a relapse. (Arnold Palmer never won another major after he quit smoking in the late 1960s.)

For all of his gifts, Cabrera’s greatest strength may be a toughness that came from his hard-knock life. Cabrera was left by his parents at age three to live with his paternal grandmother, Pura Concepcion, in a tiny tin-roofed house on a dirt road at the edge of a garbage-strewn arroyo. He took on menial jobs to feed himself, and he survived on his wits and fists. In Cordoba there is an indigenous dance called the cuarteto, a lively, rhythmic step similar to the merengue. The cuarteto is a staple of the Cordoban social scene, and growing up, Cabrera forged quite a reputation at the dance halls. “He was always in the street fighting,” says Rodolfo Monjes, a longtime caddie at Cordoba Country Club. “Usually over a girl.” Three scars adorning Cabrera’s face attest to his pugilistic past. No wonder, then, he wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated when Woods and Phil Mickelson threw their best punches on Sunday.

The story of the first three rounds had been the return of the roars to golf’s most symphonic stage as the lords of the Masters offered up more playable conditions than in recent years, nicely complementing the warm weather and mostly mild breezes. While Perry and Cabrera pushed the 54-hole lead to 11 under, Woods and Mickelson never quite got going, and both were stuck at four under through three rounds. Their matching scores gave golf fans everywhere the Sunday pairing they had been craving, even if Tiger and Phil were being sent off an hour ahead of the leaders. They hadn’t tangled at a major since the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and hadn’t been paired together when it really matters since the final round of the ’01 Masters, both tournaments, it should be noted, won by Woods. Their complicated relationship has been analyzed in the kind of detail usually reserved for Lindsay and Sam, but for all the digs and slights through the years, even Tiger and Phil couldn’t help but get into the spirit of their Sunday showdown.

“They both loved the pairing,” said Mickelson’s swing coach, Butch Harmon, who previously worked with Woods. “At lunch [on Sunday] in the champions’ locker room they were needling each other like crazy.”

Around Augusta, Tiger is revered but Phil is beloved, and Mickelson captivated the enormous crowds with a laserlike approach shot at the long par-4 5th hole. When he buried the putt (his third birdie in four holes), the crowd erupted and then bolted to the 6th tee. Tiger was left to putt a six-footer for par with a large part of the gallery having collectively turned its back on him. Woods finally showed some fight on the 570-yard 8th with two mighty blows to set up an eagle, but Mickelson answered with his sixth birdie in seven holes. After parring 9 from out of the trees — where else? — Mickelson stood within one of the lead, having tied the front-nine record with a six-under 30. (Fighting his swing throughout the round, Woods said he “Band-Aided” his way around in 33.) If you are a golf fan, you could barely breathe.

But even though he was playing the golf of his life, Phil is still Phil, and eventually, inevitably, he had to make a mistake. This one was a killer, as he pulled his tee shot on the nasty par-3 12th hole, the ball dying on the bank fronting the green and rolling back into Rae’s Creek, leading to a double bogey. Mickelson was rattled enough to blow two ensuing golden opportunities: a 10-footer for birdie on 14 and a four-footer for eagle at 15.

In a Masters parable of the tortoise and the hare, Woods patiently chased down Mickelson, and when Tiger stuffed his tee shot at the 16th and made birdie, the two were 10 under and tied for second, setting Augusta National on its ear.

Perry still had a one-stroke lead, but he was looking shaky while laboring to 11 straight pars to open his round. (Cabrera had bogeyed 4, 5 and 10 but would get back in the game by birdieing both back-nine par-5s.)

The fun didn’t last much longer. Woods’s and Mickelson’s bids both petered out at 17, when Tiger made bogey out of the trees and Phil missed another short putt, for birdie. Each left Augusta at a crossroads. Mickelson may have been buoyed by clipping Woods 67-68, but when the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage in June, Phil will be celebrating the dubious three-year anniversary of his self-immolation at Winged Foot. This Masters marked the first time since then that he had been a factor at a major. Mickelson turns 39 the week of the Open, and the window is closing for the onetime boy wonder. Woods, 33, will be the favorite at Bethpage, but in the meantime he is left to ponder another Masters that got away. After taking three of six from 1997 through 2002, he has won just one of the last seven. The evolution of the course into a tighter, more penal test has taken away much of his power advantage, and as he has entered his 30s he has displayed a distressing vulnerability on Augusta’s treacherous greens.

At least Woods and Mickelson can be confident they’ll have other opportunities at Augusta. What made Perry’s failure so gut-wrenching was the knowledge he may never get a chance at redemption.

Cleaning out his locker, Perry tried hard to be philosophical. “Hey, life goes on,” he said, but there was little comfort in the cliche. His family was waiting in a parking lot behind the clubhouse and still seemed stunned by the day’s brutal conclusion. Perry’s 24-year-old daughter, Lesslye, was taking it the hardest, sitting on the ground alone, clutching a handful of tissues. A few months ago Kenny had walked Lesslye down the aisle when she married a local boy in a ceremony that attracted much of Franklin. “She’s so torn up,” Sandy whispered. “She keeps saying, ‘This can’t happen twice to him. It’s not fair. He’s too good a person, he’s too good a father. It’s just not right.'” Kenny eventually materialized, carrying his oversized golf bag and a diet soda, the strongest stuff he drinks. (“To the best of my knowledge, he has never smoked a cigarette or tasted alcohol or said a bad word,” says Perry’s father.) For Cabrera the revelry had already begun. Meanwhile, Perry and his family wordlessly piled into a van and drove off into a cold, dark night.