This week marks my 19th trip to the Masters. The greatest thing about Augusta National, to me, is that it NEVER disappoints when it comes to drama and magic.
How about these for finishes in my first three Masters: Ben Crenshaw’s emotional triumph after losing his mentor, Harvey Penick, in 1995; Greg Norman’s improbable Sunday implosion in 1996; and Tiger’s dominant, historic 12-shot victory in 1997.
The Sunday I remember most vividly at Augusta, though, would be 2004. It was a couple of years past the significant course changes at The National, and we all wondered if the changes might have robbed us of those incredible Sunday back nines. In ’04, we received a resounding answer to that question.
The back nine would evolve into an epic battle of two giants who never had captured a green jacket: Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. There were birdies, and eagles, everywhere. Els made two eagles in the span of five holes, and contender K.J. Choi jarred his 5-iron second shot for a 2 at the difficult par-4 11th. The Masters’ MagicMeter was turned on high.
Els posted 67, and that appeared good enough to at least get him into a playoff. Mickelson had other ideas. He was three shots behind standing on the 12th tee, but went on an amazing birdie run – birdies at 12 and 13 before he nearly holed his second shot at the par-4 14th. It was the same year that Arnold Palmer was stepping away at Augusta, and the roars through the tall pines in the valley of the back nine were Palmeresque deafening.
The scene that stands out most was the final one: Mickelson stood over an 18-footer for birdie and the win at 18, while maybe 80 yards away, Els was on the putting green, readying for a playoff. Mickelson made the putt, his fifth birdie of the back nine, leaping into the air; Els scooped up his two golf balls and marched intensely toward the clubhouse. One man had forever cemented his place in Masters lore; the other would have to chase it another day. That’s Augusta, where the gap between winning and losing is bigger than at any tournament in the world.