Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walking Up To The Last... 10 Greatest Masters #3-1

7 down already, just 3 more to go.  Masters history is replete with legends of the game at their all-time best on Augusta's stage, but 4 names stand out to modern golf fans above others for their exploits: 6-time champion Jack Nicklaus, 4-time champions Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, and 3-time champion Phil Mickelson.

So perhaps it is fitting that each man's finest hour on the Masters stage comprise the whole of the top four of this list.  Palmer's win in 1960 has already been profiled at #4, and the others can all be found in this final posting of the list.



#3     2001 - 

In Tiger Woods' great career, he has never been better than he was in the year 2000.  With a pair of record breaking wins at the US Open and The Open Championship followed by a playoff victory over Bob May at the PGA, Woods joined Ben Hogan as the only golfers in history to win 3 professional majors in a single year.  Only the Masters, where Woods had finished 5th in 2000, had eluded Tiger.  

Woods came to Augusta in 2001 as the overwhelming favorite to win his 2nd green jacket and to complete what was already being described as the "Tiger Slam": holding all 4 major championships at the same time, albeit not in 1 season.  It was hard to imagine anyone being able to stop him.  

But if anyone could, the 2 most likely candidates seemed to be Phil Mickelson and David Duval.  Mickelson was ranked #2 in the world behind Woods, and despite having yet to win a professional major in his career possessed a wealth of experience at Augusta that included 4 previous top-10 finishes.  Duval was also majorless at this stage of his career, but had 3 straight Masters finishes no worse than 6th and figured to be a factor again in '01.

The first and second round lead would belong to Chris DiMarco, in the first of several strong runs at a green jacket DiMarco would make in the decade.  His first round 65 would prove to be the round of the tournament, and he followed it with a 69 on Friday to lead by 2 at 10-under.  Tiger shot 66 on Friday to go with an opening 70, and found himself tied for second at -8 with Phil Mickelson (67-69).  David Duval was a shot further back in a tie for fourth after his own 66 on Friday, a tie that included 2-time US Open champion Lee Janzen & future Masters and US Open champion Angel Cabrera.

Moving Day at Augusta would see Woods vault into the 54-hole lead.  His 68 on Saturday would leave him at 12-under par entering the final day.  36-hole leader DiMarco struggled with the pressure of a lead on the weekend of a major, but still managed to shoot 72 to remain 10-under, tied with Mark Calcavecchia.  Late in the day it seemed Woods would lead by 2 entering Sunday, but Mickelson closed strong with birdies on 17 and 18 for a round of 69 and a total of 11-under that left him 1 behind Woods.  For Duval, a 70 in the third round left him 3 back and tied for 5th with Cabrera and Ernie Els.  

But it would be Duval who came out of the gate fast Sunday.  When his putt for birdie at the 8th hole fell, it was already his 6th birdie of the round and briefly gave him sole possession of the lead.  Tiger's start was slow, with a bogey right out the gate at the 1st.  But 3 birdies the remainder of the front nine would allow him to regain the lead.  Mickelson was in the midst of what still likely stands as the greatest ball striking week of his entire career, but his putter was continuing to cost him opportunities.  This would include missing a par putt at the 6th of no more than 2 1/2 feet.  Still, Lefty remained firmly in contention even as additional brief charges by Els and Calcavecchia wilted down the stretch.  

The pivotal stage to decide the tournament would be the 15th and 16th greens.  Playing a few groupings ahead of the Woods-Mickelson pairing, Duval had failed to take advantage of the par-5 13th hole and came to the 15th still 1 shot behind Tiger.  But when Duval birdied the hole he joined Woods at 15-under in a tie for the lead.  On 16 tee and surely expecting Tiger would birdie 15 behind him, Duval took aim at the flag with his tee shot.  His shot was too strong, and wound up over the back.  A chip to 8 feet left him a vital par putt that he would miss to fall 1 back.  Duval would wind up with 2 very makeable birdie looks at 17 and 18 (the latter being just 6 feet away), only for his putter to desert him at the most critical of times.  He would post a 14-under 274 in the clubhouse.

Mickelson came to 15 alongside Woods 2 shots behind and running out of holes.  When his 5-foot birdie putt on the green fell, Phil moved into what he had to think was a very brief instant just 1 back.  Woods was 3 feet away for birdie, a putt that could begin to seal up victory for him.  Shockingly, the ball stayed out on his attempt.  A disappointing par, and Mickelson was now within one with 3 to play.  Mickelson's tee shot was played to take advantage of the large ridge in the middle of the green that will funnel the ball toward the front left Sunday hole location, only it would hang up on the ridge just inches from what would have been an excellent shot.  Mickelson would have to putt sideways on his birdie effort, and 3 putts later he too had made a tournament crushing bogey on the 70th hole of the week.  Longer birdie looks for Phil at 17 and 18 would go begging as Duval's had, and he would finish the week 3rd at -13.

As Tiger made the walk up to the 18th green with his ball 15 feet away from the hole, he could take 2 putts and still claim his 2nd Masters title and to complete the Tiger Slam.  He would need only one, closing with birdie to make him 16-under for the week and the winner by 2.  With it, Woods became the only golfer in history to hold all 4 professional majors at the same time (Bobby Jones' legendary single season slam in 1930 having including the US & British Amateurs in place of the PGA & Masters crowns), and cemented what to date has to be considered the foundational piece of his golfing legacy.  

His valiantly defeated rivals were both to have their moments atop the golf world soon enough.  For Duval, it would be a mere 3 month wait before he claimed the 2001 Open Championship for his first major.  It seemed destined to be the first of several major crowns in a long and distinguished career.  But, for reasons still not entirely known, Duval's game simply seemed to disappear after the '01 season.  He would never win again after that year, and has been on and off the PGA Tour with issues retaining his tour card for several years.  But for Mickelson, the wait would be a little longer.  His moment was destined for another Sunday at Augusta......


#2     2004 - 

Phil Mickelson had been widely regarded as the best player in the game never to have won a professional major for years as the 2004 Masters began.  It was harder every year to make the case for anyone else.  After a sterling amateur career that included a US Amateur title and the distinction he still holds today of being the last man to win a PGA Tour event while still an amateur (the 1991 Northern Telecom Open), he was expected to take his place as the next great American golfer upon turning pro.  

In many ways, Mickelson had already lived up to the hype.  He already had won 22 PGA Tour events in his career, and at only 33 years old could be expected to claim many more.  For much of the past 4 years he had held onto the #2 spot in the world golf rankings, and if it hadn't been for the phenom that came up a few years after Phil known as Tiger the #1 ranking would have been his frequent home.  

But Mickelson's resume still possessed a glaring hole: 0 major championship wins.  And this absence faced more and more scrutiny as the number of majors played without a win grew.  For many years, it was all but a given that Mickelson would be the first left handed golfer to win a major since Bob Charles was the first to do it with his lone major title at the 1963 Open Championship.  Even this would not come to pass, as Canadian lefty Mike Weir claimed the 2003 Masters title.  

Two days at the '04 Masters gave only the slightest glimmers that it would be the long awaited breakthrough for Mickelson.  Rounds of 72 and 69 left Phil 3-under and tied for 4th, a strong showing but one that had played out many times prior.  Leading the field was young Englishman Justin Rose at -6, with 2-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Alex Cejka in 2nd at -4.  

On Saturday the top of the leaderboard went into full meltdown.  Rose, the 36-hole leader, shot 81 to drop out of contention.  Olazabal (79) and Cejka (78) would also find themselves off the leaderboard when Saturday ended.  This left the door open for Mickelson, and he responded with a solid, steady round of 69 to reach 6-under and a tie for the lead.  As incredible as it seemed for a man who already had a string of near misses at majors and 17 top-10 major finishes, it was the first time Phil had ever held the 54-hole lead.  Joining him at the top was Chris DiMarco after a 3rd round 68, leaving the duo 2 clear of Paul Casey in 3rd.  Ernie Els, seeking a long sought after 1st Masters of his own, sat 3 behind and T-4th with K.J. Choi and the 2-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer.  

Both Mickelson and DiMarco stumbled early in the final round.  DiMarco's spiral was part of a round with no moment of redemption: a final round 76 that would leave him tied for 6th at the end of the day.  Mickelson briefly reached 7-under after birdieing the 2nd, but 3 bogeys and no birdies the rest of the front nine added up to a +2 38 on the front nine, back to 4-under for the tournament.  The opening this presented was seized by Els.  Two early bogies had kept him stalled initially, but an eagle on the par-5 8th hole would move him to 5-under and the lead.  A 2nd eagle of the day on the 13th hole stretched his lead over Mickelson to 3 shots as Phil stood on the tee at the treacherous 12th hole.

If Mickelson was going to claim the green jacket, he had to make an immediate move.  Taking an aggressive line at the perilous right-side hole location on 12, Mickelson left himself 15 feet for birdie.  When his putt fell, Mickelson greeted his first birdie in 10 holes with a fist pump that seemed more like relief than exuberance.  Another birdie at the 13th for Lefty closed to margin to one, and when he made a 3rd consecutive birdie on the par-4 14th Mickelson joined Els at 7-under.  Ernie was a couple groups ahead, and would birdie the par-5 15th to reclaim a 1-stroke advantage late.  

Mickelson would fail to advantage of the fifteenth, making only par.  One back with 3 holes to play, his tee shot at 16 would end up 20 feet short and right of the hole on the green.  It's about as straight of a putt as you can on 16 green, and the galleries across the pond fronting the green would jump out of their seats with cheers as the putt found the hole.  Mickelson was tied for the lead with 2 holes to play.

Up on 18, Els made par to be leader in the clubhouse at 8-under 280, tied with the still playing Mickelson.  After a 3-wood off the tee at 18 to stay short of the large fairway bunkers out around 300 yards, Mickelson took dead aim at the flagstick with his 2nd.  The ball landed just right of the flag and rolled about 15 feet past, leaving Mickelson a longer version of the putt Sandy Lyle made to win in 1988.  The putt started to dive low just before reaching the hole, caught the lip, and rolled into the cup as both the fans and Mickelson jumped in celebration.  "Yes! At long last!" summed up Nantz as Mickelson, 0 for 46 in the four majors to that point, was finally a major champion.


#1     1986 - 

Jack Nicklaus was already the greatest golfer of all-time when arrived at the 1986 Masters.  His 17 previous professional major wins was already 6 more than any man had won to that point (Walter Hagen's 11 then 2nd), and his 5 Masters wins put him 1 ahead of long-time rival Arnold Palmer.  But he entered the tournament coming off the worst year of his career.  1985 saw the man with 72 PGA Tour victories to date not even competitive: a paltry 160th on the tour's money list for the year.  He hadn't won a major in 6 years, hadn't won any PGA Tour event in 2 years, and at 46 was almost universally regarded as a non-threat to win when Masters week began.

But Augusta National always had a way of bringing out the best in Nicklaus' game.  After an opening 74, Nicklaus worked his way into contention with rounds of 71 and 69 that left 2-under and just 4 back entering Sunday.  Ahead of him however was a list filled with pre-tournament favorites and the game's best young stars.  

Three players were 4-under after 3 rounds: 2-time Masters champion Tom Watson, future Hall of Famer and frequent contender at Augusta Tom Kite, and the Japan Tour's dominant figure Tommy Nakajima.  Tied for 2nd at 5-under was defening champion Bernhard Langer, 2-time champion Seve Ballesteros, Donnie Hammond (the 'one of these names is not like the others' of the list), and Nick Price after breaking the course record with a third round 63.  Ahead by 1 was Greg Norman, part of a season that would see Norman hold the 54-hole lead at all 4 of the year's majors.

For Nicklaus, the day began slowly.  After a birdie at the par-5 2nd, Nicklaus bogeyed the 4th and failed to take advantage of the par-5 8th hole.  But even before television coverage began on this Masters Sunday, the wonders of this Sunday were already unfolding.  Playing the long 8th, Ballesteros holed out his 3rd shot from just inside 100 yards for an eagle that vaulted him into the lead at 8-under par.  Incredibly, playing partner Tom Kite duplicated the feat with his own 3rd on the 8th for a pair of eagles!  

But then Nicklaus began to make his move.  He birdied the 9th to make the turn at 3-under for the week, then followed it up with a pair of long birdie putts at 10 and 11.  All of a sudden Nicklaus was 5-under and just 2 back of co-leaders Norman and Ballesteros.  But Jack's tee shot at the 12 was pulled left.  Chipping across the length of the green, his chip came to rest about 6 feet from the hole.  But a spike mark stood directly in Nicklaus' line to the hole, pushing the ball just far enough right to slide by.  A momentum stalling bogey, and Nicklaus seemed destined to be merely a nice side story.

Meanwhile, the game's stars of the mid-80s were moving up and down the leaderboard.  Langer, Hammond, and Nakijima fell back on Sunday, and Watson and Price remained stuck in neutral throughout the day.  Norman was tied for the lead heading to the back nine, only to make his 2nd double bogey of the week on the 10th.  At 5-under, Norman would be largely forgotten about for several holes.  Leader alone by 1 over Kite, Ballesteros hit a magnificent 2nd into the par-5 13th that left him less than 10 feet for eagle.  When he drained the putt, Seve reached 9-under and briefly led by 3 shots.  Kite made his shorter birdie putt to trim that lead back to 2 with 5 to play.  

Standing in the fairway at 15, Jack Nicklaus was 4 shots behind with 4 holes to play.  As Ben Wright would say on commentary for CBS, Jack had never needed an eagle more.  A 4-iron from 200 yards out landed short of the hole, bounced forward and left to stop 12 feet away from the hole.  As his eagle putt found the cup, Nicklaus raised his putter into the air as the gallery erupted.  "The battle is joined!" Wright declared to the millions watching.  7-under, but still 2 back with 3 to play.  Jack still needed more.  

On the tee at 16, Nicklaus played a three-quarter 5-iron into the hole that had been the climactic scene of his last Masters win 11 years prior.  He took dead aim and hit a shot that landed just right of the pin, rolled slightly past, then used the slope to drift back within 3 feet of the hole.  The putt was not a gimme, with a pronounced left to right turn to it.  But Nicklaus poured it into the middle, and the crowd surrounding 15 and 16 let out the 3rd massive roar for the Bear's exploits in minutes.  "There's no doubt about it, the Bear has come out of hibernation" remarked a young Jim Nantz.  

Back on 15, Seve is still the leader by 1 despite all that has happened.  After a big drive, he has a mid-iron left to the green.  A birdie would get him to 10-under, and could render all of Nicklaus' exploits futile.  But all the roars had unnerved Ballesteros.  He pull-hooked his 2nd, the ball landing in the center of the pond guarding the front of the green.  Seve would bogey the hole, dropping him back into a tie with Nicklaus at 8-under.  Playing partner Kite, flying under the radar in the midst of the exploits, made a routine birdie that vaulted him into the tie at the top.  

At 17, Nicklaus had pulled his tee shot left.  From 125 yards out, his 2nd shot landed on the front of the green, bounced up, and came to rest 15 feet from the hole.  It was a left to right putt, but Nicklaus knew that the pull of Ray's Creek would hold the ball straighter than it would look.  The ball held its line on the right-center of the hole for the final few feet, and 2 feet out Jack began to raise his putter above his head in one of the most iconic images in golf history.  "Yes sir!" was the call from Verne Lundquist as the loudest roar of the day, quite possibly the loudest in Augusta's history, came from the patrons around 17.  Jack Nicklaus had gone 7-under in a 9 hole stretch and now had the lead to himself with one to play!  And after nearly holing a 50-foot birdie putt at the last, Nicklaus was in the clubhouse at 9-under highlighted by a sizzling back nine 30.

But Nicklaus still had 3 challengers within striking range.  Seve's chances ended with a whimper, a 3-putt bogey at 17, and he would finish the week at 7-under.  On the 18th, Kite hit a beautiful 2nd to the back hole location.  Eight feet away for birdie to force a playoff, Kite did the one thing he couldn't do in that position: he left it short, and the ball stalled just in front of the lip.  Two challengers down, and only Norman remained as a threat.  

Seemingly out of it standing on 14 tee, Norman caught fire.  Birdies at 14, 15, and 16 brought him to within 1 of the lead.  After a wild drive on 17 that ended up by the 7th green, Norman hit a magnificent punch shot between two pines that bounded up to the green and stopped just 10 feet away.  When the putt fell, Nicklaus had company at the top of the leaderboard.  A perfect drive at the last, and suddenly it looked like the Shark might come all the way back to deny Nicklaus the title.  But Norman's 2nd was pushed way right into the middle of the gallery.  Chipping down to the green, Norman left himself about 15 feet away for par.  His putt would never be close, and cheers came from the crowd as they realized Nicklaus had done it.

While making this list, I feel I could have taken #10-2, put them in virtually any order, and made a reasonable justification for that order.  Each has its own claim to greatness.  But it was never a question in my mind what would take the #1 spot.  Nicklaus' 1986 Masters victory, the drama not only of his back nine 30 to win it but the litany of legendary golfers unable to withstand Jack's charge, is not only the greatest Masters of all-time but the greatest golf tournament of all-time for its drama and memorability.  It's simply hard to imagine any way to make it better, and it was the ultimate exclamation point on the career of the greatest golfer of all-time.

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