AUGUSTA, Ga. There were two tournaments at Augusta National on Easter Sunday. There was the Real Tournament, the 73rd Masters, and there was the tournament within the tournament, the final-round pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson - the Best Players in the World Invitational. Who would have imagined the tourneys would converge on the back nine and give us one of the most memorable Augusta finishes ever?
After all, Woods and Mickelson were a mere 4 under, seven shots behind the leaders, when they teed off. Their head-to-head competition figured to be mostly a vanity match - unless, of course, Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera got the heebie-jeebies. But something remarkable happened. Perry and Cabrera didn't get the heebie-jeebies, but Tiger and Phil still played their way into the picture with a dazzling succession of birdies and, in one instance, an eagle.
You just don't see the kind of golf Woods and Mickelson played for most of the afternoon, not under these conditions. Phil actually made the turn in 30, which tied the course record, got him to 10 under and moved him within a stroke of the lead. By the time the twosome reached the par-5 15th, it had turned into a nearest-the-pin contest - Tiger hitting his second shot to 15 feet, his foe knocking his approach 10 feet closer.
This was The Moment. If either or both made eagle, the roar that went up would have knocked all the needles off the pines. More importantly, Mickelson would have been tied for first at 11 under, Woods would have been at minus-10 and… who knows what would have happened? But they both missed and, in the end, limped into the clubhouse, Tiger bogeying the last two holes (after a final bird at 16) and Phil making a mess of 18.
Call it One of the Greatest Almosts in Sports History.
Anyway, this left the stage to the infinitely more understated fellows who had been playing the best golf all week - Perry, Cabrera and Chad Campbell. Perry was so understated Sunday he started with 11 straight pars. Then the fun began - birdies at 12, 15 and 16 to get to 14 under and open a two-shot lead, followed by hiccups at 17 and 18 to drop back to minus-12 and open the door for Cabrera, his playing partner, and Campbell. Both gladly walked through it, and the Masters had its first three-way playoff in 22 years.
So often the majors come down to that - to who blinks and who doesn't. Woods and Mickelson knew they had to go low, very low, in the final round. As Tiger said afterward, “My number was 11, to post 11 under. As long as I held up my side of the bargain, I thought I'd be all right.”
But as it turned out, 11 under wasn't good enough. The course, unlike the last few years, was just too playable, surrendered too many birdies and subpar scores. You glanced at the leader board at the beginning of the day, and you said to yourself, “Sure, somebody might have a meltdown, but all of them won't.” And none of them did, which made it that much harder for Woods and Mickelson.
Which isn't to say Augusta wasn't in desperate need of a crash cart the last hour or so. It seemed like the story line changed about a dozen times - beginning with Phil's double bogey at 12 (which, miraculously, he nearly recovered from) and progressing (or regressing, depending on your point of view) to Tiger's late troubles, Perry's wavering, everybody's ups and downs on the first playoff hole (where Campbell fell by the wayside) and Kenny's last loose iron shot on the second playoff hole. That handed the green jacket to the steady, steely Argentine - Cabrera, the 2007 U.S. Open champ.
Maybe that's what it ultimately boiled down to: Angel had already gone through the fire in a major - and come out the other side; Perry, the 48-year-old wonder, and Campbell hadn't. These things matter on the last few holes of the Masters, when throats tighten and knees knock.
“I was just trying to enjoy the moment,” said Cabrera, who made a routine, no-palpitations par on the long, challenging 10th to close it out. “I was happy with my game. I had confidence.”
Even when he was down by two with two holes to go, he didn't give in to despair or desperation. But then, why should he? “This is the Masters,” he said. “A lot of magical things can happen.”
And a lot of confounding ones, too. Just ask Perry.
“I played beautifully all the way to 17,” Perry said. “I hit great shots. I'm not going to hang my head, [but] I had the tournament to win. I lost the tournament.”
It wasn't just any tournament he lost, though. It was one of the most electric Masters ever. Golf fans will be talking forever about what took place at Augusta National in 2009: about the course, after much tweaking, becoming a thrill factory again; about Anthony Kim's 11 birdies in the second round; about Woods' and Mickelson's epic rallies on Sunday; about Perry being a hole away from becoming the oldest major champion; about Cabrera - seemingly dead on the first playoff hole after his second shot hit a tree - somehow winding up the winner; about so many things you can't remember them all.