AUGUSTA, GA. — There is almost no circumstance in which a player could birdie the final four holes at Augusta National — on Sunday at the Masters, no less — and end up somewhere down the list of compelling story lines. Give Charl Schwartzel — 26 years old, Johannesburg native, winner abroad, all but unknown domestically — an inordinate amount of credit, because that is just what he did Sunday. The record will forever show that he won the Masters by two shots over a pair of Australians, Adam Scott and Jason Day, because he strung those birdies together to finish at 14 under with a wonderful 66.
Yet no one, not player nor patron, could survive this particular Sunday at Augusta — and that’s exactly what this was, survival – without heading to dinner and discussing the tumult and turbulence of the entire afternoon. Throw some of the game’s most compelling characters — Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Angel Cabrera among them — in a blender, hit puree, then try to sort out the soup. There have been 74 Masters before this one. None was like this.
“There’s always a roar,” Schwartzel said. “Every single hole you walk down, someone has done something. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at the leader board. But sometimes I would look at it and not register what I was looking at.”
How could you? Among the absurdities: McIlroy, the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, entered the day with a four-shot lead. Twenty-eight minutes after he teed off, it was gone — and that was scarcely the worst development for him, because his collapse was both thorough and gut-wrenching to watch. Woods, the four-time champion who seemed an afterthought following a frustrating 74 Saturday, blazed to a 31 on the front side, sending Augusta National into a tizzy like the old days. For a healthy chunk of the back, Woods sat tied for the lead.
But wasn’t everybody? If, at some point, you weren’t within a shot Sunday, you must have been caddie or concessionaire. Players jammed together as if on a Tokyo subway, and the fluidity stopped only when the golf did. No fewer than eight players — Schwartzel, Scott, Day, Cabrera, Woods, McIlroy, K.J. Choi and Geoff Ogilvy — were tied for the lead at some point, and they normally came in bunches, four or five at a time.
“Unreal,” Day said. “It just seemed like nearly every hole there was a scream from another hole.”
The only player who could have prevented such a logjam was McIlroy. Given both the brand of golf he played and the demeanor he displayed the first three days, his breakdown seems inexplicable — lest his experience at Augusta, six competitive rounds before this week, is considered a factor. After making three bogeys in three days, he opened with one Sunday. Schwartzel began by chipping in for birdie and flew in his wedge at the third for eagle. Poof! The tournament began anew.
The evaporated lead, though, didn’t come close to foreshadowing the pain — the abject, turn-your-head-away pain — of the next three hours. McIlroy stepped to the 10th tee holding a one-shot lead. Wavering, maybe, but still in front.
“When you have a one-shot lead going into the back nine of the Masters,” McIlroy said, “you can’t be doing too much wrong.”
There, though, he came apart, utterly and completely. The particulars are difficult to relive, yet here they are. His drive at the 10th clipped a tree and sailed so far left, he was among the cabins that sit back of the pines. He punched out, hit his hybrid left and into the trees, pitched off a pine, and made a triple-bogey 7. That only started the spin out of control.
“I just unraveled,” McIlroy said.
Without a three-putt in the first three rounds, McIlroy promptly three-putted the 11th. Worse than that, he somehow four-putted the 12th, double bogey. By the time he struck his tee shot at 13, he was about out of the tournament — which made it harder to watch when he yanked his drive, then all but collapsed, burying his face in his arm as he leaned on the club, on his way to 80.
“It’s a Sunday at a major, what it can do,” McIlroy said. “This was my first experience at it, and hopefully the next time I’m in this position, I’ll be able to handle it a little better. I didn’t handle it particularly well today, obviously. But it was a character-building day. Put it that way.”
There are well-documented cases at major championships in which leaders and contenders instantly turn to dust, none greater than Greg Norman’s frittering away of a six-shot lead by shooting 78 in 1996. For all of Norman’s heartbreak — here and around the world — he had, by then, two major titles and was 41, hardened. At 21, McIlroy is only approaching the prime of his career, and now has a jagged, foot-long scar that he must somehow coax to heal.
“What do you say?” Schwartzel said.
“There’s nothing worse than doing that in public,” said Chubby Chandler, the agent for both McIlroy and Schwartzel. “But he’ll be fine. He’ll come back. He’s got too much talent.”
With McIlroy unable to remain stable — 70 would have gotten him in a playoff — the field had its opening. Woods stepped through it. When he stung a 3-wood to six feet at the par-5 eighth, then rolled in the eagle putt — powerfully punching the air with his right fist, old-school Tiger — he was 10 under, within one of the top. Though he three-putted for bogey at 12, he stalked his second shot at the par-5 15th, knowing he had a five-footer for eagle and the outright lead.
“On the back nine,” Woods said, “could have capitalized some more.”
In countless ways. No player had more than Woods’s six three-putts this week. And at 15, the eagle putt lipped out. Seven back to start the day, he made himself a factor, then faded away, his 67 not good enough.
Schwartzel, then, seized what others couldn’t. Scott made birdie at 16 to take, briefly, a two-shot lead. The tournament, though, was somehow not in his hands.
“I can’t control Charl,” Scott said. Schwartzel did that just fine, thank you.
“This game’s a funny game,” he said. “Things just happen.”
What happened to Schwartzel: He holed his final 15-footer for one last birdie, and then he put on a green jacket. Other characters, other story lines, they don’t much matter when you’re wearing that color as the sun sets here. If this Masters was unlike any other, then it’s fitting Schwartzel closed it in unprecedented fashion, the first with four finishing birdies.
“I don’t even know where to start,” he said.