This one will be remembered for Sunday, not for Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.
Playoffs aren’t usually very exciting or memorable – the inevitable let down after the failure of someone to seal it in regulation. But this one was different, set up by a handful of players jockeying over the back nine, with water splashing, putts missed, and then at the 72nd hole, two brilliant birdies on top of each other to send Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera into sudden death – or what the lords of Augusta National now prefer to call “hole-by hole.” And then came the magical moment, after both players had hit fine approach shots into the green at the par-4 10th hole and exchanged thumbs-up. What a great gesture, a mutual flicker of respect and recognition, that here were two golfers playing their hearts out and hitting quality shots under extreme pressure and loving every moment of it.
There was a spirited subtext to the whole week, embodied in the small but powerful body of 14-year-old Tianlang Guan of China, who made quick buddies, first with Tiger Woods in a Monday practice session, then with Ben Crenshaw during the first two rounds, and finally by showing up three professionals who finished behind him – two of whom (Carl Petterson and Kevin Na) have won PGA Tour events. And to think his finish as low amateur was always negated by a clumsy penalty call against him late in the second round. OK, the kid plays slow – just about as slow as half the guys on Tour. The only thing is he doesn’t know how to game the clock (yet). And the grumpy old men from Augusta National ended up looking like bullies in slapping him on the wrist. The best thing about the penalty is that in taking the penalty with respect, Guan showed a lot of class.
More than Tiger Woods did after finishing at 5 under, tied for fourth place, and vaguely blaming the greens for his failure to score better. Of course lingering over his head was the whole controversy of a misplaced drop on the 15th fairway Friday and a subsequent two-stroke penalty that was not applied until the next day. Meanwhile, the Twittersphere lit up, fueled by comments by Brandel Chamblee and Nick Faldo on Golf Channel, that in light of his misdeed, Woods should have been DQ’d and at least should “man up” (in Faldo’s words) and withdraw.
There was nothing more than a cryptic reference to the whole matter by Sunday – Faldo and Chamblee having obviously been reigned in by then. And when it became clear mid-way through the back nine that Woods’s modest charge Sunday would not suffice to overcome his deficit (and that two-stroke penalty) attention turned to whether an Australian would finally, after all these years, claim a first green jacket.
By the time Augusta National chairman Billy Payne presided over the presentation ritual in Butler Cabin, the excitement of the afternoon’s play and playoff were still being absorbed. And not even Payne could drain the life out of the event, thanks to Scott’s sincere and emotional tribute to fellow Australian Greg Norman, who though winless at Augusta National was still there in the cabin in spirit, because “part of this [victory] belongs to him,” said Scott.
It made for a wonderful conclusion, and with the knowledge that in China, Australia and Argentina – and presumably elsewhere, the game has a spirited future. Of course it also has its awkward rituals and rites of spring – including azaleas, tinkling piano music and syrupy announcers. But the game is too good to be smothered by kindness or by grumpy old men. On Sunday, we saw that at bottom, it is about great play and real chracater.