19th hole: Sting of Masters near-misses never fades for these major champions

AP Photo/Eric Gay

19th hole: Sting of Masters near-misses never fades for these major champions

Masters

19th hole: Sting of Masters near-misses never fades for these major champions

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – David Duval stared at me with the kind of quizzical look reserved for those who ask questions so dumb that they are barely worth dismissing. It was last year at Augusta National, and we were chatting over lunch about the years when he had opportunities to win the Masters. There were four straight: 1998 to 2001, Duval’s peak, during which he accumulated all but one of his 11 top-10 finishes in majors.

In ’98 Duval was sitting in Jones Cabin, tied for the lead with Mark O’Meara after a final round 67 when O’Meara hit his approach shot on the last to 20 feet. “Don’t worry David, no one ever makes that putt,” said Augusta National’s then chairman, Jack Stephens.

O’Meara holed it. “Hey good tournament,” Stephens said to Duval. “We look forward to seeing you next year.”

The other losses lacked such poignancy, but were no less painful for the former world No. 1. A year later he was T-6 behind Jose Maria Olazabal. The new millennium began as the old one had ended: T-3 behind Vijay Singh in ’00 and solo second to Tiger Woods in ’01.

A few months after finishing runner-up to Woods, Duval won his lone major at the British Open. My question, the one that had Duval gazing at me uncomprehendingly, was this: Did that win at Royal Lytham ease the sting of the disappointments at Augusta National?

“No,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “No.”

Augusta National may be the world’s most exclusive golf club, but it is also the most intimate. Fans feel they know every contour as well as the players. Everyone — fans and players alike — knows chapter and verse of the triumphs and tragedies authored on these grounds.

Geoff Ogilvy played in eight Masters and was always discomfited by the course and the history. “It’s a nervous-making course. It’s a more nervous-making course than any other,” says the  former U.S. Open champion. “You’re hitting shots that historically have documented disasters. On 12 and 13 and 15. You’ve never had a shot that someone hasn’t had and you haven’t seen before.”

That’s a burden peculiar to competitors in the Masters: knowing exactly what landmines past players have stepped on, yet being singularly unable to avoid doing so oneself. Only at Augusta National can knowledge — of history, of the course — be so debilitating. “Historically it seems to be that way, right?” says Ogilvy. “Especially if it gets under your skin like it did Duval and Ernie and Norman.”

Augusta National also got under the skin of Lanny Wadkins. He finished third three times in a four-year stretch from 1990-1993, accounting for a third of his nine top-3 finishes in majors. On Wednesday, Wadkins was standing outside the clubhouse, his right arm in a cast after surgery. I asked if — unlike Duval — his disappointments at the Masters had been ameliorated by the other accomplishments in his standout career.

“No,” he replied immediately. “I had three thirds. In ’91 Woosnam won and I missed, good god, five putts inside of four feet in the last round.”

Twenty-eight Aprils have come and gone, but the memories of those missed putts hasn’t faded for the 21-time winner on the PGA Tour. That ’91 Masters was at a time when Wadkins, the 1977 PGA champion, felt he had finally figured out how to play the golf course.

“I actually played well here when I stopped trying to play beneath the hole, when I started playing like Lanny Wadkins played golf and go at every flag,” he says. “I made more six-footers downhill than I ever did 20-footers uphill. I did that and I got in contention every year.”

Wadkins is 69 years old now but Augusta National has a way of making every memory seem like it was yesterday. He points up at the Crow’s Nest atop the clubhouse. “Tom Watson and I stayed up there together in 1970. We were both amateurs,” he said. That was his first Masters. There were 22 more, but no green jackets.

“I thought I would have won here because my game fit this place,” he said with a note of regret in his voice. “I was able to turn it over and move it both ways. It was just a matter of did I putt well enough and that was always my bugaboo.”

He is in the World Golf Hall of Fame and deep into a long career in television. He has won on the PGA Tour Champions. Wadkins’ is a career with many more highs than lows. But…

Do you still think about that Augusta ache, I ask? “Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “Especially when they re-air the sumbitch on TV!”

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