Monday, April 8, 2013

A Tradition Unlike Any Other.... The 10 Greatest Masters (#10-7)

The greatest week of the golfing week is upon us.  It's Masters Week once again: the course is immaculate, the azaleas are blooming, and the game's greats are assembling to take on the annual challenge of conquering Augusta National.

No other tournament provides the consistent level of drama and excitement that The Masters has over the years.  With that in mind, I've written this 3-part blog post chronicaling what I find to be the 10 greatest Masters tournaments of all-time.  For today, I'll be revealing numbers 10 through 7: 6-4 will be published tomorrow afternoon and 3-1 on Wednesday.  But before I begin my countdown, here are a few honorable mentions that just missed making this list:
1934 - The first Masters (or "Augusta National Invitational", as it was originally known) showed glimpses of the greatness that was to define the tournament.  Horton Smith won the first of his 2 Masters titles at 4-under par, 1 ahead of future champion Craig Wood.  It was also the best finish the tournament's legendary founder Bobby Jones would have at his own tournament: he finished T-13th.

1977 - Tom Watson's first green jacket came in a dramatic 2 shot victory over then-5 time champion Jack Nicklaus.  Perhaps the primary reason it just misses the top-10 is that it is a victim of circumstance, for Watson and Nicklaus' legendary "Duel in the Sun" that July at the Open Championship exceeded and overshadowed the drama of the '77 Masters.

1997 - A Masters that would undoubtedly be a part of a "10 Most Historic Masters" series, the history Tiger made as he burst onto the professional major scene also keeps this from reaching that next level the Masters in the top-10 achieved.  There's no dramatic moment, no great charge or crushing collapse, and the only images that are in any way memorable come after Tiger finishes his final round (the fist pump, and the hug with his father).  Tiger's performance was as great as any we've ever seen, but Masters Sunday was devoid of any palpable drama.

2012 - Last year's tournament had almost everything you could want: great young stars, legendary veterans, a double eagle, and a playoff capped by a great shot.  But it's exceeding difficult to rank an event so soon after it happened.  If we look back in 10 years and see this as the start of a handful of majors and a period at the top of the game for Bubba Watson, it may come to find a place among the greatest Masters.  It's simply too soon to write its legacy.

#10     1998 -

It's every golfer's dream.  Birdieing the 18th on a Masters Sunday to win your first major championship.  41 years old and making his 15th start at Augusta, Mark O'Meara's chances for such a moment in his career were rapidly dwindling.  Although one of the most consistent golfers of the 90s, O'Meara's lack of a major title had left him best known to many as Tiger's practice partner.  After an opening round 74 in '98 it seemed O'Meara's fortunes were to be unchanged.  But he would play his way into contention with rounds of 70 and 68 on Friday and Saturday, leaving him 2 shots behind 54 hole leader Fred Couples and in the final group with Couples on Sunday.

No man in golf history has known more about making putts to win majors than Jack Nicklaus.  With 18 professional majors & 6 green jackets there was no questioning the golfer's greatness.  But Jack was 58 years old, 12 years removed from the '86 Masters (his last of 73 PGA Tour wins).  Surely there was no way he could be a factor at a major anymore.  However rounds of 73, 72, and 70 had him on the fringe of contention: -1, 5 shots back and tied-10th with defending champion Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and Colin Montgomerie.  Many felt someone in that group of 4 would make a charge, but virtually no one felt Jack would be that man.

The story for much of Sunday was Nicklaus.  After a birdie at the par-5 2nd, Nicklaus chipped in from off the green at 3 for back-to-back birdies that stirred the crowd.  A bogey at 4 knocked him back to -2, but Jack would birdie 6, 7 to reach 4-under and just 2 shots away from Couples' lead.  Visions of 1986 danced in the heads of millions.  Sadly, one last back nine charge by Nicklaus simply was not to be.  But his final round 68 gave Jack a final score of -5 283 and a tie for 6th that served as 1 last indellable image of Nicklaus' greatness.

O'Meara came out of the gates even faster than Nicklaus had.  With birdies on 3 of the first 4 holes on Sunday, he moved into a tie for the lead at -7 with playing partner Couples.  But O'Meara would play holes 5 through 14 in 1-over to sit at -6 with 4 to play.  Couples was the first to reach 9-under for the tournament after his birdie on 8, but a bogey at 9 and a hideous double-bogey 7 at the 13th would leave him 6-under on the 15th tee as well.

As the final pairing stumbled, David Duval looked poised to seize the green jacket for himself.  Having begun the day at -3, Duval birdied 7, 9, 10, 11, 13 and 15 to surge to -9 with 3 to play.  But a bogey on 16 that was followed by 2 pars put him in the clubhouse at 280, -8 and powerless to impact the rest of play.

Playing 15, Couples charged in an eagle to tie Duval at 8-under par.  O'Meara calmly rolled in his birdie putt as well to stay just a shot off the lead.   Both players managed pars at the 16th, but when O'Meara sank a birdie effort on 17 both players went off to the final hole tied for the lead and hoping they were 3 shots away from a Masters championship.

Hitting his 2nd shot into the 18th green, O'Meara's shot finished 20 feet right of the pin.  When Couples finished up with a closing par, Mark O'Meara was left alone on golf's grandest stage with the most important putt of his life.  As his ball fell into the bottom of the hole O'Meara's arms raised in the long sought after triumph to define his career.

Only Arnold Palmer 38 years earlier had gone birdie-birdie on the 71st and 72nd holes to win the Masters, until O'Meara.  As an added bonus, the man who would place the green jacket on O'Meara's shoulders was none other than his good friend Tiger Woods.  It was the first of 2 major titles for O'Meara in '98 (winning The Open Championship in July), a stretch that cemented his legacy among the elite players of the decade.

#9     1978 - 

Before Jack Nicklaus' historic Sunday charge in 1986, it was Gary Player who held the honor of turning back the clock one last time at Augusta.  A member of golf's "Big Three" with Jack Nicklaus & Arnold Palmer, Player could already boast a career Grand Slam and 2 previous Augusta victories in 1961 & '74.  But Player was 42 years old as the '78 Masters teed off, past his prime and not really thought of as part of the short list of contenders.

For 3 days there was nothing to indicate Player had much of a chance.  He had played reasonably well with a pair of 72s followed by a Saturday 69 to make him 3-under, but he was to begin the final round 7 shots back and behind some of the game's best young stars.  

The man to beat on Sunday would be Hubert Green.  Green, the reigning US Open champion, had shot 65 on Saturday to reach 10-under par.  He was 3 ahead of defending champion Tom Watson & Rod Funseth and in control of his game.  It was not a given that Green would win, but surely someone as far back as Player posed no threat to Green.  

For 8 holes on Sunday, Player had largely stayed in neutral.  Just 1-under for the day as he played the 9th, he was still well off the pace.  But Player's birdie on 9 fueled a back nine charge for the ages.  With 6 birdies and no bogeys on the back, Player had come home in just 30 strokes.  His final round 64 is still tied for the lowest final round in Masters history, and put him in the clubhouse at 11 under par.

But the tournament was still not over.  Watson and Funseth both had chances to reach 11 under in the closing stretch, but would fall one shot short of Player.  For Green, he had been unable to get anything going on Sunday.  Even par on the round through his first 17 holes and a shot back of Player, Green hit an outstanding second into the 18th that left him just 3 feet away from a birdie that would force a playoff.  But he pushed his short birdie putt right, and the ball agonizingly slid past the hole to deny Green the best shot he'd ever have at winning a green jacket.

It was the 9th and final major championship victory in the career of Gary Player.  The first truly international golfer (playing tournaments around the world in support of the game), The Black Knight remains one of the most popular figures in golf history and his final major serves as a fitting exclamation point to a hall of fame career.

#8     1935 - 

The Augusta roar has become a famous part of sports.  Few sounds compare to that of thousands cheering a critical shot or clutch putt Sunday on the back-9.  But the first of these legendary moments was barely more than a whisper.  Though countless thousands would try to claim they were there when Gene Sarazen made his famous double eagle, by Sarazen's own count there couldn't have been more than 20 spectators lining the 15th for the shot heard round the world.  But this moment was the start of the litany of legendary shots that have come to define Augusta.

Gene Sarazen's legacy as one of the greats of his era was already firmly in place as he teed off at the 2nd Masters Tournament.  The Squire had already won 30 tournaments on the still young PGA Tour, including 2 US Opens, an Open Championship, and 3 PGA Championships.  Sarazen and Walter Hagen stood as the two preeminent professionals of the 1920s and 30s.

The legacy of Augusta National was far less certain at the time.  While the cache that Bobby Jones' name still carried in golf had produced a field worthy of a major tournament, it was still far from a certainty that it would come to be regarded in the same breath as the other 3 professional majors.  Horton Smith had won the inaugural event in a closely fought but unspectacular debut for the tournament, and there was little to hint at the greatness the course was capable of producing.

For 2 days at Augusta it was Henry Picard's tournament to lose.  Shooting 68-67 put Picard at 9-under and 4 ahead of Sarazen & Ray Mangrum in 2nd place.  The weekend would see Picard fade.  He shot 76 & 75 to finish in 4th place, 4 back, and would have to wait three years for his Masters title.

Craig Wood seemed destined to claim the victory for much of the weekend.  Wood had finished second to Smith by a single shot in 1934, part of a series of runner-up finishes in majors that included the '33 Open Championship and the '34 PGA.  Wood led Olin Dutra by 1 shot entering the final round, with Sarazen 3 back.  A final round 73 left Wood leader in the clubhouse at -6, 3 shots ahead of Sarazen with 4 holes to play.  Spectators were so confident they were following the inevitable champion that Sarazen (playing several groups behind) could count his gallery on his fingers and toes.  Augusta officials were so confident that they had already written out the $1500 first prize check in Wood's name.

The 15th at Augusta was much as it is today.  Only a little shorter at 485 yards, the famous pond in front of the green was already an ominous presence for those who dared to go for the green in two.  Three shots behind and 235 yards from the hole, Sarazen had no choice but to take the risk if he had any hope of victory.  Selecting a 4 wood, his 2nd shot cleared the pond, hopped toward the cup, and dropped for an incredible double eagle!  Sarazen had made up all 3 shots on Wood in a single hole, recording the first of only 4 double eagles to date in the Masters.  Sarazen navigated the final 3 holes with 3 pars to force a 36-hole Monday playoff with Wood.  

The playoff itself was never particularly close.  Sarazen was 4 ahead after the 1st round and led by as many as 8 shots before finishing 5 clear of Wood (144-149).  It was Sarazen's only Masters title, making him the first man to complete the Career Grand Slam of professional majors.  Golfers still cross the Sarazen Bridge at the 15th dedicated in honor of what has come to be known in golf as "The Shot Heard 'Round The World".

For Wood it was a 4th runner-up finish in a major in 18 months.  For years Wood was dogged by an inability to win a major (he and Greg Norman are the only golfers in history to lose all 4 majors in playoffs), but he finally had his major moments with a pair of wins in 1941 that included a wire-to-wire Masters title.

Augusta was finally Augusta, and the first of many legendary memories from the Masters had been formed.

#7     1954 - 

In golf more than any other sport, eras of the game can end suddenly and without any real warning.  Perhaps no era finished as abruptly as that of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan's dominance over professional golf.

As he teed off in the 1954 Masters, Hogan returned as defending champion.  His then-record setting 72 hole score of 274 the previous year had been the beginning of a year that saw him win all 3 majors he started in (Hogan avoided the PGA for many years due to the effect its grueling match play format would have on his still ailing legs).  He had won an amazing 6 of his last 8 major championship starts in total, and was seeking a 4th consecutive win to bring his major total to 10 for his career.

Sam Snead was widely seen as the sole true threat to Hogan repeating as champion.  Two years removed from his 2nd Masters title in 1952, Snead was a 6-time major champion in search of a 7th.  One of the longest drivers of the ball of his time, Snead's power was perfectly suited for Augusta's challenging-but-reachable par 5s.  But as he teed off in 1954, Snead faced the same lingering reality that Hogan did: both were 41 years old.  Time is rarely kind to golfers beyond the age of 40, and both had to begin to sense the potential closing of their window to win majors.

For much of the week, the two living legends were forced to take a backseat to an unknown amateur named Billy Joe Patton.  With Augusta playing far harder than it had 1 year earlier, Patton's scores of 70-74 were good for even par and the lead after each of the first 2 rounds.  A Saturday 75 left him 5 back to start Sunday, but a return to form had him threatening to be the first (and only) amateur to win the Masters.  A double bogey 7 on the 13th would be his undoing however, and Patton finished the tournament at +2 290, one shot out of the Monday playoff Snead and Hogan would play.

Hogan entered the final round with a three shot lead over 2nd place Snead, but an inconsistent 75 on Sunday left he and Snead tied after 72 holes at a 1-over par score of 289 (fifteen higher than Hogan's winning total 12 months earlier).  The 18 hole playoff between the two on Monday turned into a classic duel.  Snead was the aggressor, making both more birdies and more bogeys than Hogan.  But Snead would take the lead for good with a birdie at the par 5 thirteenth.  Hogan's lone bogey of the playoff at the 16th gave Snead the slightest bit of breathing room, and even a closing bogey would not deny Snead his 3rd green jacket in a 1-shot playoff win (70-71).

It was a great tournament on its own merit, but what happened (more appropriately, what didn't happen) afterwards adds another dimension to the '54 Masters.  Neither Hogan nor Snead would win another major in their careers.  While both men would win lesser tournaments and remain competitive in majors (Snead would even manage to finish T-3rd at the '74 PGA at 62!), they never again stood atop the golfing world on one of its grandest stages.  It was an abrupt finish to the dominance of two of the all-time greats, but they left the golfing world with one last epic duel to remember them.

Part 1 of this walk through the moments that have defined Augusta's place in the lore of golf is in the books.  Tomorrow I'll pick with the 2nd installment of the list, featuring:

- A snake-bitten Shark
- A Bear jogging around the 16th green
- And the birth of a King....

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