Two years ago, on the final day of the Masters, Australia’s Adam Scott beautifully birdied the par-3 16th, and took a two-shot lead with two holes to play. He made a pair of pars on the way in, and when he arrived at the clubhouse, he still held the advantage.
Yet out on the course, Charl Schwartzel played on. And after Schwartzel finished making birdies on the final four holes to win the Masters by two, Scott summed up his own fate simply: “I can’t control Charl.”
“That usually puts you somewhere in a playoff, or maybe a win,” Scott said this week. “But I wasn’t even close. So that was out of my control.”
Scott’s score for the week, 12-under-par 276, would have won or forced a playoff in 11 of the previous 13 Masters. Yet there is no defense in golf, no way to drop into a zone or offer different looks that might confound an opponent. Schwartzel’s unprecedented run — no one had ever birdied 15, 16, 17 and 18 to win the Masters — played out sublimely for him and miserably for those who hoped to contend, yet could only watch helplessly to the side, human footnotes to history.
“I felt like I executed well enough to win, and didn’t,” Scott said.
Tiger Woods comes to Augusta National Golf Club this week as the favorite to win what would be his fifth green jacket, and Scott is among a large group of players who might be picked as potential adversaries. But when the tournament tees off Thursday morning, there will be but two elements all 93 players have in common: the golf course, and the weather. How they deal with each other is an ancillary story line, because even one player’s apparent response to another actually happens in something of a vacuum.
Woods, for instance, has posted scores of 11 under or better in five Masters — his four wins, and 2011, when Schwartzel’s run felled him, too. And 11 under would have won or reached a playoff in 22 of the past 32 Masters.
“You can’t get too engrossed into that leader board,” said Englishman Ian Poulter. “We know on Sunday that you can catch up a lead if you’re a few behind. It’s about being in position. It’s easy to take yourself out of this golf tournament, but a lot of winners have just been very, very steady.”
But there is a balance, players say, between being cognizant of knowing who is doing what and being distracted by it. How players handle that can be a significant factor in determining the winner.
Woods has won three times in four stroke-play events on the PGA Tour this season and is back at No. 1 in the world rankings. Because of those accomplishments, because of his 14 major championships, there is constant analysis of not only how he got there, but how he handles himself in such a position. When he is playing as he is now – with his swing and health in order — Woods’s success is due, at least in part, to how he both blocks out and understands what’s going on around him.
“The reason why I think Tiger is the best I’ve ever seen, or probably will ever see, is because of the way he mentally works his way around a golf course, and the way he’s able to mentally is able to push stuff behind him and will himself forward,” said Brandt Snedeker, ranked fifth in the world and Woods’s playing partner in the final round of last year’s British Open. “I’d never seen it in person at a major, and I was shocked at how patient and how welcoming and accepting he was with everything that happened that day. He had a lot of bad breaks, and you would have never known it.”
That’s one of the reasons Bubba Watson arrives here this week as the defending Masters champion. Every ardent golf fan remembers Watson’s hooked wedge shot from the right side of the 10th fairway, the unlikely shot that put him in position to win in a playoff. But for Watson, who has admitted his mind wanders when he’s disinterested, there would have been no playoff if not for a shot from the left side of the 17th fairway, “probably tougher than the shot on 10.” He had only a small window through which to draw the ball. He needed to land it on the elevated green.
“I just got . . . so hyper-focused on it that I wasn’t looking at the crowd, and I didn’t hear any noise,” Watson said. “I just played my game and was so focused on it that I never [visualized] a bad shot or anything.”
Watson, in that instance, took control of what he could control, hit a splendid shot onto the green, and saved his par. But playing the Masters is such a visceral experience, unlike any other event, that paring down the distractions can be difficult. The size of the crowds, the shape of the layout, the echo chambers created by the pines – they all make for distinctly discernible roars, particularly on Sunday. Each of Schwartzel’s closing birdies, for instance, was followed by a throaty response from the galleries, and every other competitor had an idea of what had transpired. When Woods is in contention, those responses tend to be longer, louder, more heartfelt.
“Everybody says it’s different with Tiger,” Snedeker said. “You start hearing the roars around here. I understand it is a little bit different, but when you hear those roars going crazy, you have to get even more involved in what you’re doing if you want to be successful.”
But when Woods is playing as he is now — with six wins since last March — he might be back to the point where he is the one player who can influence how others play.
“He makes you do things on the golf course that you normally wouldn’t do,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, a commentator for ESPN this week. “You know, maybe a take a chance when you normally wouldn’t take a chance or you try to do something a little bit special that you normally wouldn’t do.”
Do that this week, and competitors might fall off, one by one. Say, though, Woods finishes Sunday’s final round at 11 under. Odds say he’d be fitted for that fifth green jacket. But even Woods couldn’t control someone else, still on the course, a chance to reel off four birdies in a row. Even Woods, with all his accomplishments, is defenseless when it comes to the play of others, to which his Masters fate is inexorably linked.
Notes: In his annual pre-Masters address, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne described his club as a “beacon in the golf world,” then spoke publicly for the first time about Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, the first two women admitted as members, a move the club announced last August.
“At the time, we described that welcoming Condi and Darla as members of Augusta National represented a joyous occasion for the club,” Payne said, referring to a statement he issued upon the decision last August. “This week, that’s truer than ever. .” . . .
Rory McIlroy won the most recent major, last year’s PGA Championship at Kiawah. Since then, he has switched to Nike clubs, struggled some, and lost his No. 1 ranking in the world to Woods. But after finishing second last week in San Antonio, McIlroy arrives here again confident in his swing – and fully two years removed from his collapse in 2011, when he lost a four-stroke lead entering the final round, shooting 80.
“Of course, all the demons are gone,” McIlroy said. “They were gone as soon as I got off the 19th green.” . . .
The Masters will increase the 36-hole cut, beginning this year, to the top 50 players and ties – up from the top 44 and ties – as well as keeping anyone within 10 shots of the lead. . . .
Ted Potter Jr. won the Par-3 Contest, prevailing on the second playoff hole over Matt Kuchar.
Phil Mickelson was eliminated on the first extra hole. No Par-3 winner has ever won the Masters the same year.