Twenty-five years ago, Jack Nicklaus won what might, ultimately, be the most remembered of all Masters. No one thought that, at 71, Nicklaus could possibly have any impact on this Masters or contribute to the sublimely complex afternoon of thrilling silliness that engulfed Augusta National on Sunday. But you never know when your best qualities, or a simple bit of generosity, may help lift someone else to the heights.
Before Charl Schwartzel of South Africa played in his first Masters last year, he was at a charity tournament for autistic children held by Ernie Els at Nicklaus’s course in West Palm Beach, Fla. You never know whom you’ll run into along the byways of golf. Schwartzel asked if he could meet Nicklaus. Instead, they ended up having lunch.
By Sunday night, after one of the craziest afternoons in Augusta National history, Schwartzel had birdied the last four holes, shot 66 — for 14-under-par 274 — and won the Masters by two shots over Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day. And Schwartzel was talking about that Nicklaus lunch and the confidence and game plan it helped him build.
“I knew Mr. Nicklaus liked hunting a bit, that’s the way I got the conversation started,” Schwartzel said. But [a mutual friend] said, “Give Charl a tip about how to play Augusta.”
“I expected some little vague, quick thing. But he actually took the time to take me through all 18 holes the way he used to think around Augusta and the way he used to play it, which flags to attack,” Schwartzel said. “I had never, ever seen Augusta, only on TV. And now I’m in the presence of Mr. Nicklaus . . . I was so in awe. I kept trying to remember what he said.”
Luckily, that South African friend, Johan Rupert, was taking notes. “So, we had it all . . . You can’t get much better advice than that,” said Schwartzel, 26, and ranked 29th in the world. The National has changed in many ways. But plenty of the “lines” into greens that Nicklaus played still applied, as well as subtleties like “never aim outside the bunkers” at the 12th hole because it’s a sucker play. Whether he’d really gotten the inside dope or not, Schwartzel, in only his second Masters, played as if he had the joint wired.
In ’86, Nicklaus shot 65 in the last round to win his sixth green jacket. On Sunday, Schwartzel nearly matched that number, stringing 10 pars before catching fire at the 15th hole. “I looked at the leader boards but often I was not registering what I was looking at. That probably helped,” he said laughing. Since players from every continent except Antarctica were on that board all day, switching spots constantly in a confusing maze of red numbers, incomprehension was actually a good strategy.
“When I was walking down the 15th fairway, I saw [the names of] Scott and Day and [said to myself] ‘It’s now or never. You have to start hitting good shots.’ ”
Instead, he hit nothing but great ones until his final putts, of 12 and 15 feet at the last two holes, had nailed down his place in Masters history. With that amazing streak he dashed the dreams of both Aussies who admitted they’d dreamed of being the first player from their continent to win here.
Just as the Australians say they have a “duck” (jinx) at Augusta, the South Africans feel lucky. “To see Louis [Oosthuizen] win the Open Championship was such a big inspiration. We represented South Africa for so long, traveled together, so we basically are the best of mates,” Schwartzel said. “He showed you could take it over the barrier.”
Who next, Phytx Hooositzel?
“When you birdie the last four holes at the Masters and you’re around the lead, that usually wins. Nothing I can do about it,” said Scott, the 30th-ranked player in the world, who shot 67 and never did anything to lose.
“This lived up to everything I’ve expected and more. My first Masters, I just had a blast,” said Day, 23, who finished two strokes ahead of a trio that included Tiger Woods (67) who tied for the lead very briefly on the back nine, Geoff Ogilvy and Luke Donald.
If you had Virginia Commonwealth and Butler in the Final Four last week, then surely you must have nailed Schwartzel as the man who’d win the Masters. And no doubt you foresaw that poor Rory McIlroy, 21, would shoot 80 to blow a four-shot lead.
Because his golf game is so fine, his demeanor so engaging and his future still so bright, including his third-place finishes at last year’s British Open and PGA Championship, it’s almost hard to mention McIlroy’s name. He came to the 10th tee still leading the Masters by a shot. And somehow hit a tee shot so bad, and unlucky, that it screamed to the left, hit a tree and bounced between two white clapboard cabins that no one had ever imagined might become part of Masters lore.
Perhaps no player could surmount the indignity of having the world ask, “Is that the Eisenhower Cabin or the Butler Cabin that his ball is behind? Is it in the kitchen?”
McIlroy hit two more trees before he finished making triple bogey and shot 43 on the back nine. Perhaps more important for his long golf future, he was composed afterward, saying: “I unraveled from there . . . lost it . . . couldn’t get it back . . . I’ll get over it. I led for 63 holes. I’ll have plenty more chances. Hopefully, it’ll build a little more character in me.”
Then he will have loads of it, because he seems to have plenty already.
The Masters prides itself on its dignity. But sometimes when things get super goofy and a Schwartzel comes from four shots behind to win, everybody is the better for it. And one last unexpected tip of the cap to Nicklaus, especially for a small act of kindness, not some grand golf shot, seems fitting, too.
Now, everyone can look forward to a new dish at the ’12 Champion’s Dinner.
“I’ve got to find some way to bring biltong into this country,” said Schwartzel.
Don’t tell Jack that you can make a mean biltong out of ostrich. He might get helpful and hunt down a bunch of ’em.