Thank you, Adam Scott of Australia, for showing us what a man with a broomstick putter and a dream can do on the wild greens of Augusta National, in fast times and in slow. Thank you, Angel Cabrera of Argentina, for showing us that you can bypass the gym by day, date extravagantly (Argentine singer/model Coki Ramirez) by night and still have yourself a Hall of Fame career. Thank you, Masters gods, for making the uphill, ridiculously hard 18th hole at Augusta National once again the giddy epicenter of the sporting world on a Sunday in April. Closing birdies by two playoff-bound golfers will do that.
Somebody had to save this 77th Masters from its deep weirdness, brought on by Tiger Woods and a collection of wildly generous green-jacketed committeemen. Scott and Cabrera stepped right up, with an assist from Guan Tianlang, Chinese wunderkind. His golf was amazing. His impressive English actually got better over the course of the week. But it was the dignity he showed in the face of a one-shot penalty he received for slow play that was downright inspiring.
"I respect the decision they made," Guan said late Friday afternoon, at a moment when the penalty shot might have meant the end of his Masters. As it turned out, he made the cut on the number, and he was the only amateur to play all four days, finishing at 12 over par. He is an eighth-grader who is not yet 14½. There are 1.3 billion people in China, where the golf boom is at least a decade old. But Guan will start a green revolution in his country. It will be televised. It will be peaceful.
Late on Masters Sunday, T-lang watched on a Butler Cabin television as Scott and Cabrera made you-cannot-be-serious birdies on the 72nd hole, Scott in the penultimate group, Cabrera in the final one. Those threes got each golfer to nine under. In darkness and rain, this unlikely twosome played a quick, perfect sudden-death playoff that Scott won on the second hole, number 10, with a birdie. He'll be coming back to Augusta for the rest of his life. (Cabrera will too; he won the 2009 Masters.) With his impeccable manners and unpretentious demeanor, the 32-year-old Scott can only improve the place. He'll wear the green well.
As for the weirdness: Remember when Woods was pathologically unweird? He is, again, the best golfer in the world, but these days, like a latter-day Phil Mickelson, you don't know what he'll do next. He began his year by missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, where he was penalized for taking improper embedded-ball relief. He has won three Tour events since then, but at the World Match Play near Tucson he showed limited interest, getting bounced in the first round. His intensity comes and goes. Prehydrant, he was never like that.
Last week Woods played beautifully, for the most part. He finished four shots out of the playoff, and he might have been in it had he made a four on Friday on the 15th hole, the short par-5 with a sloping green protected by a dark moat. Four is a score Woods has made 42 times on that hole in the 74 times he has played it in his 19 Masters appearances.
Instead, Woods hit one unlucky shot, and his greatest asset, his golfing brain, cramped up on him. To win majors you need your brain for 72 holes. Or last week, for Adam Scott, 74.
Woods pushed his tee shot right, chipped it down the fairway to an ideal layup distance (87 yards) and hit a third shot that struck the yellow fiberglass flagstick, a half inch in diameter, on the fly. His ball ricocheted into the water. That shot, which he wanted to land right and short of the hole, will have more of an afterlife than any other shot last week. The TV image of the tournament was the next one, Tiger's face up close, pain and anger coursing through it. He hurled no phlegm nor f word nor club. Maybe he should have. We all have our ways of dealing with stress.
His fourth shot was the penalty stroke for going in the water. For his fifth, Woods chose the "do-over" option after hitting into a water hazard, playing from the exact same spot again. It can be unnerving, no matter who you are. You're hitting the shot with bile in your mouth and a bad memory in your head. He didn't want to face the exact same shot. On his do-over, Woods got up and down for bogey.
In a Friday evening interview with ESPN, Woods said he dropped his ball "two yards" behind where he was originally. He didn't want to hit it too long again. The problem is that Rule 26-1a requires a player to drop his ball "as nearly as possible" to his original position. Based on the interview, Woods surely didn't realize he took a bad drop. Given that he has made that drop correctly dozens of times in his 30-year career in competitive golf (he's 37), you would think he would do it correctly on instinct alone. But he didn't, and he needed to.
Woods marked his second-round card for six on 15, his apparent score, and signed for 71. On Saturday morning the tournament's competition committee, headed by a former U.S. Amateur champion (Fred Ridley) and relying upon an NFL-style further-review process, turned that score into an eight, adding two shots because Woods had played from the wrong spot. Invoking Rule 33-7, which gives the committee discretion in such matters, Ridley & Co. allowed Woods to stay in the tournament, even though he had signed for a lower score than he actually made, which will almost always get a player disqualified.
There was so much noise about Woods's drop last week that the essence of the issue got lost. Right above Woods's signature on his Friday card, as was the case for all 306 cards turned in last week, were the words I HAVE CHECKED MY SCORE HOLE BY HOLE. A fundamental principle of tournament golf is that a player is responsible for turning in an accurate scorecard. Woods failed in his responsibility to do that, and Augusta National gave him an exceedingly generous pass.
Yes, there were some strange, late-breaking circumstances. But golf has lots of strange, late-breaking circumstances. The fact remains that the player needs to be held accountable without any adult supervision. Many knowledgeable golf people will tell you that the Masters' officials handled the Woods decision fairly, right on the heels of Guan's strictly-by-the-book slow-play penalty. ("Rules are rules," Woods said of Guan's penalty.) Another view is, Augusta National was too lenient with Woods and took too much responsibility for the debacle. The club, Ridley said in a Saturday-morning press conference that had the momentous feeling of the Supreme Court in session, had received a call from a TV viewer who questioned Woods's drop before Woods completed his round. The competition committee reviewed the drop and determined that it was within the rules, so the question was not even put to Woods.
Ridley regretted that, understandably so. But in penalizing Woods two shots and not disqualifying him, Ridley absolved Woods of his responsibility. That's a problem. And if golfers ever develop the same attitude that athletes have in other sports—catch me if you can—then golf will be cheapened and made more ordinary. It will be a lesser game.
What good could possibly have come from Woods's continuing to play? Had he won his 15th major title, many would have said it was a tainted victory. Then, if he were to break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors, that would be tainted too. If the club didn't want to disqualify Woods, which it did not even consider, somebody should have talked Woods into disqualifying himself. It would have been the best thing for the tournament, for Woods's legacy and for the game. It would have allowed Tiger to make the statement that the game is bigger than any one individual and any one week.
Woods's decision to keep playing was legalistic. "Under the Rules of Golf, I can play," he said. He was technically correct, and that's all he was.
Saturday morning was as tense as a typical back nine on Sunday afternoon. Brandel Chamblee and Nick Faldo filled Golf Channel airtime with a spirited explanation of why Woods should not continue playing, while the former Tour players, and friends of Tiger's, Notah Begay and John Cook argued the opposite position. (Faldo later softened his stance.) The morning provided a window into the bubble in which Woods lives. Tiger is hard to reach. When Ridley wanted to review the matter with Woods on Friday night, he contacted, he said, "Tiger's representatives."
Who could possibly have helped Woods see the virtue in withdrawing from the tournament? His agent, Mark Steinberg? Please. Nike chairman Phil Knight? Not a guy who seems to care about golf. Tiger's girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn? Too new to the scene. His mother, Tida? The original tiger mom. Augusta chairman Billy Payne? Not after that preachy lecture he gave Woods at his welcome-back press conference three years ago.
Jack Nicklaus said last week he's never had a conversation longer than a minute with Woods. He wasn't being critical, he was just making the point that Woods does his own thing. Woods cannot stand being lectured to. Maybe his late father, Earl, would have told him to walk away last week. Maybe.
You'd like to say that Scott's 25-foot putt on the 72nd hole was the most memorable shot of the tournament. Or Cabrera's approach shot to 18 on Sunday, 10 minutes later, which finished three feet from the hole. But Woods overwhelms everything in golf, and he did it again last week.
Nobody has ever played the game perfectly, and this episode does not mean the decline of civilization as we know it. Nicklaus will sometimes, in intimate settings, tell the story of how he was playing out of a bunker in the 1974 British Open when he possibly hit himself with his own ball. A rules official told him he had not, and Nicklaus went with that out of selfish convenience. To this day Nicklaus is not sure the ball did not hit him, and he's bothered by it. Someday Woods may be bothered by what he did last week.
In the meantime, golf should celebrate Scott's beautiful win at Augusta, with an anchored putting method that is the target of a proposed ban by golf's governing bodies but 100% legal, at least for now. And even if that ban comes to pass, and it likely will, there will be no asterisk of any sort on Scott's major title. Had Woods won, would you say the same?
In the victor's 27-minute press conference, the name Tiger Woods was not mentioned once. Scott talked about his father (Phil), his mother (Pam), his caddie (Steve Williams), his mentor (Greg Norman), his playoff foe ("Angel is a great man.... I think he's a gentleman"), the spectators.
"Going down the 10th fairway was almost deafening," said Scott, the runner-up at last year's British Open, where he squandered a four-shot lead over the final four holes. He was talking about the second, and last, playoff hole at Augusta. "It was a great feeling."
He was with the crowd—in the dark, in the rain—and the crowd was with him. If he likes, next year at the Champions Dinner, Adam Scott can tell Tiger Woods all about it.
If golfers ever develop the same attitude as athletes in other sports—catch me if you can—then golf will be cheapened and made ordinary.
The dignity Guan showed after his slow-play penalty was downright inspiring.
Said Scott, "Going down the 10th fairway was almost deafening. It was a great feeling."
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Photograph by SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
18TH IF IT FEELS GOOD ... Scott thought he'd won after his 72nd-hole birdie took him to nine under par, one shot ahead of Cabrera, who 10 minutes later made a birdie of his own to force a playoff.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
10TH... DO IT AGAIN On the second hole of sudden death, Scott sank another birdie putt to chase away the memories of his British Open collapse and become the first Australian to win at Augusta.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WOODS)
GETTING CLOSE With Angel Jr. on the bag, Cabrera showed more emotion down the stretch than he had in winning either of his two majors.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DROP)
KILLER DROP Woods finished four shots out of the playoff and likely gave up at least that many strokes on 15, though he could have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
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ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ADVANCED NOTICE The youngest player ever at the Masters, Guan not only made the cut but he also finished as low amateur and drew huge crowds.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
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FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SUNDAY WAS A G'DAY Aussies had finished second six times before Scott—a runner-up in 2011—got his green jacket from the '12 champion, Bubba Watson (near left).
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH /SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
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