The same place that gave us Jack Nicklaus, who won one for mid-life crises everywhere, in 1986, and Ben Crenshaw, who won one for Harvey Penick, in 1995, delivered the trifecta in 2010.
An off-form Phil Mickelson, who arrived at Augusta National with just a single top-10 finish, shook the pines with bold, and borderline reckless, play on Sunday to win his third green jacket and then shed tears moments later when he embraced wife Amy, who had been absent from Tour life for 11 months due to a battle with breast cancer. It was a storybook finish too good, or maybe too unbelievable, for Hollywood, but perfect for Augusta National. – Rex Hoggard, Senior Writer
Come Sunday morning in the final round of a Masters, I like to go down to Amen Corner and sit in the media bleachers above the 12th tee to soak in the grandeur long before the leaders go off. I wasn’t there when Jack Nicklaus won the best Masters ever in 1986, but I got an unexpected echo of what it must have been like in ’98, my second Masters. That’s when Nicklaus, at 58, made an early charge that ended in a tie for sixth. I remember sitting there, enjoying the peacefulness, when this roar detonated up on the hill behind me and cascaded through the pines.
“What the hell was that?” I asked Helen Ross, a fellow writer who had been to a lot more Masters than had I. “That can only be one thing,” she said. “That’s a Nicklaus roar.” Moments later, Nicklaus’ name was put on the leaderboard above the 11th green. Sitting down there in Amen Corner, we heard one roar after another as Nicklaus mounted a charge that would ultimately fall short. But the sounds Nicklaus created before his magic ended, it was like listening to a symphony. – Randall Mell, Senior Writer
Phil Mickelson's victory in 2004 stands out most because I was there. The roars on the second nine were unlike anything I'd ever heard on a golf course with the game's heavyweights, Mickelson and Ernie Els, trading blows. Ultimately Mickelson’s 18-footer finally took the major championship monkey off his back and did so in fine fashion. Els shot 67 that day and thought he had finally done enough to wear the green jacket. When he realized he didn’t, he was as gutted as anyone I’ve ever seen following major disappointment.
Realizing the defining moment was going to be something special – and knowing I’d never get a clear view of the 18th hole – I ducked into the players locker room to watch the final hole. Padraig Harrington, Nick Price and Fred Couples were all glued to the TV. When Phil’s final putt dropped the room went crazy and the ground shook. Phil jumped in the air and yelled “I did it!” I’ll never forget it. – Jay Coffin, Editorial Director
I've worked every Masters for the past 15 years – for the most part – so my most indelible moment takes place in the office. For as much as I recall the panic of trying to cut a highlight tape for 'Golf Central' after Tiger won in '97 (I aged three years that day), and as proud as I felt to see Zach Johnson profess his faith after winning in 2007, it was Tiger's chip in on 16, during the final round in 2005, that stands out most. The collective gasp of about 15 employees in and around the newsroom when Woods' ball stopped on the lip of the cup, a producer falling to his knees, the collective scream when the ball dropped, people recreating Tiger's dorky celebration. Good times. – Mercer Baggs, Managing Editor
The 1996 Masters ranks as one of the worst all-time sporting days in my life. Greg Norman played so masterfully for the first three days. As one of my favorite athletes, not just in golf, I foolishly felt confident that Sunday. And then came the short missed putt at No. 11 and the Dead Man Walking march was on. I felt sick the rest of the day. I still get pissed knowing that he isn't at the Champions Dinner every year. – Brian Koressel, Senior Producer
‘Surreal.’ That’s the word Zach Johnson used over and over again when he was asked about holding off Tiger Woods down the stretch to win at Augusta in 2007.
Having played against Johnson at a rival college and then rooming with him on the mini-tours thereafter, the moment Phil Mickelson draped that crested coat across his shoulders was about as surreal to his longtime friends as it was to him. I’ll never forget his tenacity on those last few holes; that chip on the 18th. And, of course, the embrace with wife Kim and newborn son Will after the victory. All Masters memories are great. This one, I’m just grateful to have. – Jon Levy, Associate Editor
There are certain moments in life when the emotions of others around us, particularly those of our loved ones, can be so fervent that by mere observation, we are overcome with sentiment. That’s what the 2004 Masters was for me – the osmosis of my parents’ passion and euphoria over Phil Mickelson’s victory into joy of my own.
Not that I wasn’t happy in my own right to see Mickelson win the green jacket, but at a mere 17 years of age, I was unable to comprehend or appreciate the significance of the event I had just witnessed on TV. Experiencing the excitement of Mickelson’s victory through my parents’ happiness was all the convincing I needed to know that a special moment in history had just occurred. – Bailey Mosier, Contributing Editor
Masters Memories - COPIED
Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile
Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.
The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from a trip to Augusta.
He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).
Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.
Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.
Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.
Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.
The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.