The most peaceful, silent and secluded corner of the Augusta National is the 10th green, sitting as it does at the bottom of 485 yards of cascading foliage and precipitously falling fairway. The green at sunset is dappled with shadows from the sentinel pines. On Easter, it's an ideal place for little silent epiphanies.
It's also a most unusual place to find a wounded man.
That's where Craig Stadler--the champion of the 46th Masters--was at dusk today, torn and bleeding in spirit from one of the cruelest encounters with golf that a man ever had.
The last time the Walrus had been here on the 10th, more than two hours before, he was taking a six-shot lead into the back nine on the final day of the Masters. Then, he was feeling proud of himself, measuring himself for that chunky size-46 green blazer.
" 'This is pretty easy,' " Stadler later admitted he had thought, "It got to the point of (wondering) 'how many' I'd win by. I caught myself thinking like that and said, 'What are you doin'? Stop this. We got enough problems.' "
Little did Stadler know how right he was. He could not foresee his bogeys at the 12th, 14th, 16th and 18th holes--the last on a three-putt green, giving him a back-nine of 40 for a 73-284 total that threw him into a stunning playoff-at-dusk with Dan Pohl (67) after Jerry Pate lost a chance to make it a three-way tie when he missed a 21-foot birdie putt on 18.
When Pohl's four-foot putt for a par slid agonizingly past the cup on the first hole of that playoff, Stadler did not move. His empty stare wasn't one of disbelief or joy or even of commiseration for Pohl's embarrassment at botching a chance at a green coat with a sloppy bogey to Stadler's winning par.
Stadler was just too drained of emotion to react, to dance, to throw his putter into the air as Fuzzy Zoeller had in the first sudden-death Masters playoff three years ago. Slowly, Stadler walked to Pohl and shook his hand. Then, Stadler walked a little more, aimlessly. Finally, like a man who has endured an experience far worse than any game, and inexplicably survived, he put his hands over his face.
The $64,000 question had been answered, and that victor's purse raised his season's earnings to $211,557, highest on the tour this year. It was Stadler's first major tournament victory as a pro.
This man of richly expressive emotions who sometimes seems misplaced in a game of mastering emotion not only squandered that six-shot lead, but also endured the torment of three-putting from barely 22 feet on the 72nd green before winning by a kind of gloriously fair default.
It isn't always thus. Ask Hubert Green and Ed Sneed. They came unraveled, too, but are coatless to this day.
Green came back out to the 18th green in near darkness to take a mulligan on the three-foot putt he missed in '78 to collapse from a five-shot Masters lead to defeat. The next year, it was Sneed who, like Stadler, had a putt to win--a three-footer--only to miss, then lose in a playoff. Stadler remembers it well. He was the man playing with Sneed that Easter Sunday.
"I definitely know what Ed Sneed felt like on the 18th green," said Stadler this evening. "It's no fun."
This sunny, breezy 72-degree Easter was also no fun for the glamorous names who, in retrospect, probably should have made a better, earlier run at Stadler. Pate and Seve Ballesteros started the day just three shots behind leader Stadler and, as it proved, could have won outright with 70s. Instead, they finished in a tie for third at 285 after shooting 71s in which they shot themselves out of realistic contention, then made late charges when the pressure was off.
The only other players under par, at 287, were Tom Kite (69) and Tom Watson (71), while Ray Floyd (74), Larry Nelson (69) and Curtis Strange (72), all at 289, completed the top nine finishers.
For Pohl, who started the day in 122nd place on the Tour money list with $5,257, this was the day of a lifetime. On entering the press room, he took a dramatic pause, then summed up his feelings in one unprintable word.
After getting his laugh, Pohl said, "It's a tough way to end a day, but I hung in there . . . proved to myself that I can play under championship conditions. I know my mom's having a coronary. And I could hear my brother yelling over everybody on the birdies."
Even that quickly done playoff hole, where Pohl hit a 310-yard drive, didn't really faze him. When he got to the deathly silent green, Pohl broke up the crowd, saying, "Damn, it sure is quiet around here."
"I guess I let him off with a relatively easy playoff win," said Pohl. "You'd think I'd be able to hit the (10th) green with a seven-iron, but I was a little nervous and didn't swing through it."
Overall, was he pleased?
"Does a bear sleep in the woods?" burst out Pohl.
Pohl could simply play out his hot streak without too much pressure, making birdies on the 1st, 2nd, 9th, 12th, 13th and 16th, but Stadler riveted every eye. After a two-putt birdie at the par-5 second hole, relatively easy greenside saves of par at the fourth and fifth, and back-to-back birdies at the sixth and seventh on downhill putts of 20 and 15 feet, Stadler was cruisin'.
To Stadler's enormous credit, it took a world of misfortune to wipe that expression off his face. When Stadler needed chips and tap-ins for pars at the eighth and 10th, he got them like the short-game master he is.
Then came the 12th, the hole where Stadler broke down and cried in the azaleas on Easter Sunday three years ago when a six-over-par six-hole progression knocked him off the scoreboard after he'd been tied for the lead.
There, he made his first bogey. Moments later, Stadler got his biggest break. His one-iron second shot to the par-5 No. 13 was miserable, bouncing into Rae's Creek, where a penalty shot seemed likely. Instead, the ball found a rock in the middle of the creek and bounced to the safety of dry land. Stadler pitched and made par.
Some will say Stadler might well have taken his drop, wedged close and saved par anyway. Yeah, and he might well not. The Walrus ought to find that rock and bronze it for his mantel.
That was the end of good fortune. At the 14th, Stadler three-putted. At the 15th, he missed a 10-foot birdie putt. The nerves were setting in.
Under pressure, adrenaline makes muscles too strong and nerves make hands too weak. So no club is the right club, and every shot is an unsatisfactory compromise.
At the par-3 16th, Stadler found a trap, hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot to six feet, then watched the ball trickle 40 feet from the hole for a certain bogey. Beside the green stood Stadler's wife Sue. A man ran past, screaming to a friend, "He's going to do it again." Stadler's wife found a tree to lean against and sobbed.
"First I thought it was eight feet," Stadler said. "Then I thought it was 10 feet, then 12 feet. Then I thought it was in the water."
Finally, after scrambling for a gutty par after driving into a divot at the 17th, Stadler seemed home free with a drive and iron to the center of the 18th.
But Stadler's lag was a stone-handed thing, six feet short. He aimed his putt outside the hole and it stayed right there. Stadler didn't move for 10 seconds. He might have been Green or Sneed. Perhaps Augusta should build a statue beside the 18th in honor of the paralyzed putter.
But Stadler was luckier. In the scorers tent behind the 18th green, his wife was waiting "to give me a pep talk, tell me to hang in there, what's done is done. That pumped me up."
Stadler got to hit a 300-yard drive down the gorgeous 10th. He got to nail a six-iron 30 feet below the hole. He got to make two commercial putts for par. And, finally, he got to watch Pohl's putt and, he said, think to himself, "Oh, my God, he missed it."
Even an hour after his win, Stadler seemed as numb as happy. "I'm not sure I know what the hell to do," he said.
Golf is the easiest sport, the cruelest game, especially here in April. This evening, a deserving player finally escaped the fascinating, but excessive, punishments that have become the Masters' mark. In Florida, the bumper stickers say, "Save the manatee." Here, next door in Georgia, it's the walrus that has been endangered. Fortunately, thanks to a rock in Rae's Creek here and a pep talk there, he's mercifully been preserved.