2006 Masters: The final day of the Masters was a spectical day for golf fans

Augusta, Ga. | As Phil Mickelson mowed down his competitors in this dawn-to-dusk affair, the preaching man stood beside Washington Road near the front gate to Augusta National Golf Club. He stretched his neck like a whooping crane, looking for lost souls.

The preaching man is a Masters tradition. Wearing a somber black suit, he stood prominently on a soapbox and pontificated loudly about eternal damnation. As if golfers were ideal candidates for such a fate.

His words were not so much a sermon as they were a lecture. He looked directly at me. I wanted to say to him, “I can’t help it. I love golf.” But, feeling guilty, I looked away.

There would be no indoor church service on this day. Not for me. I spent the day at the Church of the Holy Magnolia. I recited a silent prayer for those less fortunate than I, those who were unable to get Masters tickets.

Golf is trivial compared to the problems of the world, but Masters Sunday is just one day a year. I always grant myself a special dispensation from more serious concerns.

As it turned out, Sunday morning became the most intriguing portion of this golf tournament. At least, that’s the way I saw it from my pulpit.

For the second year in a row, because of weather delays, a substantial portion of the third round was played on Sunday morning. It was a double dip for golf fans, who watched players maneuver for position in the morning and sprint for home in the afternoon. Phil Mickelson hit his first shot Sunday at 7:45 a.m. and his last almost exactly 12 hours later.

Such an all-day finish has turned into the best conclusion in major championship golf. This marathon is made possible because the Masters has a limited field. After the 36-hole cut, only 47 players earned a weekend ticket.

If Saturday is labeled “moving day,” Sunday is “moving morning” at the Masters. It provided superb golf viewing. I could grow accustomed to such a spectacle – a tournament within a tournament.

Thousands of spectators showed up early on Sunday. It was cold enough to wear sweaters and jackets, and the wind was increasing.

The fans didn’t care. It was the Masters, the year’s first major, and they were eager to sample a slice of golf history.

It was still dark at 6:30 a.m., but Tiger Woods was putting under the lights. Later he moved to the practice tee. Woods started play from the 10th tee. Last year he started in the 10th fairway and made four consecutive birdies.

Wearing a long-sleeve wool sweater that he would not remove during his morning nine, Woods looked slightly out of kilter. He made a one-armed follow through on his 3-wood shot from the 10th tee, then executed a similar swing at the par-3 12th.

He got away with both – birdie at 10, par at 12. In between, though, he hit a ball into the pond at 11.

A short time later, Woods recorded three consecutive bogeys, something he had never done at the Masters. He three-putted 14 and 16, and bounced a 3-iron shot off the front slope and into the water at 15.

Then he turned it around. “Huge” is how he labeled his 10-foot par-saving putt at 17. He finished with an 8-foot birdie putt at 18.

“I had to get something back,” Woods said. “I did it, and now I’m in position to win.”

They all talked about achieving this wondrous “position,” a word invoked by virtually every one of the contenders.

“This is what I’ve dreamed about all my life,” said Phil Mickelson, “being in this position heading into the last round of a major championship.”

The master of brevity, Chad Campbell, who shot 16 on Saturday (he played only four holes), was positively eloquent: “I had the lead, and I lost it, but I’m not going to cry about what happened. I’m only one shot behind, and I like that position.”

They all jockeyed for their spots in the final round. They understood the importance.

This was unusual entertainment. It was almost as if golf, like football or basketball, was composed of two halves with a break in between. These two halves could not have been more different. The first was cold and damp, the second warmer and drier.

For spectators with endurance, this was the ultimate in golf watching. Perhaps the Masters should do it every year: 18 holes on Thursday and Friday, nine holes on Saturday, 27 holes on Sunday.

This Masters made an impression on me. When people ask what I learned, I will be ready with my answer.

I learned, once again, that Woods is tough as nails. Though he lost, and though he experienced a poor ball-striking tournament with his irons, he is able to arm-wrestle with adversity more tenaciously than any other player.

I learned that Mickelson, 35, has attained a black belt in golf maturity. There is little doubt that professional golfers play better in their 30s than their 20s.

I learned that Mickelson’s putting and wedge drills with instructor Dave Pelz are paying off. He won this Masters around the greens.

I learned that winners make putts and losers go nuts. Woods went nuts at this Masters. Fred Couples went nuts. Retief Goosen, remembered for making a mile of putts at Shinnecock Hills in the 2004 U.S. Open, went nuts. There is no such thing as a great player who cannot putt (just ask Sergio Garcia).

I learned, all over again, that golf is the most competitive individual sport in the world. Living all week on the leaderboard were the greatest names in golf.

“Phil is better than Tiger,” I heard somebody say. Now there’s a subject for debate.

“Mickelson is God,” I heard another say in jest.

I doubt the preaching man would agree, but somehow it seemed plausible to me.

I can’t help it. I love golf, especially when it lasts all day.

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