- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga.

The 73rd Masters was little more than a terrific tease.

If golf tournaments ended on the 70th hole, Sunday's finale would have earned a few Hall of Fame nominations. If that were the case, fans still would be glowing over the furious final-round rallies of Tiger Woods (280) and Phil Mickelson (279) and the heroic birdie-birdie finish of veteran Kenny Perry (276).

Unfortunately, the green jacket isn't handed out behind the 16th green. And those final two holes, well, only the resulting gaps in Perry's resume and heart are uglier. Rarely has an epic drama morphed so quickly and thoroughly into a slapstick comedy - from “Goodfellas” to the “Three Stooges” in two painful par-4s.

Perry, Woods and Mickelson all blew their closing lines, and Argentine extra Angel Cabrera (276) absconded with the green jacket.

Cabrera got the coat, but Augusta National was the only true winner. After three straight years of foul weather, forgettable scores and few roars, the season's first major was electric again. After reams of conjecture that the Greencoats had spoiled the game's ultimate fun factory, Augusta National again delivered birdies and bogeys by the bushel, leader-board salvos and swoons, a Sunday stuffed with suspense and four players with double-digit subpar totals.

If major venues are measured by their ability to identify greatness and deliver high theater, the 7,435-yard layout is again first class. If Sunday's finale is partial proof, Friday night's leader board is Exhibit B: through 36 holes, 13 of the world's top 15 players stood tied for 19th or better.

That's the definition of discriminating taste.

If Augusta National gets the laurels, Perry obviously gets the horns.

Sure, Tiger and Phil faltered at the tape. But Woods didn't have his best stuff all week. And while Lefty likely will cop a raft of criticism for smiling after a back-nine breakdown that included a chunk, pull double-bogey drowning on No. 12 and two misses from inside five feet (Nos. 15 and 17), he also played the best front nine in Masters history (30). In his personal annals of Sunday major goatdom, a gallery-captivating closing 67 in a pairing opposite Woods (68) simply doesn't rate.

Nope, the horns go to Perry, and they are gnarled, heavy and hideous. For three rounds and 16 holes, the 48-year-old Kentuckian was by far the best player on the property. When Perry left the 16th green at 14 under after a near-ace, he already had done all the psychological heavy lifting. Unlike Cabrera, he had shouldered the burden of carrying the lead all day, weathering the Tiger-Phil chaos and stepping onto the 17th tee with a two-stroke lead. He hadn't made a bogey in 22 holes, much less two straight. He had just hit what he later called the best shot of his life.

And then he remembered he was Kenny Perry, a player who has intentionally skipped more majors than he has contended in (now two) during his 23-year career. He missed fairways and approaches both left and right, skulled chips and left tentative putts low and short, playing his final four holes (two in regulation and two in the playoff) bogey-bogey-par-bogey without hitting a single green.

”Great players make it happen, and your average players don't,” said Perry, who was attempting to become the oldest major champion in history. “You see Tiger make the putt, see all the big stars make it happen. That's why they are where they are and we're all down here.”

It's easy to feel for Perry, one of golf's good guys and a player who isn't likely to get another major chance. But there's no way to sugarcoat his Heimlich-worthy finish. It might not rank up there with Scott Hoch (1989 Masters), Greg Norman (1996 Masters) or Jean Van de Velde (1999 British Open) on golf's rictus scale, but it's in the conversation.

And there's no way truly to celebrate Cabrera as a conquering hero. At the 2007 U.S. Open, Cabrera stood in the spotlight all day and fended off Woods and Jim Furyk. At the Masters, he simply pickpocketed Perry's corpse. Cabrera's barky par on the first playoff hole was among the luckiest at a major. He came to the Masters without a single top-five finish in any event in the previous year. And he departs it as the most easily forgotten two-time major champion in modern history and a fittingly forgettable winner for a Masters that climaxed with a punch line instead of a punch.

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