For about an hour, it felt like the only place on Earth.
Scores of people young and old, fat and skinny, loud and quiet, local and foreign, bunched shoulder to sweaty shoulder on the tiny patch of land known as Amen Corner and watched the games of the world’s top golfers come together and implode.
They murmured and shouted, fretted and sighed, screamed and laughed – sometimes all at once. It was perhaps the craziest Sunday in Masters history, and so much of the craziness would happen right there, in the place named for a prayer.
It started with Tiger Woods.
He shot a stunning 5-under 31 on the front nine and everyone on the course knew that Amen Corner, the confluence of holes 11, 12 and 13, would be the literal turning point for the day and maybe history.
So they rushed there, some carrying folding chairs and some carrying children, some claiming a spot and some wandering like shoppers looking for their cars in a mall parking lot.
“Excuse me, sorry, excuse me, sorry.”
A bald man named Eric, his head glistening with sweat, just grinned. He lives two miles away but had never been to a round at the Masters – until today. As Tiger strode into view, he laughed to himself and shook his head. What luck.
A rumor blew through the crowd: “Michael Jordan is here!” said one. Everyone took their eyes off the 11th green and scanned. No MJ. But there was Tiger’s agent, Mark Steinberg, standing and staring at the huge white scoreboard like everyone else. A portly patron sidled up to him, not knowing who he was, and asked what Tiger was putting for. Steinberg whispered, “For par,” and returned his gaze to the course.
That was the kind of scene it was at Amen Corner – a broiling, babbling crowd where the wealthy and powerful were just as anonymous and excited as the regular Joes. The only status symbol was height, as anyone under five-foot-ten couldn’t see a thing. Children stood at their parents’ side, looking up and asking what was happening. An 18-month-old slept in her mother’s arms.
Wood made par at 11 and then took the short walk to the 12th tee. The crowd roared and then went completely silent as Woods looked out at the flag. He swung and somehow silence became even quieter.
“That’s the Tiger hush right there,” said a man.
Woods landed on the green and the fans clapped, but then groaned when he bogeyed to drop to nine under. Steinberg leaned over, spit, and followed his guy to 13.
“Just like ’86!” yelled a North Carolina man named Brian Reep. He stood right at this spot 25 years before, when Jack Nicklaus bogeyed 12 but still shot 30 on the back to win his sixth green jacket. Reep is 51 now, and Sunday he stood in the exact same place, feeling the exact same thing. “It’s awesome,” he drawled.
It got more awesome. The scoreboard, perched behind the 11th green, flipped like a European train station schedule. Each change of a number brought a gasp.
K.J. Choi goes to 10 under: “Choi,” someone said. “Fricking Choi.”
Adam Scott goes to nine under: “Adam Scott?!” blurted a man. “An Aussie has never won the Masters.”
Luke Donald down to seven under: “Water,” someone said.
Golf is supposed to be a slow game, a peaceful game. But this was a don’t-blink barrage of sound and drama and balls flying in and up and away and down. It was no use for marshals to quiet the audience, as they were staring themselves. The crowd sighed or screamed at the scoreboard, completely forgetting that players were not only within earshot, but lining up putts only a few dozen feet away. A tradition unlike any other now felt like an Arena Football League game.
Woods was long gone now, but a lot of people stayed, burning a hole in his line on the scoreboard with their eyes. Every distant roar perked ears – Was that a Tiger roar? Was it someone else? What’s going on? Anyone know?
The 18-month-old slept on.
Suddenly a hole emerged in the board next to Tiger’s name. It was at 15. This was the hole Jack eagled in ’86 to make his charge. This was the moment of truth. A number was slotted in and propped up:
“Hurrah!” went the crowd, as if the people had witnessed it right there in front of them.
People started counting the names at 10 under: Cabrera, Schwarzel, Choi. All chasing Rory McIlroy at 11 under.
But the players kept marching in and the drama kept building – the latest from Adam Scott and Jason Day. Scott seemed electrified, rushing to his putt on 11 as if he was worried his momentum would leak all over the green if he didn’t hurry and finish the hole. He made birdie and the crowd exploded. At this point there were no fan favorites; everyone was cheering for more insanity, cheering for the five-car pileup on the leaderboard to become six or seven or maybe even 15. Scott sensed the energy, looked up at the crowd, and beamed. It almost went unnoticed when Day birdied at 12 to go to 9 under. Well, unnoticed by everyone except the two men in Australian-flag patterned suits, who fist-pumped and cheered.
And speaking of unnoticed, nobody said a word about Charl Schwarzel. His round had no thrills or spills. Just a steady stream of 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10 as if there was some sort of malfunction. Schwarzel was almost the party pooper, consistently doing well. What fun was that? Even the two patrons in South African colors just packed up and walked away after their hero came through. Nobody knew he’d eventually win. Schwarzel was a sideshow at that point, almost in the way.
His partner, Choi, sent his lag putt from the first cut of fringe up cozy with the pin. “He’s so good on the greens,” one said.
Then the South Korean and the South African moved ahead to the 12th tee and were replaced by murmurs:
It had been an eternity since McIlroy, the leader, made the turn. What was going on at 10? It was just over the hill from this spot. People craned to look.
McIlroy’s top row on the scoreboard suddenly had a hole in it. People pointed. Would he stay at 11? Would he go to 12 and start to run away again? Would he drop a stroke and let Tiger back into a share of the lead?
The number went up:
It was one of the loudest sounds of the entire afternoon. Some clapped.
Now here came Angel Cabrera with his famous paunch, following an errant approach with a lovely chip. “That’s a tasty, tasty morsel!” one man yelled. “Roll out, roll OUT!”
And then there he was, McIlroy, the man everyone expected to wear the green jacket, seeming naked in the wake of all the golfers who were passing him. The frenzy of an hour before gave way to a brooding sadness. Poor kid.
Rory missed a short putt.
He walked to the 12th tee and the fans tried to pick him up.
Then he doubled.
McIlroy went from 11 under, to 8 under, to 7 under, to 5 under. It was a sad but fitting ending to the Sunday parade at Amen Corner, which started with Tiger on the charge and ended with Rory on the retreat. Soon McIlroy too vanished from view.
One patron asked an official if a playoff would come through this spot.
No, the official said, 18 and then 10.
So it was time to go. The heartbeats started to ebb and the sweat started to dry. The roars from elsewhere, though frequent, grew quieter in the distance like thunder from a storm moving away.
Finally, in the dusk, there was only litter, empty green chairs, and echoes.
And the only movement was the soft rustle of leaves in the trees and the lilt of the yellow flags.