Major champions recall their major moments
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Golf seasons are defined by the majors, and this year was no exception.
There was a finish like no other by Charl Schwartzel in the Masters, the redemption of 22-year-old Rory McIlroy in a record-setting performance at the U.S. Open, the popularity of Darren Clarke at the British Open. And how fitting that the longest American drought in the majors was ended by rookie Keegan Bradley at the PGA Championship.
No matter where the majors are played, who wins or by how many, there is always at least one signature shot by the winner, and at least one other shot the champion finds particularly meaningful to him.
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Schwartzel became the first Masters champion to birdie the last four holes, though he believes the shot most people will remember is when he chipped in for birdie from 60 feet across the first green. He chose that over the sand wedge from 114 yards that he holed for eagle on No. 3 that gave him a tie for the lead.
“To be fair, the shot on No. 1 was probably more difficult — far more difficult,” Schwartzel said. “On that green, anything maybe 10 or 12 feet long goes over the back on the other side, and then you’re staring bogey or double bogey in the face. If it kicks slightly left, it takes the middle part of the slope and goes off the front of the green, and then you look like a beginner.”
His most meaningful shot of the final round was what appeared to be the easiest of his final four birdies.
“I was just coming off making 10 pars in a row, and the situation that was arising required quite a few birdies,” said Schwartzel, one of eight players who had a share of the lead at some point Sunday at Augusta National. “A lot of times you can push so hard, and a lot of times you end up making bogeys.”
He hit 6-iron for his second shot on the par-5 15th and was stunned to see it release over the back of the green. He nearly holed the chip, and then made the 8-foot birdie putt. That was the start of his historic finish.
“If you miss that putt, the chances of making birdies on the other holes are slim,” Schwartzel said. “Because then you’re pushing too hard. For me, that was the biggest birdie. I don’t want to say it became easy, but it snowballed from there.”
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The U.S. Open felt like one big snowball for McIlroy, who opened with a 65 and never let anyone get close the rest of the week at Congressional. Even so, he had no trouble identifying what he considers the signature shot of what turned out to be an eight-shot win.
“The 6-iron on No. 10,” he said.
McIlroy was eight shots ahead of Y.E. Yang, the same margin he had at the start of Sunday. Then again, it was on the 10th hole at the Masters where it all unraveled so quickly for him. This time, his towering 6-iron from 214 yards landed just beyond the flag and rolled down the slope to within a foot.
“I still felt the back nine at Congressional is very tough,” McIlroy said. “Yang was eight behind and hit it in close. Things can go wrong very quickly at major championships. To hit that shot with Yang in close, it was a big shot for me.”
But it wasn’t nearly as meaningful as what happened on the opening hole of the final round.
McIlroy looked unbeatable two months earlier at Augusta National until he lost a four-shot lead in the final round and shot 80. He had an eight-shot lead at Congressional, and after his opening tee shot, received a subtle reminder of his Masters meltdown.
He had 117 yards to hole. That was the exact yardage he had into the first hole on the final day at Augusta.
“I mean, it’s just a little wedge,” McIlroy said. “At Augusta, it was the first swing all week that halfway down I was like, ‘Oh, don’t go left.’ It was a tentative swing. The pin was back left, and it was back left on the first hole at Congressional. I hit it 6 feet below the hole and made it for birdie. And I thought, ‘This feels a lot different than it did at Augusta.’
“It was big for me,” he said. “That second shot into the first was very, very big.”
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Clarke will be the first to admit that his most memorable and most meaningful shots at the British Open were not very good.
Rare is the Open champion who makes it through a week on the links without the help of a good bounce, and such was the case for Clarke. He had a one-shot lead when he pulled his tee shot on the ninth hole, leaving him an awkward stance. For reasons Clarke still doesn’t understand, he tried to hit 9-iron.
“A totally stupid shot to play,” he said.
It was headed for the two bunkers in the fairway when it took a wild hop over them and headed safely toward the putting surface. Clarke escaped with par and still had the lead.
“People have asked me about that. ‘You got a huge break on Sunday,’” Clarke said. “I say, ‘Yeah, I got a huge break. But the way I look at it is that I played almost as good as I can on Saturday and didn’t make anything.’ The course gave me a little bit back.”
Most meaningful to Clarke was a two-putt par on the opening hole of the final round. He tried to feed his long birdie putt down the ridge, but it didn’t quite make it. He still had some 10 feet left to keep his one-shot lead, and calmly sank the putt.
“That’s the shot I remember,” Clarke said. “That was such an important putt to hole.”
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No putt was bigger in the majors than the 35-foot birdie putt that Bradley made on the par-3 17th at Atlanta Athletic Club in the final round of the PGA Championship. Most thought he had thrown away his chances with a triple bogey on the 15th that put him five shots behind. He followed that with back-to-back birdies, then wound up in a playoff when Jason Dufner collapsed behind him.
“That was a pretty big moment in the tournament,” Bradley said, referring to his birdie on the 17th. “That’s the one putt everyone remembers. I have a vivid memory of it being 10 feet away and going in dead center. “
That moment, though, might have been set up on the previous hole.
Bradley was about the only guy who didn’t lose hope after his triple bogey, but he felt as though he had to make birdie on the 16th. And the only chance of that was to hit the fairway on the uphill par 4.
“If you miss that fairway, you can’t get to the green,” Bradley said. “I hit, seriously, the most pure shot of my life. It was 10 to 15 yards farther than I had hit all week on that hole. To me, that was the most important shot of the whole tournament. Because if I miss that fairway, it changes everything.
“It was the biggest shot of my career.”