Best Sunday Ever: 2011 Masters

April 1, 2012

For three rounds the 2011 Masters was a one-man show, as Rory McIlroy forged a four-stroke lead. Sunday was supposed to be his star turn, but when McIlroy stumbled, the day turned into a free-for-all. Here's how the 10 protagonists remember the sweeping drama, which unfolded in five acts.

Bo Van Pelt: It’s an amazing feeling to wake up on Sunday in Augusta with a chance to win the Masters. You’ve grown up watching it on TV, you’ve dreamed about it your whole career . . . you’re trying not to be too giddy.

Luke Donald: It feels as if it takes forever for your tee time to come. I spent the whole time playing with [daughter] Elle, which is a wonderful distraction. But if you’re a young, single guy by yourself, the minutes crawl by. It’s brutal. And if you’re sitting on a four-shot lead, I can imagine the pressure builds and builds.

McIlroy: [Favorite rugby team] Ulster was playing in the quarterfinals of the Heineken Cup, and I watched it on TV. But even after that, I still had time to kill. I remember thinking if I turned on ESPN, I was on TV. If I turned on Golf Channel, all I could hear were people talking about me. I learned after that not to watch television, go on Twitter or anything like that. That’s something Greg Norman said to me after the Masters: Any little outside influence you let into your bubble can be detrimental.

Woods inspires the day’s first roars with birdies at the 2nd and 3rd holes. Then it is Schwartzel’s turn. A jittery approach on the 1st hole leaves him right of the green, outside the rope line in the first cut. He plays a low, running pitch that lands short of the putting surface and traverses one of Augusta National’s most undulating greens.

Schwartzel: I think it would have been a pretty straightforward shot if it weren’t for all the people who had trampled the grass. Normally I’m very good with a lob wedge, but I was forced to use a little six-iron and run it up the hill. [When it went in] I don’t think I’ve ever heard a roar that loud.

Choi: Nobody knows how good that was. Impossible to make that. But he did. Wow!

Gary Player, three-time Masters champion: As great a shot as I’ve seen at Augusta.

From the middle of the 1st fairway McIlroy pulls his approach left of the green, leading to a bogey that cuts his lead in half.

McIlroy: That was the first point in the tournament where I made a very tentative swing. I came up and out of the shot. That’s when I knew I didn’t feel the same as the previous three days.

On the par-5 2nd hole McIlroy hits his drive into the fairway bunker, then catches the lip on his second shot. As he is lining up a four-footer for par, Schwartzel is playing his second shot to the short par-4 3rd hole.

Schwartzel: I had exactly 114 yards, which was a perfect sand wedge for me. I’ve played so many practice rounds there, I knew you had to hit it up the right side and let the spin take it. We can’t see anything from back where I was, you simply feel it from the crowd. You could hear it getting closer and closer, and it disappeared.

McIlroy: There was a big roar at the 3rd for Charl, and I knew, That’s my lead gone!

Schwartzel: When I holed the second shot on 3, that’s when I thought, Jeez, this could be something. There were 15 holes left, and I was all square. From that moment on it was fully on for a win.

Woods’s early momentum is blunted by a three-putt bogey on the 4th hole. On the par-3 6th he plays a sweeping draw that lands on the right edge of the green and spins across the putting surface to within eight feet of the hole, setting up a birdie that pushes him to seven under.

Ogilvy: When you’re playing the 5th hole you can’t see the 6th, but you can hear it. We could tell Tiger had done something pretty special. Then we were in the 7th fairway when he made the putt up on that green. Two birdies in a row—you could feel it building. I don’t think Tiger wants to be considered a setup man, but he made the day what it was with his front nine. No one else can bring that kind of electricity to a golf course. No one.

Woods: I wasn’t thinking about putting pressure specifically on Rory, I simply knew that I had to make a move. I wanted to get off to a good start and hopefully have a chance to win on the back nine.

When Schwartzel three-putts from 100 feet at the 4th hole, McIlroy regains the solo lead. Woods is three back playing the par-5 8th.

Woods: It wasn’t a must eagle, but it was an important hole. At Augusta you have to take advantage of the par-5s.

After a good drive Woods smokes a three-wood to within 10 feet.

Laird: It was definitely the most electric crowd I’ve ever seen. When [Woods] holed the eagle putt on 8, it was probably the loudest I’ve heard a crowd. The explosion of noise was unbelievable.

Ogilvy: You know what was really cool? Across the course you could hear when they posted the eagle on the leader boards. Down by 11, over at 13, then 15. One roar after another. Not for a golf shot but for the changing of the leaderboard.

McIlroy is all too aware of the cheers, and their meaning.

McIlroy: A big mistake I made was thinking too much about what everybody else was doing instead of concentrating on myself. In situations like that you can’t let your mind wander.

When McIlroy makes a sloppy bogey from the middle of the 5th fairway, Woods is tied for the lead of the 75th Masters. He maintains his share by pouring in a 25-footer to save par on the 9th hole. Woods shoots a front-nine 31, one off the tournament record.

Ogilvy: There was a feeling of disbelief in the air. Everyone was thinking exactly the same thing: We are witnessing the greatest comeback in golf history.

Laird: Walking from 9 green to 10 tee, there’s 30 or 40 yards of a little narrow corridor through the crowd. I’ve never seen people go so mad at a golf tournament. It was insane.

On the 7th hole McIlroy makes a 15-footer for his first (and last) birdie of the day, regaining sole possession of the lead. But he misses an opportunity at 8; after his second shot takes an unlucky bounce right of the green, he chunks a chip and settles for a disappointing par.

McIlroy: That’s sort of the turning point of the round. If I got it up and down, I would have gotten a lot of momentum. When I didn’t, it sort of felt as if it might not be my day.

Choi: The 10th hole at Augusta is long and tough. The 11th hole is long and tough. You get to 12, and it’s so short. But it’s the toughest hole of them all.

After textbook pars on 10 and 11, Woods plays a cautious tee shot on the 12th, 30 feet left of the flag. He misses the birdie putt and then the 21⁄2-foot comebacker.

Ogilvy: I remember thinking, Wow, that never happens. Or maybe the way to say it is, That never used to happen.

Laird: That hole was in a funky position on Sunday. I missed a short one there too. Guys were missing three- or four-footers all day. The hole was sitting on a funny little slope, and guys couldn’t get it in the hole for some reason.

On 13, Woods hits a perfect drive around the corner, leaving only 187 yards to the flag, downwind. But he yanks his approach left of the green and is doomed to make a costly par.

Woods: The seven-iron I hit in there was a terrible shot. Twelve and 13 were huge because I had all the momentum and everything was going my way.

Donald, only a month away from taking over the top spot in the World Ranking, arrives at the 12th hole only two strokes off the lead but dumps his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, leading to a double bogey.

Van Pelt: When he pulled nine-iron I remember thinking, He better hit it good. Seemed like he did, but the air does funny things down there.

Donald: I was aiming at the middle of the bunker and trying to hit a little hold back to the flag. I pushed it eight or nine yards. It was very deflating.

McIlroy reaches the 10th hole still leading by a stroke but yanks his tee shot dead left into the pines. His ball caroms farther left, toward a couple of cabins that are not considered in play.

McIlroy: I felt comfortable on that tee shot all week, and for some reason I started it a little left of where I wanted to and hit that tree. I don’t think anyone’s been over in those cabins before.

While McIlroy surveys his options, he can hear the cheers as Scott makes a 30-foot birdie putt on the 11th hole, to reach 10 under. After a successful punch-out McIlroy still has a good chance to save bogey, but with a three-wood he hooks his third shot left of the green, behind a tree. His fourth shot clips a branch and fails to reach the green. He goes on to make a triple-bogey 7. If McIlory is in need of a word of encouragement, he is not going to get it from his brooding playing partner.

Cabrera: Well, it’s not that I feel sorry for him, because it has happened to many players and it can happen to anyone; it can happen to me, and it’s just tough.

Choi: On the back nine everything was happening very fast. It was one roar after another, or people kind of groaning so you know something bad has happened. It was impossible to keep track of who was doing what.

Van Pelt: On 13 I hit my second shot off the pine needles really close. Luke laid up and then stuffed his shot. That’s a great amphitheater down there, and the people were getting really loud. As we’re walking to the green, Tiger hit his second shot into 15. People don’t realize how close that green is to the 13th. So the people on 15 started going nuts. Then everyone at 13 figured out what had happened, and they started going nuts. It was the first time in my life all the hairs on my arm stood up. I’ve heard people talk about that, but I didn’t believe it. Then it happened. I told my caddie, “This is the stuff you can’t buy.”

Van Pelt and Donald both hole their putts. Up ahead at 15, Woods is lining up a four-footer for eagle that would give him sole possession of the lead, but he misses badly.

Ogilvy: I was surprised it happened once. Couldn’t believe it happened again.

Woods, regarding his missed putts at 12 and 15: A pull and a block. That’s about it.

Woods regroups to make the comebacker for birdie. Choi flies the green with his tee shot on 12 and fails to get up and down, dropping him out of a share of the lead.

Choi: I was playing for a fade, and it didn’t fade. If you miss that green, chipping is very tough. At some Masters you can make bogeys and recover. At this Masters too many people were making birdies.

On the 11th hole McIlroy plays a gutsy approach at the flag, tucked not far from the water. But he misses his birdie putt and then the two-foot comebacker.

McIlroy: I sort of unraveled. I lost a lot of confidence in my putting around the turn. I didn’t really get anything going and was sort of second-guessing lines and secondguessing my speed. On these greens you can’t do that.

Cabrera finds the back bunker with his tee shot at the 12th hole and makes bogey. He will never again have a share of the lead. Amen Corner has exacted its toll.

Scott: Growing up in Australia, I spent my childhood watching Greg [Norman] play Augusta and contend, a lot. I think the whole country did. I mean, Greg was bigger than just golf in Australia. He was an icon. So the dream of coming to Augusta and simply playing is huge and, you know, to win even bigger. It’s one of the things that we haven’t accomplished in Australian sport. We are a strong sporting nation, and we push our athletes hard. One day it’s going to happen.

On the 14th hole Ogilvy makes his third straight birdie to reach eight under, two off the lead. It is his first appearance on the telecast since the 2nd hole. At that moment his countrymen Scott and Day are at the 13th. Scott has played the hole birdie-eagle-eagle in the first three rounds, but after driving into the right rough, he lays up even though he’s only 236 yards out.

Scott: I don’t regret it at all. I didn’t feel as if it was do or die. I knew if I laid up, I would still have a shot at birdie.

He is left with a 10-foot birdie putt but makes what he calls a “weak” stroke and takes an inconvenient par. When Day two-putts from 80 feet for birdie, he becomes the seventh player to have at least a share of the Sunday lead.

Day: I had to try hard to keep my composure. But my goal was to have a lot of fun and be happy. I was enjoying myself, and I think that really helped my mental game.

After an errant drive, Ogilvy lays up at 15 and then spins a wedge to within five feet, leading to his fourth birdie in a row. He’s a stroke off the lead as he steps to the tee of the par-3 16th. The traditional Sunday pin is in the back left, allowing players to funnel shots off the steeply sloped green.

Ogilvy: When I get my invitation to the Masters in December, I start thinking about hitting that shot. You grow up watching balls trickle down that slope to the pin. I love that shot. As soon as I hit my tee shot, I knew it was perfect. I began to get a little nervous because I thought it might go in. Then what?

Ogilvy’s ball stops three feet from the hole. Now the tee belongs to 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples.

Ogilvy: People at Augusta absolutely love Freddy. They sit at one hole all day hoping he’ll come through and do something special. So he steps up and hits his tee shot inside of me. People are losing their minds. They don’t sit down from the time he hits his shot until we go to the 17th tee. Even over my putt it never got quiet. Only semiquiet.

Ogilvy makes his putt for his fifth consecutive birdie. Six shots back when he arrived on the 12th tee, he is now the eighth player to have a piece of the Sunday lead. On the 12th hole McIlroy four-putts from 15 feet. He is seven over par on his round and five strokes behind the leaders. “I can’t believe it,” Ian Baker-Finch intones gravely on the telecast. “It’s a brutal game, and we are all a little fragile. And we all feel for him.” Now there is a sickening feeling among the dogwoods. On the 13th tee McIlroy snap-hooks his drive into the hazard. He slumps over, his face buried in the crook of his arm.

McIlroy: I felt like crying. Even after what happened at 10, you’re thinking 13, 15, 16 . . . there’s a lot of chances coming in. But 13 was the one that took all that away.

Ogilvy: All the rest of us did Rory a huge favor. It could have been a death march for him, where his struggles were the focus of the rest of the day. But there were so many birdies flying around, everyone pretty much forgot about him. He was spared a lot of agony.

On the 13th hole Choi has an eight-foot birdie putt to rejoin the leaders but misreads it. His bid is over. At 14, Scott and Day face a classic match-play scenario: Both have downhill birdie putts on a similar line on one of Augusta National’s most frightening greens. Scott putts first, from five feet, and nudges home his birdie. A perennial disappointment in the majors, he now has sole possession of the lead. Day, a Masters rookie, faces a four-footer to keep pace but misses on the low side.

Day: That putt was a lot harder because Adam had just made his. It’s like, you don’t want to give up the lead, you want to match him shot for shot.

Meanwhile, Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, has arrived at the 17th hole.

Ogilvy: When I get to the tee, I think I’m going to win the tournament. If I can make one more birdie I’m definitely going to win. It was hard to tee the ball up because of the nerves.

His drive leaks into the second cut down the right side. Up ahead, Woods has missed the green at 17 after cautiously going with a threewood off the tee. He gets up and down for par. Playing for a flier that doesn’t come, Ogilvy puts his approach in the front bunker, and he also has to scramble for par. Back at 15, Van Pelt sticks his second shot to three feet and makes his second eagle in three holes.

Van Pelt: The coolest thing was the walk from 15 green to 16 tee. Everybody stood up and cheered. For me! I’ll never forget that. But if there’s one thing I could do over, it’d be the tee shot at 16. I was hitting my irons so good. Instead of taking on the water and the bunker and aiming at the flag, I aimed at the slope, where there’s more margin for error. I pushed it by about a yard and a half, and the ball stayed up there, which is dead. If it catches the slope, I have a little birdie putt and who knows what happens? That’s how small the difference between winning and losing can be.

Van Pelt’s three-putt bogey ends his run. But his playing partner, Donald, drains an 18-footerfor his third birdie in the last four holes, moving to 10 under, within one of the lead.

Donald [10 months later]: Really, did I birdie 16? I don’t remember that, which is unusual. I normally have a pretty good recall of these things. But that goes to show how your circuitry can get overloaded there.

At 15, Day loses his drive into the trees and punches out. Scott smashes one off the tee and goes for the green, but from the middle of the fairway his five-iron approach slices into the gallery.

Scott: That’s the only one I would want over. It wasn’t a good swing. It would have been great to hit it onto the green and have a look for eagle.

Scott and Day misplay their third shots and lose a precious birdie opportunity. At 18, Woods’s approach comes to rest well short and right of the flag. He makes a par for a back nine 36, taking the clubhouse lead at 10 under.

Schwartzel: Tiger will never be just another name on the leader board, but the days are over when players are intimidated because he’s around the lead. A lot of guys have now beaten him head-to-head. No one is going to give him anything. You saw that on the back nine—he took the lead, but the rest of the players kept attacking and making birdie.

With a wedge in his hand Ogilvy misses the final green and can do no better than par, leaving him at 10 under. After making an eight-footer to save par at 15, Scott plays a near perfect tee ball on the 16th hole.

Scott: As it was rolling back down the hill and looked as if it might go in, I remember thinking, If this goes in I might win the Masters.

The ball stops a foot from the cup. Scott waits to brush in his putt while Schwartzel is facing an eight-footer for birdie at the 15th green. After his fast start, beginning on the 5th hole Schwartzel made 10 consecutive pars and was largely forgotten in the unfolding drama.

Schwartzel: If guys had been running away from me, it would have been easy to lose my patience and start trying to force things, but I was always on the lead or very close to it. It’s so tough out there—the secret of Augusta is to stay patient. That week I was very disciplined. I felt a spell of calmness over me. I think that all played a role.

As Schwartzel is addressing his putt, a cheer erupts from the 16th hole as Day holes out for par.

Schwartzel: I heard it, but it didn’t bother me. I was so focused on that putt, so confident I was going to make it, I didn’t want to back away. I wanted to get on with it.

He drills it center cut. On the telecast David Feherty says, “Come what may, Charl Schwartzel can say that he led the Masters for about seven seconds.” Scott taps in to regain the solo lead, at 12 under.

Scott: My thought on 17 tee with a one-shot lead was that finishing 4–4 is going to be really good. Looking back over the years, 4–4 does you a lot of good in that situation. They’re tough holes.

On the long, narrow 17th hole Scott pulls his drive so far left, he’s in a bunker on the 7th hole. Back at 16, Schwartzel is facing a 20-foot birdie putt with 18 inches of break.

Schwartzel: The putt on 16 was another one where I hit a few in the practice round and knew exactly how much it turns. I think I had so much confidence in my putting at that stage that I knew if I could relax my hands, I would make a proper stroke. And I was able to do that every time when I stood over the ball, get myself really calm.

His ball catches the left edge and tumbles in for a birdie that pushes him to 12 under, tied with Scott. Donald bogeys the 17th hole after an errant second shot (“I remember that one, unfortunately”) and then hits the flag stick on 18 with his approach, the ball caroming off the green. He chips in for birdie to get back to 10 under, touching off the lustiest celebration of his career.

Donald: The reason I reacted like that is because that kept me in it. I knew Tiger and Ogilvy were already in at 10 under, and now I had a chance to be in the playoff. Adam and Charl had the lead, but it’s easy to make a mistake on the last two holes.

After finding the bunker in front of the 17th green with his second shot, Scott saves par with a clutch 12-footer to maintain his share of the lead. Day makes a 40-foot bomb to move to 11 under.

Day: When Scotty got to 12 [under], I knew that I had to birdie 17 and 18. And I said on 17 tee, Four more good swings. That putt was going a little strong, but it hit the hole and went in.

Schwartzel’s drive on 17 leaks into the right rough, his path to the green blocked by the limb of a towering pine.

Schwartzel: It would have been wedge for me, but I had to hit a little nine-iron with a touch of cut on it, which I thought worked absolutely perfect.

Choi: That green is as hard as rock. I don’t know how he stopped the ball out of the rough but somehow he did. Check his grooves! Best shot he hit all day.

Schwartzel faces a left-edge 12-footer to take sole possession of the lead for the first time. He knows what’s at stake.

Schwartzel: You can’t miss the leader boards at Augusta. They’re so big. So if a guy at Augusta says he never sees a leader board, he’s lying. I believe everyone always knows what’s going on.

Schwartzel pours in his putt to reach 13 under. Walking up the 18th fairway, Scott hears the cheers and knows he is now one behind.

Scott: I was up the right side of the fairway. I couldn’t hit a straight shot to the pin; I had to move it left to right slightly because the trees were tight. I cut it a bit too much. It wasn’t a bad shot, I simply didn’t get any of the funnel toward the hole.

His ball stops 30 feet from the flag. Day feeds his second shot off the green’s slope to within eight feet. As they walk to the green, Scott gives his longtime friend a low five.

Day: We had a blast out there. We were talking, having fun. It was a lot easier, I’ll tell you that much, to play with Adam.

Schwartzel arrives at the 18th tee as Scott and Day are studying their birdie putts. He must decide how aggressively to play the final hole.

Schwartzel: Whenever you’re standing on the 18th tee with a one-shot lead at Augusta, it’s not easy. That little tunnel gets very narrow. The whole week I hit three-woods to take the bunkers out of play, and I felt that I needed to hit a driver [this time]. I had been hitting my driver well, and I decided I’m going to lash it. I hit it way up there.

Scott is the first to putt.

Scott: I knew I had to make it. That’s why I kind of gave my putt a good run. It was never on a good line, but the last thing you do in that position is leave it short. I thought, I may not ever be in this position again.

Day makes his putt to tie Scott for the clubhouse lead at 12 under. So as Schwartzel stands in the 18th fairway, he knows a par will win the green jacket.

Schwartzel: We had only 130 yards to the flag, which was an absolute perfect wedge for me, which also made it easier knowing that it’s a stock, standard wedge. We hit thousands of wedge s in our l ive s . You sor t of think back on those, all of the good ones you’ve hit . I felt good over it.

He knocks it to 15 feet and then makes the putt, his fourth birdie in a row in an unprecedented finishing flourish for a Masters champion.

Schwartzel: At that stage there was a release of tension from all that pressure coming off my back. You have been concentrating so hard just trying to hold yourself together. That moment with my arms in the air is such a blur. Looking at the photographs now, I can’t even tell you exactly what I was thinking. The adrenaline is so high. You realize what you have done, but to take in the importance of it all is not possible.

Choi: Birdie. Birdie. Birdie. Birdie. Oh, O.K., that is how you’re supposed to do it! That was unbelievable golf. It was an honor to play with him. Very calm, very generous, very kind. I have a lot of respect for him. Very gracious man.

Day: The atmosphere was unbelievable. It was everything that you expect of Augusta National and the Masters, times a hundred.

Ogilvy: I wasn’t there in 1986, but there’s no way it was louder. People were cheering for Jack, sure, but it was all concentrated on one hole. Here, there were outbursts all over the course. Constantly. Someone was always doing something spectacular. It was a magical day of golf. To be part of it, even for a little while, was as thrilling as it gets.

Schwartzel: When you’re playing, you can’t completely appreciate what is happening. You hear the roars and see the numbers change on the leader board, but you don’t really know who is doing what. Two weeks after the Masters, I was home in South Africa, and I finally got to watch a tape of the final round and experience it like a fan. I had goose bumps the whole way through. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I was nervous! The way it played out, it didn’t seem real. It seemed like a movie.

No screenwriter or playwright could dream up so many outlandish plot twists. The final round of the 2011 Masters was the best kind of reality television. It was, quite simply, one of the greatest days in golf history.