Maybe this will sound familiar to you: Put on the robe, fire up the tablet, check out the Masters Sunday tee times, pinch yourself. A down-to-earth Midwestern journeyman, Bo Van Pelt, having the week of his life, six under and leading. Three mono-namers trailing him by a shot: Bubba, Tiger, Fred. Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Ryan Palmer and Steve Stricker all in shouting distance. What an eightsome. You settled in for an afternoon of must-see TV, right? Of course you did.
At Augusta National they give a silver cup to the low amateur, a sport coat to the overall winner and a special new prize, an Old Glory lapel pin, to the low American. That’s what it’s come to, just about.
Naturally, with so much at stake, some members of that gang of eight were going to be edgy and tight. You couldn’t expect them to all play great Sunday golf, and they didn’t. Van Pelt, playing in only his second Masters, opened with a bogey and didn’t make a birdie on the par-5 2nd. Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, the 54-hole overall leader, did the same thing, and it was the beginning of the end for him, too. If you’re leading on Sunday, regardless of the division, you really want to make a two-putt par on the 1st and a pitch-and-a-putt birdie on the par-5 2nd, to settle your nerves and serve notice to the other fellows. Easier said than done. The Irish golfer will know better next time, and you have to think he’ll be the overall winner someday. As for Van Pelt, even though he didn’t win low American, he earned a spot in next year’s Masters by finishing in the top 16, so he can try all over again. “I love this golf course,” he said at the end of the week. “I love this tournament.”
Phil Mickelson, low American and overall low man at last year’s Masters, was getting all sorts of love last week, but it could buoy him only so high. Maybe he was spent from his Masters tune-up, when he won in Houston the week before Augusta. Still, the Mickelson charm was on display, as per usual. At the Tuesday-night champions dinner Mickelson paid tribute to an absent former overall winner, the great Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, by serving paella and gazpacho salad. When Phil walked up the 18th fairway on Sunday with Edoardo Molinari of Italy, there was a sustained standing ovation for him, and he beamed in the summery air. In Sunday’s gloaming, when he draped the coat on the overall winner, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, Mickelson looked like a movie star, with his dimples and his tan and his bright-white teeth. “I just love playing here,” he said. Augusta loves him back.
The only current player the Augusta patrons love more is Fred Couples, who opened up with a 71 and a 68 and got people all worked up about the possibility that, at age 51, he could do it, he could be low American. If you went to a big U.S. high school, you likely knew somebody like Fred. He was cool then and remains so today. The languid pace of his backswing: cool. The brown tennis shoes he wears for golf: super cool. The way he ate a sandwich while walking down the fairway on the par-3 4th: oddly cool. Most people would feel too rushed to eat a sandwich on a par-3, but not Fred. Fred doesn’t do rushed.
After an even-par 72 on Saturday, Fred needed a big Sunday – when he was paired with the Australian golfer Geoff Ogilvy – but all he could muster was a 73, with a whiffed shot on the 2nd. He might have started to sense then that he was not going to be low American. He was still rooting for Ogilvy to win the overall title. “I played with a guy who made a late run, which was fun,” Couples said. “I love Geoff Ogilvy.”
Love was a big theme for the Americans last week. Bubba Watson, the lefthander who played golf at Georgia, was greeted by warm choruses of “Go, Dawgs!” wherever he went. That, and “Bub-ba!” Golf people have forever said that Augusta National is a playground for players who hit big, high, long, drawing drives, but Bubba’s play last week reminds you that the bombing lefthanded fader is every bit as effective, maybe more so. On Saturday, Watson got himself in contention, definitely for low American and possibly for the overall title, too, with a neat 67. Nobody shot lower.
Really, Watson has everything you need to win at Augusta. His tee shot on Sunday at 11 was nothing Alister MacKenÂzie or Tom Fazio or anybody else could have imagined. He stood over his white ball with white shirt, white pants and white visor with a big ol’ cut stance. He aimed for the scoreboard over the 11th green. At the top of his backswing his hands were about 10 feet off the ground. He took the dogleg right out of the hole by hitting a tee shot that sailed over the dozen tall pines on the right side of the fairway. If you can reach all four par-5s easily – and turn number 11, which is a million yards long, into a drive-and-a-pitch two-shotter – you can win at Augusta. Bubba can do all that. On Saturday night Bubba said that if he could shoot another 67, he’d have a chance. Unfortunately for Watson and Bulldog fans across the idyllic links, he closed with a 78.
Bubba may have a future as a swami. Had he shot a 67, he and the actual low American of the week, Tiger Woods, would have played off for the honor at 10 under par. As it happens, Woods won the title by two, over Van Pelt. What Woods did last week was breathtaking and a reminder of what a powerful and amazing force he is in the game.
It began on Saturday night, with his one-word response to the question, “Can you still win?”
“Absolutely,” Woods said. He trailed McIlroy by seven shots at the time. There were a dozen players tied with Woods or lower than him. By the time Woods made the turn on Sunday, after going out in 31, he was tied for the lead at 10 under. Not low American. Overall low man. As he made the walk from the 9th green to the 10th, his face looked as if it were made of granite. It was the game face to end all game faces. It made you miss the old Tiger, the one who took no prisoners, the one who was (you could make the case) the best closer in the history of sports. “C’mon, camera guys, c’mon,” he said as he prepared to play his tee shot on the 10th hole. Everybody was on edge: the players, the fans, the camera guys. No athlete has ever fallen so far so fast as Woods, not in the history of American sports. If Tiger could return to winning at Augusta, the place where he won the first of his 14 professional majors, it would be the epic first chapter of the rest of his golfing life.
As it turned out, Woods could manage nothing more than a back-nine 36, for a 67 and a four-day total of 10 under par. Charl Schwartzel, with his four straight birdies in the end, finished four shots ahead of Woods in the overall competition. Still, Woods won low American. He didn’t stick around for the awards ceremony. He did take a big step toward getting a spot on Fred’s American Presidents Cup team come September.
Woods is famous for taking no pleasure from second-place finishes and finding no value in moral victories. He was the leader or co-leader in the clubhouse for about a half hour on Sunday evening, until Adam Scott of Australia shot a score two lower than Tiger’s. Winning the low-American title at the 2011 Masters and finishing in a tie for fourth in the whole thing may not get even a half sentence on Woods’s wildly expansive Wikipedia page. But something much more important did happen: Woods got standing ovations on the 10th hole, on the 18th hole, and the biggest roar of the day when he made an eagle on the 8th hole. It told us what we may not have known before last week: American golf fans are ready to see this guy win again. And something else, too: Woods is getting closer to making it happen.