That old green magic

Angel Cabrera celebrates after winning the 2009 Masters.

Angel Cabrera celebrates after winning the 2009 Masters.

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This story originally ran in the April 18, 2009 issue of Golfweek, and won honorable mention in the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual writing contest for non-daily news.

• • •

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Whether you followed the hint of magic down to that precious juncture where the greens at 6, 15, and 16 converge, or you took your heart out to Amen Corner or even satisfied your thirst with positions behind the seventh green, the stroll around Augusta National Golf Club helped reintroduce an old friend whom you feared had disappeared forever.

Thankfully, it had not. Instead, the Masters returned in all its glory.

Thus you were able once again to watch not just with your eyes but also with your ears, the crescendo of roars so distinct as they bounded off Georgia pines that you knew from where they came and for whom they were intended. Enveloped by pulsating sunshine, the walks and sounds helped carry you back to Masters that hold special places in the archives, be they 1954 or 1962, 1972 or 1975, or the king of them all, 1986.

“It was fun, wasn’t it?” Steve Stricker said as dusk gently fell, and indeed he was correct.

It was fun, but to the last two players left standing from a field of 96, if the 73rd Masters offered a stroll back in time, it took them to different points for contrasting reasons.

For Angel Cabrera, whose victory on the second playoff hole delivered him a second major championship, the green jacket he wore helped ease the painful memory of 1968. That year, his countryman from Argentina, Roberto De Vicenzo, was denied the green jacket not for a playing error, but a clerical one.

For Kenny Perry, it felt like 13 years ago: “It has that smell of Valhalla in ’96, the same exact smell that it all happened again.”

photo

Kenny Perry comes up short with his birdie chip on the first playoff hole at Augusta.

He was standing in the shadows of Augusta National, where his two-shot lead with two holes to play had evaporated with back-to-back bogeys, but his thoughts harkened back to that ’96 PGA Championship, when he was unprepared for a playoff and lost.

“You try to unlive that past, but it showed up again,” Perry said. “I had it. I let it get away again.”

Birdies, eagles and Sunday charges had returned a Masters tradition, but when it came to that most personal of all rituals there was a twist. Cabrera’s green jacket was handed to him not by last year’s winner but by a man who was only two holes away from history.

Not that Cabrera cares about such details. Having grown up poor, the former caddie has traveled hard roads and doesn’t take for granted riches that have been realized through golf, including his $1.35 million Masters prize. Treated as a national hero when he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2007, Cabrera, 39, will reach new heights.

Andres Romero, 27, an Argentine who considers Cabrera his mentor, stood at the back of Augusta National as the ceremony took place. He had tied for 49th, but pride overflowed.

“I was more nervous than him,” Romero said through his interpreter, Marcos Virasoro. “After what happened with Roberto, that obviously meant a lot in Argentina. I can’t imagine what will happen now.”

Few among the tens of thousands of patrons had yet to absorb how this had happened, how a day – four days, to be truthful – of offensive firepower had turned so sloppy, so quickly. Cabrera and Perry had posted 1-under 71s to finish at 12-under 276, tied with Campbell, who shot 69. That much is cemented in history.

But how had a player who had made only four bogeys in 70 holes finished so carelessly, bogeys at the par-4 17th and par-4 18th allowing Cabrera and Campbell to get into a three-way playoff? Perry’s caddie, Fred Sanders, pursed his lips. “Nerves, I guess, got to him,” he said. “Just plain pressure.”

Only a half-hour earlier, Sanders had envisioned a different ending.

“It’s over,” he said, when asked about a laser 8-iron Perry had delivered at Redbud, the 160-yard, par-3 16th where Masters frequently are won.

This looked to be another.

When Perry’s tap-in birdie matched Cabrera’s and got him to 14 under, he was two clear of the Argentine, his playing competitor, and Campbell, who was one group ahead. His 18th and final birdie of the tournament surely had delivered Perry to the promised land, making him at 48 the oldest major champion. A short time earlier, Perry’s path had been made easier when spirited charges by the game’s dynamic duo had derailed, Phil Mickelson missing putts inside 5 feet for eagle (at 15) and birdie (at 17), and Tiger Woods closing bogey-bogey.

They each had started the final round seven behind Perry and Cabrera, only at one point early on the second nine to get within one (Mickelson) and two (Woods) of the lead.

“I was right back in the tournament,” Mickelson said.

“I was right there,” Woods said.

They were thanks to an age-old Masters formula – shortened tee boxes sprinkled with hole locations that can be attacked. Some had argued that such a recipe was not used in past years. If there was a sentiment that swept us into the 2009 Masters, it was that the course had been made too demanding, that added length and planted trees had taken away scoring opportunities.

No roars, just bores.

That was the blanket assessment tossed over the past few Masters. Though club loyalists had ample statistical data to combat such a notion, it was left for this year’s golf to provide testimony that Augusta National still is where the game’s richest history unfolds.

Gloriously, it did not disappoint, a reality that hit fast and furiously with a first-round “Campbell Sandwich” – Chad at 65, Michael at 80 and 94 names in between. They combined for a tournament-record 38 sub-par rounds, a 72.25 field average and a waiting line to join the chorus of praise.

“The course,” Ben Crenshaw said, “could not be better. It’s back to where it needed to be.”

“You can tell they put some thought into getting that (scoring) environment back,” said Stricker, who would shoot 280 and tie for sixth.

Chad Campbell, whose previous 14 rounds at Augusta National before this year had translated into a ghastly 25 over, felt personally relieved when he surveyed the landscape.

“They must have felt sorry for us,” he said, though Campbell wasn’t about to turn down the goodwill.

Instead, he set a Masters record with five consecutive birdies to start the tournament. Though he finished bogey-bogey to squander a chance to match the tournament-record 63, Campbell’s score didn’t offer much separation, because Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan had 66s and a total of 19 players broke 70. From Japan (Shingo Katayama, 67) to yesteryear (1987 Masters champ Larry Mize, 67) to Thailand (Prayad Marksaeng, 70), the smiles matched the weather for warmth.

The first round had afforded patrons an Augusta National staple as sacred as the pimento-cheese sandwich: thunderous roars. As the masses exited toward Washington and Berckmans roads, club loyalists could be excused for folding their arms and sticking out their chests.

So many negative stories had emanated from the previous three Masters, with critics suggesting a U.S. Open mentality had been embraced by those in the green jackets. Five under won a year ago, 3 over in ’07, and 5 under three Aprils ago. But in each case, miserable weather had plagued the tournament – and, yes, club spirits were dampened along the way.

“No one wants to hear the roars and the excitement more than the members,” said Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. “Through the years, we have become accustomed to those.”

With equal parts Mother Nature (heavy rain the week before) and man’s vision (great course set-up), they got ’em back. Campbell’s explosive start was taken one step further Friday when Anthony Kim established a record with 11 birdies and Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, with two each, led a record parade of 17 eagles.

If patrons had a welcomed view of red scoreboards, players could match that with ballmarks rarely seen. “We’re seeing a lot of them,” Stricker said, and indeed player after player cited the most receptive greens they’ve ever played here.

It produced a four-day scoring feast of 1,011 birdies and eagles, shattering totals from a year ago (777), or two years ago (738), or in 2006 (771). In fact, only one other year (1992 with 1,032) generated more.

Not that all the noise was generated by golf shots. Late Friday, for instance, it was due to a 73-year-old icon. Gary Player made his 52nd Masters his finale, and his trip up the 18th was an emotional one on a day also used to bid adieu to Fuzzy Zoeller and, most likely, Greg Norman.

Legends, each and every one, but none was in contention. Nor, for 54 holes, at least, were Woods and Mickelson. Woods had been sidetracked by an agonizing 72 Friday, a result that prompted him to offer a post-round karate kick to his golf bag.

Clearly frustrated by putting woes and some occasional loose irons, Woods remained seven back through 54. Because Mickelson also was a touchdown and an extra point behind, the superstars were assigned Group 19 for the fourth round, an occasion that led thousands of patrons to accompany them.

Mickelson justified their commitment by making birdies on six of the first eight holes to get to 10 under, one off of a lead tossed back and forth by Cabrera and Perry. When Woods topped Mickelson’s birdie with a 30-foot eagle at the par-5 eighth, he was 7 under, and it was time to close the eyes and watch by hearing the roars.

They ushered the leading men around Amen Corner – Mickelson a water ball and double bogey at 12, then birdies for both at 13. They each birdied 15, but roars coming from back at No. 12 signaled Perry’s first birdie of the day, getting him to 12 under, two in front.

“You finally heard the roars. We could tell, all over the course,” said Sanders, Perry’s caddie.

Their exits from the race came in stunning fashion. Mickelson, who decided before the round to change putters, missed a short eagle roll at 15 and another shortie at 17. When Mickelson drove into a fairway bunker and bogeyed 18, his quest was done, as was Woods’ thanks to errant drives left (at 17) and right (18) that led to a bogey-bogey stumble.

By then, Perry had gone in front with a birdie at 15. The one at 16 virtually sealed it. Or so he and Sanders thought; after all, there had been such total control for 70 holes. And then . . .

“Nerves,” Sanders said, pointing to Perry’s attempt to bump an 8-iron onto the green from long and left of No. 17. He bladed it through the green, made bogey, then drove into the fairway bunker at 18 and bogeyed again.

“You can’t believe how nerves will affect you. You can’t spit.”

A tree can spit, however. How else to explain the good fortune that fell Cabrera’s way in the playoff, when his attempt to escape the pine straw right of the 18th fairway slammed smack into a tree?

Cabrera didn’t see it. “I heard it,” he said, of the ricochet that landed safely in the 18th fairway. He got it up-and-down from 114 yards, his 8-foot putt matching Perry’s par. But Campbell was eliminated when he slammed an open door on his foot – first he missed the green from 152 yards, then he pushed a putt from 5 feet.

Riding along in a golf cart to keep watch, Romero held his breath, fought his emotions, and “I eat my nails,” he said.

Not for long, because Perry was unable to control his approach into the second playoff hole, thepar-4 10th. With mud on his golf ball, Perry lost it well left and made bogey. It had been his tournament to lose, and that’s what he had done, though the flip side is, he afforded Cabrera the chance to display a major champion’s smile for the second time in two years.

Oh, and the Masters? It is smiling, too.

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