If Paramount Pictures had wanted to make the paramount movie about a major golf tournament, a suitably dramatic tale of triumph and disaster, it could have filmed it all today at Augusta National Golf Club. Theme up, and welcome to: MASTERS-79.
None of those annual "Airport" melodramas has been as exciting, as wrenching, as human as the real-life story acted out here today.
Expectant father Fuzzy Zoeller-redeemed by nice-guy-with-a-tragic-flaw Ed Sneed's ignominious collapse on the final three holes of regulation play-beat Sneed and Tom Watson to win the 43rd Masters in the tournament's first sudden-death playoff.
Zoeller, 27, became the unexpected leading man by easing in an uphill seven-foot putt for a birdie at the 445-yard, par-4 11th hole, the second hole of sudden death.
This relegated to supporting roles both Watson, who missed a makeable birdie putt on the first playoff hole and a 20-footer on the second, and Sneed, who had a three-stroke lead with three holes to play in regulation, only to see his triumphant scene wind up on the cutting room floor.
Zoeller-whose wife Dianne is due to give birth to their first child this week back home in New Albany, Ind.-is the first player since the inception of the Masters in 1934 to win on his first visit to Augusta National.
"To be frank, I didn't think anybody else had a chance, considering the lead Ed had after 15 holes," said Zoeller, a fourth-year pro who never had won a tournament until he captured the San Diego Open in January, thereby earning his invitation to the Masters.
But Zoeller-who started the final day in a tie for fourth place, six strokes behind Sneed-played with the admirable steadiness (70-71-69-70) that characterized his entire first Masters.
And he got his deliverance when Sneed threw away his seemingly secure lead by bogeying those last three holes, creating a three-way deadlock at 280, eight under par.
Sneed, 34, had a five-stroke lead over Watson and Craig Stadler at the start of a day that dawned calm and radiant, then developed a wind that blew every which way but straight.
Never before had a player blown a lead of this magnitude on the final day of the Masters. The biggest previous "fade" came in 1954, when then-amateur Ken Venturi-with a four stroke lead and only one other challenger within seven strokes of him-shot 80 on the fourth round and lost by one shot to Jackie Burke.
Sneed had made only one bogey in the first three rounds, shooting 68, 67, 69, but first his judgement and supple swing, and ultimately his putting stroke, left him today as the gusty winds made Augusta's 7,040 yards seem infinitely longer.
A screenplay of today's round could well begin with a shot of the flags behind the portico of the Augusta clubhouse, where the Stars and Stripes and the club flag (an outline of the United States, with a golf flagstick stuck in Georgia, on a green field) were both straight out, the pulleys holding them clanging noisily against the metal pole from which they flapped.
The wind changed the nature of a course that had played to its tamest for three days. Sneed, lunching in the upstairs grill room of the clubhouse as the flagpole made doleful noises, thought he could handle the conditions. Instead, they handled him.
On the practice range before the round, he was sound. But as soon as he got to the first tee and hooked his first two shots, he knew he was shaky.
He was like a man off on a solo flight on a windy day. He encountered turbulence, made a number of pilot errors, felt like emptying his guts into an air-sickness bag, then seemed to resettle himself just in time.
And just when he appeared ready to land safely in the Masters champion's green coat, he crased.
He played an ugly, chokey first 10 holes today. On the par-3 fourth, only 220 yards, he left his tee shot a humiliating 45 yards short of the green. On the par-3 sixth, 190 yards, he was short again, in a trap, and left his second shot in the sand.
"I had no idea what the wind was doing. It was blowing four directions at once," he said. Only a good second shot out of the sand to save bogey, and a couple of similar recovery shots, enabled him to complete the first 10 holes three over par.
Then he seemed to reassert his grip on himself. He birdied the par-5 13th and 15th holes even though he played safe, laying up short of the water on both. He seemed destined to be the Man in the Green Coat. Even Zoeller and Watson agreed.
It was not to be.
Sneed three-putted the par-3 16th, missed a three-footer at 17 and left a six-foot putt hanging agonizingly on the left lip of the cup at 18. The closeness of that putt-with the year's first Grand Slam title his for the grabbing-will forever symbolize the frustration of today's round.
Instead, it was Zoeller's day to play the lead in "To Here From Obscurity."
Sneed had been keeping his eye on Watson in the twosome in front of him, making his decisions on when to play aggressively and when to be conservative on what the game's current hot man was doing. But it was Zoeller who made his move with birdies on 13, 15 and 17.
Watson (68-71-70-71) several times seemed on the verge of charges, but his putting stalled them.
"I had makeable putts all day," Watson said, "and I just had a terrible putting round."
All the other pretenders except Watson, Zoeller, Tom Kite (whose surge ended in the water on 16) and five-time champion Jack Nicklaus were quickly gone with the wind.
Nicklaus, who started eight strokes back, made a memorable march through "Amen Corner," the cluster of fiendishly wonderful holes that introduce the celebrated back nine which decides the Masters practically every year.
Nicklaus brilliantly saved par with a daring shot out of shallow water on the 520-yard 15th, then holed a 15-foot uphill putt for a birdie on the par-3 16th-momentarily tying him with Watson at eight under, one behind Sneed.
But, perhaps too pumped-up by his first Nicklaus-like effort of the year, the "Golden Bear" knocked his second shot over the green on the 400-yard 17th and down an embankment. His challenge ended with bogey there. He finished 69-71-72-69-281, in fourth place.
On the second playoff hole, all the pressure Sneed had felt was shifted to Zoeller. Everything was riding on his putter. He let his caddie, Jerry Beard, read the break as he had throughout the day. Zoeller stroked his slightly uphill putt confidently, and it dropped.
As it did, he leaped in the air, flipped his club away and did a jubilant dance across the green. His shoulders were quivering with excitement.
"I don't know how to put it," Sneed said. "I'm extremely disappointed, missing those putts . . . But I never felt at any time like I lost control of what I was doing.
"I don't feel like I hit those putts poorly, jerked them or pulled them or anything like that," he said over and over again, in different words. "It will be tough to forget."
Watson was sympathetic.
"I've been there before. I know what it's like to lose a big lead . . . Nobody thought Ed would bogey the last three holes after playing well enough to win," said the joint runnerup, who comforted Sneed on the last green before congratulating Zoeller. "But you can't play ifs. The past is past."
And for Frank Urban Zoeller, Jr., father-to-be and newcomer to the upper echelon of golf, the future is now. "I only wish my wife had been here to share this with me," he said "and I hope this doesn't make the baby come early." CAPTION: Picture, Ed Sneed, left, hitches pants as he heads for 10th tee to begin sudden-death playoff with Tom Watson, right, and eventual winner Fuzzy Zoeller in Masters tournament. UPI