By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009
AUGUSTA, Ga., April 12 -- The record will show that Angel Cabrera won the Masters on Sunday evening, and the green blazer he slid on while standing on the 18th green will hang in a closet years from now, lest anyone need proof. The small type in which these matters are recorded will note that Cabrera made a par on the second playoff hole, defeating Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell. Cabrera's right arm, thrust in the air, provided the pose of a champion, one who began his career in golf by carrying clubs, not swinging them, a caddie in his native Argentina.
But anyone who was at Augusta National Golf Club on a sublime Easter Sunday -- those who celebrated a potentially legendary duel between left-for-dead Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, then stuck around to see who could seize this thing -- will remember this Masters as the one Perry simply chunked away. He could have won it by making a par on either of the final two holes of regulation, and he made two ragged, can't-keep-the-hands-still bogeys. He could have won it by sticking a crisp, routine iron shot on the first playoff hole, and he flubbed it short and right, the kind of shot amateurs roll their eyes at, which is precisely what Perry did.
He could have become, at 48, the oldest major champion. Instead, he headed back to his rented house here Sunday night, his family in tow, to begin the perhaps never-ending process of chewing over how he played 70 brilliant holes over a fantastic week, then collapsed. In doing so, he ceded to Cabrera the lifetime's worth of perks that go with that green jacket -- status as a major title-winner, a never-ending invitation back here, perhaps even the opportunity to serve Kentucky Fried Chicken at next year's champions' dinner.
Yet it didn't happen. Perry crystallized why.
"Great players," Perry said, "make it happen. And your average players don't."
The result, then, may verify Cabrera as a great player even as Perry carries his résumé -- 13 victories on the PGA Tour, none of them majors -- back to his tiny home town of Franklin, Ky. This Masters title -- in precisely the kind of tournament Augusta National officials wanted and needed after consecutive snoozefests -- will fit nicely with the 2007 U.S. Open title Cabrera won in come-from-behind fashion at Oakmont, holding off, among others, Woods.
Cabrera, too, can take away the fine shots he made Sunday: the 12-foot downhill putt for birdie at the par-3 16th, when Perry was threatening to run away from everyone; the wonderful chip at 17, when Perry was nervously hacking one back over the green en route to his first bogey in 23 holes; and the approach shot at the second playoff hole, the 10th, one which showed the kind of steel Perry couldn't muster consistently over the final four holes he played -- the last two in regulation, and the pair in the playoff.
"This is the Masters," Cabrera said afterward through an interpreter, trying to capture a day that was difficult to sort out. "It's a course that you can do a lot of birdies, a lot of bogeys. A lot of magical things can happen."
A lot of miserable things, as well. Let the sorting out begin.
When Perry stood in the 17th fairway, he held a two-shot lead on both Campbell, a 34-year-old Texan also looking for his first major, and Cabrera, Perry's playing partner in the final group. Perry stood at 14 under par, and had made only four bogeys all week. His swing had been impeccable, his frazzled nerves masked, and he had what looked like it would be the memory of a lifetime in his most recent past -- an 8-iron on the 16th that bounced within kick-in range, eliciting perhaps the most thunderous roar of the tournament.
"Greatest shot of my life," Perry said.
Yet after he put his approach just over the back edge of the green, here it came, the first evidence that Perry, faced with the notion that he was leading the Masters, just might trip over his own shoelaces. When his chip called for a delicate touch, he delivered a hammer, blowing the ball past the cup onto the fringe. With that one shot, Campbell -- who was slightly left of the 18th fairway at the moment -- and Cabrera were back in the tournament.
Perry likened the situation to chip shots he had at, of all things, last year's John Deere Classic, when he skulled a pair that forced a playoff. "I can't stop my right hand when I get a little nervous," he said.
This, though, was not the John Deere Classic. The resulting bogey and the nerves that caused it will, this time, actually be remembered. The next bogey came on the 18th: an over-exuberant drive into a fairway bunker, a horrendous bunker shot that hooked short and left, and a pitch back up behind the pin. Still, here it was: perhaps 15 feet, back down a slope, a par putt to remain at 13 under -- and win.
"I had that putt everybody makes," Perry said. "Mark O'Meara has made it. Tiger made it. I knew exactly what it did."
Yet he could not execute it. "I mean, I just hit it bad," he said. "It was just a nervous putt." Campbell emerged from the scorer's hut. Cabrera tapped in for par. Three-way playoff.
Perry aside, to fully understand how unlikely this title was for Cabrera, the first playoff hole must be considered. While Perry and Campbell hit blistering drives, Cabrera pushed his badly right. He was behind a tree, looking as much like a Monday-morning hacker at the muni as a major title-holder can. And so he did what a Monday-morning hacker would do: He hacked.
"I only had a spot like this big," Cabrera said through an interpreter, placing his hands as if they held a large watermelon. The ball thwacked off a tree -- and into the fairway. Cabrera stuck his 114-yard sand wedge in tight. Perry overcame his poor iron shot with a fine chip, and made par. Campbell missed a three-footer for par, and was eliminated.
And when the two remaining players were in the fairway at the 10th, Perry found one more problem: mud on the right side of his ball. He turned to his caddie, before he struck the shot, and said, "It's going left."
That it did, down in a swale. Cabrera, meantime, calmly struck his 4-iron below the hole. He will remember the putt he struck, back up the hill. He will remember the tap-in, the one that made it unnecessary for Perry to finish out. He will remember sliding on the green jacket.
"I felt relaxed," he said.
Perry didn't. Great players make it happen. Your average players don't.