Some Masters are coronations, extended salutes to a champion who's put the field far behind him long before he reaches the 18th green. Some are train wrecks, agonizing tests of nerves where the leader surrenders a green jacket with one wayward drive or putt. But 2011's Masters was the golf equivalent of a cage match, a street fight where nearly a dozen players took turns at the top of the leaderboard.
But in the end, Charl Schwartzel separated himself from the crowd, seizing the Masters with a definitive birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie finish, 50 years to the day after his South African countryman Gary Player became the first international player to win the Masters. It was an exceptional performance, made all the more impressive by the level of talent that Schwartzel had to outplay to win the green jacket.
Schwartzel played exactly the kind of round he needed to win on this day: hot early (a birdie and an eagle the first three holes), steady midround (10 straight pars from 5 to 14) and a hammer-down finish with those four straight birdies. He closed at 14-under, two strokes ahead of the field.
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And it was a crowded field indeed, with both veteran major winners and too-young-to-be-scared kids. As is always the case at the majors, Tiger Woods seized a large share of the golf world's attention, but this time, at least, that attention was warranted. Woods shot an impressive 31 on the front nine to erase a seven-stroke deficit. Poor putting would eventually doom Woods; he missed too many short putts to put any real pressure on the players teeing off behind him. Like last year, Woods finished tied for fourth at 10-under, but it could have been, and may still one day be, much better.
But the heroics of Schwartzel and the charges of Woods, Geoff Ogilvy and others wouldn't have been necessary had 54-hole leader Rory McIlroy played Sunday the way he played Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Unfortunately, McIlroy completely melted down on the 10th hole, triple-bogeying the par-4 and effectively ending not just his chances but his sanity for the rest of the day.
Other players had a chance at the green jacket, but none came closer than Adam Scott, who carried a lead all the way up 18. It was there, within sight of Butler Cabin, that Scott heard the third of Schwartzel's four birdies drop, giving Schwartzel the outright lead. Scott couldn't convert the birdie attempt, but the onetime phenom-turned-cautionary tale may have discovered a second life in golf. He's only 30, even if he uses an old man's long putter, and might end up being the player everyone expected he'd be nearly a decade ago.
Jason Day, Scott's fellow Australian, also hung close enough to make a late charge, birdieing the last two holes and four of the last seven. And like Woods, Geoff Ogilvy came from seven strokes back to briefly seize a share of the lead, bringing back memories of the 2006 U.S. Open he vultured when Phil Mickelson imploded. Angel Cabrera, Bo Van Pelt, Luke Donald, K.J. Choi -- each had a chance and each came so very close.
Schwartzel's late dominance meant this Masters was a couple strokes away from being a playoff classic. But for Charl Schwartzel, this victory, like the green jacket he'll now own forever, fits just fine.