The 81st edition of the Masters was missing two very significant players. World #1 Dustin Johnson who has won three consecutive events and was a prohibitive favorite this week, slipped on the hardwood floor of his rented house on Wednesday injuring his back. Johnson tried everything he could to still play in the opening round but had to withdraw as he made his way to the first tee.
Arnold Palmer, who meant so much to the venerable April get together in Augusta was absent for the first time in 66 years. The 4-time Champion who will always be known as “The King” passed away last year, but his memory will live on here and throughout golf, forever.
The rains that had battered Augusta National in the three days leading up to Thursdays’ first round had finally abated but the gale-like winds with gusts of 40 mph had not. Mother Nature had decided to pay a call upon one of its most glorious creations.
On a day where par was an exceptional score, only 10 players bested it and seven of those barely did so, recording 1-under par 71’s. That group included 3-time Champion, Phil Mickelson, who was looking to win another Green Jacket at the same age, 46, as Jack Nicklaus did 30 years ago. He was joined by up and coming star, England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, and sometime tortured Spanish star, Sergio Garcia.
At 2-under par was Lee Westwood (who has finished 2nd here twice and 3nd in another year) who vies with Garcia for the dubious moniker “Best Player Never to Have Won a Major”.
Journeyman American, Will McGirt, played one of the best rounds of his career to record a superb 3-under par 69 which would in most years with conditions like these, have given him the lead.
But on this day, McGirt would trail 40-year old American, Charley Hoffman, by a massive 4 shots (you may remember Hoffman as the last player to have been fashioning a mullet). Oblivious to the conditions and the general helter skelter of players racking up big numbers (Jordan Spieth made a quadruple bogey-9 on the 15th hole), Hoffman played one of the best rounds in the history of the Masters with a flawless 7-under par 65. On a day that most players were looking just to survive, Hoffman was surreal and it was the biggest first round lead in 62 years at Augusta.
Predictably, Hoffman was unable to replicate his first day brilliance in Friday’s second round and was a full 10 stokes worse recording a 3-over par 75. That was however, good enough to give him a share of the lead heading into the weekend with three other players.
America’s Rickie Fowler joined Hoffman at the top of the leaderboard after firing a 67 which was the day’s best score. They were joined by Belgian Thomas Pieters (who played so superbly as a rookie for Europe in last year’s’ Ryder Cup) who shot 68 and Garcia who crafted a 69.
They were followed by six of the world’s best players who were all within striking distance. Justin Rose was at 1-under as was the red hot 22-year old Spanish sensation, Jon Rahm. Mickelson was a further stroke back at even par with 2013 Champion Adam Scott and 2015 winner Jordan Spieth who had both stormed back into contention with matching 69’s. World #2 Rory McIlroy was at one over par and very much in position to capture the only Major Championship he doesn’t own.
And all the stars came out to shine on Saturday’s “moving day”. Rose played the day’s best round recording 5-under par 67 that would leave him tied for the lead at the end of the day at 6-under with Garcia who shot 70.
They were one clear of Fowler who had scrambled his way to a 1-under 71 with Spieth, Hoffman and Ryan Moore a shot behind him all at 4-under. Spieth’s remarkable recovery from his opening day-9 on the 15th hole illustrates not only why he is becoming such a great player, but also how fortunes can reverse among the dogwoods and azaleas of Augusta.
A further stroke back was Scott whose second consecutive 69 put him 3-under. Pieters had fallen off the pace a little to be 1-under as had Rahm who was at even par with McIlroy. But this is the Masters where things can change in the blink of an eye and anyone within 6 shots of the lead heading into Sunday’s final-9 still has life.
The stage had been set for one of the most thrilling finishes in memory. It would be.
Rose and Garcia matched each other with 2-under par front 9’s on Sunday to be at 8-under and separated themselves from the field as they made their way into Amen Corner. Garcia then faltered with bogies on the 10th and 11th holes to give the Englishman a two stroke advantage while several groups ahead a fast charging Pieters joined Garcia at 6-under.
Hoffman, McGirt, Moore and Mickelson all retreated but their play (especially Hoffman’s) will remain very much part of the fabric of this years Masters. Spieth, Fowler and Rahn also faltered on the closing-9 but there will be other April weeks of triumph for these young stars.
A birdie by Garcia on the 14th hole narrowed the margin to a single stroke. The Spaniard then hit a second shot to the par-5 15th that he will remember always when he almost holed out with an 8-iron before converting for an eagle-3. Rose responded with a birdie of his own leaving the two tied for the lead at 9-under.
Garcia flighted a superb 8-iron to 4 feet on the par-3 16th only to be immediately matched by Rose who hit his tee shot to 6 feet. As they had been doing throughout the final round each player genuinely applauded the others brilliance as the two close friends walked towards the green. Not only was the game being played at the highest level, it was being played with amazing grace and sportsmanship.
Rose converted his birdie but Garcia missed his leaving the Englishman one ahead with two to play. Rose then bogied the 17th while Garcia made par so they were deadlocked once more.
Rose played his approach to the final hole to within 8 feet and Garcia bested that with a shot just 5 feet above the hole. When each player missed they headed to a playoff.
Rose was wayward with his tee shot as they played the 18th again and had to chip out from under the trees while Garcia hit a perfect drive and followed that up with another beautiful approach shot just 10 feet from the hole. When Rose missed his putt for par all Garcia needed to do was 2-putt but he made his birdie to put an exclamation on a win for the ages.
Garcia exorcised the demons of a lifetime. Today would have been his idol, Seve Ballesteros’s 60th birthday and after a career filled with disappointment in golf’s biggest stages, he was resilient and brave. As the 19-year old sensation, “El Nino” who was certain to capture multiple Majors almost 20 years ago, to the man who said, 6 years ago, at this very event, that he did not think he was good enough to win a Major, today; Sergio, was a Major Champion. Finally.
Somewhere in the pastel sheets of fading light above, the King was watching. His right thumb was raised in a Thumbs Up salute and his smile flashed across the skies, for the entire world to see. With him sat a swashbuckling matador dressed all in navy blue who pumped his fist and roared; Ole!