Augusta National has been retouched many times, but one thing
hasn't changed: The back nine remains a master of disasters. No
other stretch of golfing real estate causes so many train wrecks,
whether it's amateur Billy Joe Patton's or pro Curtis Strange's
hitting into the water at 13 and 15, Raymond Floyd's dunking one
in the pond at the 11th hole in a playoff, or Greg Norman's
losing a ball behind the par-3 12th green.
Last week the new and improved National, lengthened by 300
yards, didn't play as nasty as it could have--or as it will when
the course firms up and the wind swirls--but it's as armed and
dangerous as ever. This year's Masters will be remembered as the
one in which Tiger Woods outlasted a Gang That Couldn't Shoot
Straight, and highlight footage will feature...what? Tiger
tracks and train wrecks.
Enter Ernie Els, the easy-swinging, easygoing South African. Like
Phil Mickelson, he would be a lock to win several Masters if only
he weren't playing a supporting role in The Tiger Woods Story.
Els already had had a good year, winning twice on the European
tour and once in the U.S., at Doral. He continued his solid play
at Augusta and, at four shots back, appeared poised to challenge
Woods as the final round began. It was a familiar position. Els
had finished second to Woods in two majors in 2000, an
accomplishment as notable as it was irksome. In fact last week
Els made the only Sunday charge on the difficult front nine,
playing it in two under par, as did Woods, while the other eight
players in the final five pairings went a combined eight over.
At the refurbished 9th, which had been lengthened by 30 yards and
to which trees had been added along the right side of the
fairway, Els's approach landed within a few feet of the hole and
then spun back off the front of the green and down a swale.
Remind you of anything? Right, Norman did the same thing there in
1996, an error that was the first indication that he was going to
blow a six-shot lead and lose to Nick Faldo. "When I walked off
the 9th green, I knew exactly how close I'd have been to a tap-in
birdie," Els said after the round. "It was a foot or two from
being perfect. I'm talking about ifs, but if that ball stops
close and I get to 11 under going to the back nine, it could have
been different. There's such a fine line between a great shot and
a poor shot here."
Instead of closing to within two of Woods with a birdie, Els
failed to get up and down and made bogey. The mistake was costly,
because it dropped him four behind Woods, but there was still
time. "It didn't faze me too much," Els said. "I made a good save
at 12 and felt I was set up for a charge. I like 13 and 15 [both
par-5s]. Given where the pins were, they were eagle
opportunities." The 13th should have been Els's favorite hole. He
had played it in 18 under par in his 33 Masters rounds, by far
his best scoring hole on the course.
But Els did what Tiger's opponents usually do in crucial
situations. He booted it--that's E-3 if you're scoring at home.
Even though the 13th tee was moved back onto a piece of property
purchased from adjacent Augusta Country Club, adding 25 yards to
the hole's original 485, Els went with a three-wood off the tee;
he's better able to hit a right-to-left shot with that club and
thus had a better chance of negotiating the dogleg around Rae's
Creek. He sent the shot too far left (page G72). It ended up in
the woods, to the left of the creek. His caddie, Ricci Roberts,
wanted Els to chip out sideways, which would have given him a
four- or a five-iron approach. Els thought he saw a gap in the
trees and imagined that if he could get his ball across to the
far edge of the fairway, he would have a sand wedge shot into the
green with a mound serving as a backstop behind the pin. The
strategy made sense if he could pull off the shot, but his
attempt caught a limb and traveled only about 30 yards before
trickling into the creek. "The second shot, that was the
mistake," Els said. "I don't know what it is about professional
golfers.... I thought I had half a shot."
After a drop Els was left with 194 yards to the flag. His fourth
shot landed across the creek near the green, but rolled back down
the bank and into the water. Another penalty, a chip and two
putts, and Els had his snowman. "That was the end of my
tournament," said Els, who finished with a 73, six shots behind
Woods and good for a fifth-place tie with Padraig Harrington. "It
was a crazy error. I told myself before this week, Don't go left
at 13. I didn't listen to myself. I should've hit driver. I hit
one bad shot at the very wrong time. I scrambled my way around
10, 11 and 12, and I blew it on 13."
It was a dramatic blunder, but in the grand scheme of things,
given the way Woods plays with the lead, maybe it didn't matter.
With a par at 13 Els still would have been four shots behind the
world's best closer. (Woods has a 23-2 record when he holds the
lead going into the last round.)
Vijay Singh likewise was already on the ropes when he reached the
15th. Two days before, he had appeared to be the man to beat
after a second-round 65--including a six-under-par 30 on the final
nine--gave him a three-stroke lead. Singh, who had won the Shell
Houston Open two weeks earlier, was so focused on his game that
he didn't even realize he had shot that 30 until he filled in his
scorecard after the round and noticed that he had been only one
under on the front. Before the round he'd been on the range
hitting balls and hoping play would be delayed before he teed off
at 10:20 a.m. in conditions so sloppy that his caddie, Paul
Tesori, packed nine towels. Singh, who had shot 63 in a practice
round at the National a month earlier, finished shortly before
rain finally stopped play at around 5 p.m., with 38 players,
including Woods, still on the course.
On Sunday, Singh stayed within three of Woods until he bogeyed 11
and 14. (He hit into the water at 13 but salvaged par.) A poor
drive forced him to lay up at the 15th, whereupon Singh chunked a
sand wedge from 82 yards that shot into the pond. After he took a
drop, his next shot landed on the front of the green and spun
back into the pond. He dropped farther back for a third try, got
that one on the green and two-putted for a 9. "That was the end
of that," said Singh, who finished with a 76 and ended up in
seventh place, seven strokes behind Woods.
What happened to Els and Singh was emblematic of the 66th
Masters' curious finish. Despite a leader board replete with
top-ranked players, when the tournament unofficially started on
the back nine on Sunday, none of the contenders took a step
forward. Maybe an exasperated Mickelson, who entered the last
round four shots behind Woods and matched Tiger's 71 to finish
third, was right last month when he said that he was the only
player who has challenged Woods's supremacy. The eight players
within six shots of Woods going into the final round shot a
combined 13 over par.
"What Tiger has done at his age is phenomenal stuff," said Brad
Faxon, who finished 12th, 10 shots back. "What's really
phenomenal is that he makes it seem easy. He's got everybody
where Jack Nicklaus had them--you know he's going to win before
he even tees off."
There was another factor at work last week--the course. Though it
was still relatively soft, the Sunday pin positions were the most
difficult of the week, which meant that the best place to be that
afternoon was in the lead. "When Tiger is the leader, you don't
have the hope that he'll falter," said Mickelson. "When other
guys are up there, there's a good chance they might come back two
or three shots, but Tiger doesn't do that. You know you have to
go after him and make birdies. That's why we saw guys taking
aggressive plays and making bogeys and doubles."
Mickelson, who has been criticized for his aggressive style,
played intelligently and didn't make a double all week. He also
never mounted a charge in the final round. He made birdies on the
first two holes after brilliant bunker shots but bogeyed the next
two when he went for the pin, a strategy that made sense because
neither hole location offered a bailout area.
Retief Goosen, the U.S. Open champion, played with Woods in the
final pairing but stumbled to a 74, which left him in second
place, three shots back. He started losing shots to the left
during the third round and battled his swing on Sunday. By the
12th hole, Goosen conceded later, "I thought, All we can do is
play for second."
The National's back nine claimed a few other victims. Angel
Cabrera showed that he's someone you want on your Rotisserie
League Masters lineup. He finished ninth, nine shots back,
despite taking a 9 on the 13th on Sunday. He had finished 10th in
2001 after finding the pond at the 15th on Sunday.
Welcome to the National's back nine. A few holes look different,
but the most important thing hasn't changed--it's a beautiful
place for a train wreck.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP Up a creek Finally on at 13, Els had much to ponder--including not having heeded caddie Roberts.
COLOR PHOTO: FRED VUICH Sunk Singh (putting on Saturday) was taking on water even before he reached the fatal 15th.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS Easy does it Els's contemplation in and escape (below) from the woods for par at 10 on Sunday emboldened him three holes later.
Singh dropped back for a third try, got it on the green and
two-putted for a 9. "That was the end of that," he said.
"I told myself before this week, Don't go left at 13," said Els.
"I didn't listen. I should've hit driver."