It was the great Augusta National member Mel Brooks who foreshadowed this wildly entertaining Masters. You remember, way back when he made the "Star Wars" spoof, "Spaceballs," Brooks told us years ago: "May the Schwartzel be with you!"
OK. Who opens a Masters column with a dated "Spaceballs" reference? That's a two-stroke penalty on yours truly. Plus, I think Brooks gave up his ANGC membership in the Martha Burk kerfluffle, if memory serves correctly.
Either way: Schwartzel! Who knew?
Making birdie on Holes 15-16-17-18 to win the green jacket by two strokes is legendary stuff, unprecedented in Masters lore. And the "down the stretch they come!" feel to the back nine was awesome theater, one of the best Masters races in years.
By that, I mean: Hats off. You're immortal. You performed under the brightest of lights. But we won't remember you for very long, as I was just saying to my good friends Lucas Glover, Mike Weir and Rich Beem.
Instead, the story from the 2011 Masters was twofold.
One storyline: the horse race to the finish – unpredictable, sprawling, delightfully all over the place.
The other storyline was, as always, Tiger.
By that, I don't mean the "Tiger is back" storyline. Because, quite frankly, I'm not sure he is.
Yes, I saw the trickle-down iron to the No. 2 green, using the slope so smartly and deftly to set up birdie. Yes, I saw the rope-hook fairway wood to 10 feet on No. 8, prime-time T.W. stuff if there ever was some. And yes, I saw him pour home the eagle on 8 and exultation from days of yore, tying for the lead on Sunday at the Masters.
A lot of that magic, I believe, is Augusta-induced. Tiger doesn't just love it there. He lives it there. Augusta National is why I think he has a better than even shot to pass Jack Nicklaus' major record, given that he has a decade of prime golf to play there, and a great chance to win two or three more green jackets, so perfect is his game for that golf course, and so comfortable is he in that milieu.
Don't forget, Tiger finished tied for fourth at the 2010 Masters, also. He's logged six consecutive top-four or better finishes since 2005, his last green jacket. Mightily impressive.
Also don't forget, the U.S. Open at Congressional will mark the three-year anniversary since his last major – the longest major drought of his professional career.
What happened on Sunday was about more than just a Tiger charge. It was about how others around him reacted to Tiger.
For a decade, Tiger's main foils – Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia and more – quaked in their spikes when Tiger made major-championship moves. Tiger threw headlocks on them until they submitted and tapped out. He often left them no choice because of his genius golf and endless guts.
But other times, they wilted on their own. Other times, they heard Tiger roars and never made a move. Other times, they ceded higher ground to the red shirt on Sunday. There was more than scar tissue – there was scare tissue.
And then along came April 10, 2011.
Seven shots back on a Sunday at Augusta, and sporting a resume that said he's never won a major from behind, Tiger gifted us a greatest-hits set like no other. The aforementioned birdie on No. 2. The flop shot to set up birdie on 3. The knowledgeable use of the sixth green to set up birdie. The eagle at 8. Yeah, baby, the eagle at 8.
It was 12:59 p.m. in my California living room, and Tiger Flippin' Woods was five under par though his first eight holes, tied for the Masters lead, fist-pumping, red-clad, all Tiger-ed up to the gills.
What happened from there?
Nobody ran and hid (except, of course, young Rory McIlroy, who had his own things going on, and is currently looking for cookies, milk, a blanket, a hug from Mom and a nap).
Look at what happened from the moment Tiger made the turn in 31, tied for the lead at 10-under:
• Jason Day, 23 years old and playing behind Tiger, played a bogey-free back nine 32, including birdies on 17 and 18, and raced past Tiger.
• Adam Scott, without a major title and questioned for his mental toughness, played behind Tiger's roars and posted a bogey-free 33 on the back nine, finishing ahead of Tiger.
• Geoff Ogilvy, already with a major in the Tiger Era (the 2006 U.S. Open), played in the twosome immediately behind Tiger and ripped off five consecutive birdies for a back-nine 31, tying Tiger's final-round 67.
• Luke Donald, playing behind Tiger's noise, bounced back from a double-bogey on No. 12 for a back-nine 34, going three under in his last six holes.
• And Schwartzel, all of 26 years old (just 12 when Tiger won the 1997 Masters) and playing behind Tiger's pine-rattling crowds, carded arguably the greatest back nine since Nicklaus in '86, a bogey-free 32 and those instantly historic four consecutive birdies. Oh, by the way, he'll be drawing up the menu for next year's Champions Dinner.
So what we had here was a failure to choke.
For years, Tiger's secret weapon was inducing what we'll agreeably call the "pucker factor" in his competitors. But in this new golf world, the old rules do not apply. These guys knew what Tiger was doing. They heard it. They saw the leader boards. It was a dynamite charge.
And their answer to him was, loosely translated, since so many of them were Aussie: "I got your pucker factor right here, mate."
In other words, these guys went all Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine (where Yang stunned Woods for the 2009 PGA Championship title) on us.
As notable was the fact that Tiger played those last 10 holes at even par, after playing the first eight holes five under. The missed tiddlers at 12 and 15 loom as large as anything Jason Day or Charl Schwartzel did. I'm not saying Tiger has the "yips," but he might have the "yi-," which is the scientific term for the half-yips.
Tiger has many years and many majors ahead where he can add to his bushel. He can do it. He'll just have to do it in a different landscape than a decade ago.
Scorecard of the week
• 65-69-70-80 – 4-under 284, Rory McIlroy, T-15, Masters, Augusta National Golf Club
Speaking of scar tissue …
How does young Rors respond to this setback? He's off to a good start publicly, handling all post-round interviews with startling grace. McIlroy even went to Twitter and posted easily the best post-choke tweet in golf history (understanding, of course, that golf chokes went about 150 years without Twitter):
"Well, that wasn't the plan! Found it tough going today, but you have to lose before you can win. This day will make me stronger in the end."
That's some serious perspective from a 21-year-old who spent the middle of Masters week tossing an American football in front of his rented house with his childhood pals from Northern Ireland, until an elderly neighbor told those darn kids to knock it off. Shades of Dennis the Menace in this kid, if Dennis the Menace had a golf swing so buttery, it should be poured over movie popcorn.
The narrative was all set: McIlroy was to hold his four-shot 54-hole lead, win the green jacket and usher in a new era in golf. The stories were already written: Lad who at age seven watched Tiger win the Masters on TV announces arrival of new generation, passing the torch, times they are a-changin', yada, yada, yada. The Saturday moment where McIlroy's birdie on 17 caused Tiger to back away from his shot on 18 was perfectly symbolic, a writer's dream.
Except now we take more time to appreciate how epic Tiger was at age 21, winning the Masters by 12 strokes. McIlroy, at the same age, instead crumbled like 21-year-olds can on the doorstep of immortality.
Funny thing was, it appeared as if the nerves that caused McIlroy to miss a short putt for bogey on No. 1, fail to make birdie ay 2 and miss a short putt on 5 for bogey, were actually coming under control as he played the rest of the front nine. When McIlroy birdied 7 to regain the lead then nutted his drive on 8, the thought was that young Rors was in it to win it. Even missing birdie chances on 8 and 9 left him in decent shape after a front-nine 37, still with a one-shot lead.
What happened on the par-4 10th hole, then, will be the thing that may cause McIlroy to head for therapy. His pulled drive kicked off a tree so severely, it catapulted way off track near some cabins, so far off the beaten path that CBS cameras couldn't even get there to show his lie. Either that, or the ANGC Green Jackets threatened to Taser any CBS camera that dared tread near a cabin.
The ensuing triple-bogey only begot the total loss of confidence in his game, leading to a three-putt bogey on 11 and an unspeakably bad four-putt on No. 12.
Rors was cooked.
Golf history has examples of great players self-immolating and still crafting great careers. Tom Watson is on the Mount Rushmore of said list, blowing a 54-hole lead in the 1974 U.S. Open in New York at Winged Foot Golf Club with a final-round 79, but bouncing back to win the 1975 British Open en route to eight major championships.
Which route will McIlroy take? The smart money says his game, temperament and youth tilt toward the Watson path. We can only hope. The kid is too good for the game, and too fun to watch.
Besides, who has a self-deprecating sense of humor like Rory? He re-tweeted a comment from a follower who said: "Thanks for showing me there are houses at Augusta. You learn something new every day." McIlory's response to the tweet? "LOL!"
Go on, Rors. All the best.
Mulligan of the week
• While we're on the topic, let's let the young Ulsterman re-tee on No. 10 right now.
A one-shot lead on the back nine Sunday at Augusta, the world in your palm, and you hit that drive?
Caddie J.P. Fitzgerald, reach into your bag, toss the lad a Titleist, turn to playing partner Angel Cabrera and say: "Is it OK if we … give that man a mulligan!"
Broadcast moment of the week
• "The game is on. The game is on. And this 75th playing of the Masters is wiiiide open." – Peter Kostis, CBS, after Tiger Woods birdied No. 7 to get to 8-under par, two shots off the lead.
I'm going with Kostis' big-picture framing, because it said what we were all thinking and feeling and sums up the day for me. But Masters week is a great week for BMOWs, in general.
Jim Nantz had a good week. When Tiger had to back away from his shot Saturday on 18 because of the cheers for McIlroy's birdie on 17, Nantz cited a Henry Longhurst line from the 1975 Masters' Tom Weiskopf-Nicklaus-Johnny Miller duel, when Longhurst said, "Now Mr. Weiskopf must take it, just as he dished it out." It was a nifty contextual reference. Nantz also flashed some humor after McIlroy's errant tee shot on 10 near the cabins, saying: "I know he's anxious to get to Butler Cabin, but it's a little early!" For a guy who sometimes veers into the fawning mode at Augusta National, they were two nice moments of history and comedy.
And then there was Nantz's compadre Nick Faldo, who never fails to disappoint. I could have given any number of Faldo "look at me" moments for the BMOW, but I am banning him from the honor out of protest. Which to choose from? Watching players on 11 try to make birdie, he offered: "I made birdie on 11 once, and it was very special." Wait. Really? You won the Masters in a playoff with a birdie on 11? You don't say, Sir Nick!
Or his pregame plan for the leaders, saying they needed a bit of Nicklaus' concentration, a bit of Palmer's dash and the ability to "put the blinders on like you-know-who." Wait. No, we don't know who, Sir Nick. Do tell!
Or, when he said as Schwartzel was bearing down on victory, "He was one of my darkhorses this week." And yet, only minutes earlier, when Nantz asked Faldo at 3 p.m. PT: "Who do you fancy, Nick?," Sir Nick could only come up with: "Uh, I think Adam Scott is in a bad spot with his second at 15." Flex your darkhorse, Mr. Faldo! Don't hold back!
Bless that man. He does give us entertainment.
Where do we go from here?
• I'm disappointed in the new PGA Tour schedule. The tour heads to Texas for the oft-times forgettable Valero Texas Open. Yes, the Texas Open is on a new, better golf course, but I miss the old annual schedule that went from the Masters to the Heritage, aka the "Hangover Open" at Hilton Head, a beautiful, sleepy beach town that is the Sunday morning Bloody Mary to the Masters' raging Saturday night kegger.
From your Masters leaderboard of Sunday heroes, only defending Texas Open champ Adam Scott, Angel Cabrera and Bo Van Pelt will be teeing it up.
Might be a good week to take a few naps and study up on Charl Schwartzel trivia.
- Tiger Woods
- Charl Schwartzel