AUGUSTA, Ga. — In steady rain that at times turned into a downpour, in the dying light of a Sunday evening in April, Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera gave their sport a new standard for both grace and glorious golf under the greatest Masters pressure. Golf loves such moments that illustrate its greatest virtues — gracious respectful sportsmanship and the ability to endure stress while performing utterly alone, not just five hours at a time, but for days. Now we have a fresh example that can stand alongside any from the past.
Scott won this Masters with a 12-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole, the notoriously brutal 495-yard downhill dogleg No. 10, perhaps the most stunning inland hole in American golf. With that stroke, he slew the “Aussie curse” that bedeviled Greg Norman (three-time runner-up) and at least a dozen other fine Australian players since the days of David Graham.
This Masters, however, went beyond winners and losers to the nature of competition at its best. There are other examples, like Norman’s own generosity in defeats here and elsewhere. But none better than the final hour of competition here in which both men made spectacular birdies at the 72nd hole — first Scott with a 22-foot putt, then Cabrera with a “Duck in the rain” 7-iron to 21 / 2 feet to force a playoff.
All factors considered — facing defeat, the skies ripped open as if Scott’s putt had split them — I’ve never seen as amazing a shot from the fairway on the 72nd hole of a major tournament as Cabrera’s, certainly not in the Masters or the U.S. Open in the last 40 years.
Once in their playoff, both continued to surpass themselves and ennoble each other, even though such demands seemed outrageous since Scott had birdied the 15th hole and Cabrera the 16th as they barreled toward the finish.
On the first playoff hole, a replay of the 18th, both had chip shots from the front of the green, a difficult combination of touch and art under the easiest conditions. Cabrera almost holed out, the ball peeking into the right side of the hole. Victory escaped him by a fraction of an inch.
Scott chipped to two feet for his matching par and on they went to the 10th hole, where both crushed enormous, perfect tee shots, far past 325 yards, the 43-year-old Cabrera matching the distance of Scott’s renowned driver even though he used an iron.
Perhaps that 10th fairway, almost as much as the final drama on the green, captured this Masters. Cabrera, who plays quickly, fluidly and powerfully, walked up and pounded his iron shot 15 feet below the hole. Scott topped him, putting his approach 12 feet from the hole. Cabrera immediately turned to him, gave him a thumbs-up from across the fairway.
Cabrera had his birdie putt worm its way an inch above the hole, a smooth stroke but the narrowest of misses. Scott kicked the door down.
But with help. In the gloaming, Scott, who seldom asks for help in reading putts, asked his caddie Steve Williams if “You think it’s just more than a cup?” break. “It’s at least two cups,” said Tiger Woods’s former caddie.
“I could hardly see the green in the darkness,” Scott said. “He was my eyes on that putt.”
Woods shot a final-round 70, finished tied for fourth place, four shots behind, and suffered from the lingering impact of a two-shot penalty he incurred with an improper drop on the 15th hole on Friday. Many will ask if Williams would have prevented it with a brusque, “Boss, stop.”
“It’s amazing that it’s my destiny to be the first Aussie to win,” said Scott, who immediately brought up Norman.
“Greg inspired a nation of golfers. . . . He was the best player in the world and an icon in Australia,” Scott added. “Everything about the way he handled himself was incredible to have as a role model. . . . Part of this is for him because he’s given me so much time and inspiration and belief.”
The pressure on Scott of national pride and expectation can hardly be overstated. Every sports fan in Australia, and maybe even a few cockatoos, knows the details of the disappointments of Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington, Robert Allenby and Jason Day, who blew a back-nine lead Sunday and finished third.
Even tennis legend Chris Evert, divorced from Norman, the most bitterly disappointed of all, spent Sunday afternoon tweeting her “Go Aussie” cheers. When Cabrera forced a playoff, she tweeted, “Ok golf fans — I’m starting my red wine.” But as the playoff became ever more riveting those words turned to “OMG, both players thumbs up . . . so classy. Now I want both to win.”
When he made his birdie at the 72nd hole, Scott, who totally choked away a four-shot lead in the 2012 British Open with four closing bogeys, screamed, “Come on, Aussie, come on,” a popular song in Australia. At 32, in his moment of personal golf vindication, he thought first of his country and the Aussie players who had been disappointed before him.
CBS broadcaster Ian Baker-Finch, a British Open winner himself, spoke for his countrymen, saying, “From Down Under to the top of the world.” Perhaps it was scripted. But when a sports-crazy continent waits more than 50 years for this day, you want to make it memorable.
The Masters may never have produced a more dignified “loser” than Cabrera, who has overcome physical problems, including wrist and stomach issues and the removal of 10 teeth in the last two seasons. As he stood in the 72nd fairway, with his son Angel Jr. as his caddie, the rain became its most torrential of the entire day. Few players have faced a do-or-die shot under tougher circumstances.
Then Cabrera hit his 163-yard shot to 21 / 2 feet.
For decades, the Masters has specialized in ugly playoffs in which at least one man either bungled the 18th hole to blow the lead or hashed up the playoff itself. At the least, there’s never been a Masters playoff that was forced by magnificent play by multiple masters of the game. Never have two men made incredibly difficult shots on the tough 72nd hole to create birdies and force a fabulously beautiful playoff between two deserving winners.
The final holes of the Masters have produced so many more folders than champions like Charl Schwartzel, who two years ago finished with four straight birdies, that it is said here that “Bobby Jones has won every Masters” because his course design has tormented so many. But not this time.
Now, Scott and Cabrera, a past winner of both the Masters (’09) and the U.S. Open (’07), have given us a memory that may almost surpass mere victory. Two thumbs up, they gave to each other in the 10th fairway.
That gesture, in their honor, will be multiplied by millions in the coming days. And then for years.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/