The top 10 greatest shots to win a major

By Randall MellApril 11, 2012, 7:10 pm

Our minds are like filing cabinets.

It doesn’t matter whether we are tasting a vintage wine for the first time, or we’ve just finished a terrific book, or we are marveling at some mountain vista, we rifle through our memory looking to compare just how great the experience was. Is it the best glass of wine we’ve ever consumed? The best book we’ve ever read? The most magnificent view we have ever witnessed? It’s the same thing with Bubba Watson’s great escape from the trees right of the 10th fairway at Augusta National Sunday, his terrific recovery shot that helped him win the Masters.

In the history of great shots that helped win major championships, where does Watson’s shot rank?

It’s brutal work, narrowing down spectacular plays in majors. There’s no avoiding leaving some grand shots off the list, but it makes for great debate at the 19th hole or the water cooler.

So, here’s our take:

1. Gene Sarazen’s double eagle at the 1935 Masters

Wow factor: A double eagle is rarer than a hole-in-one, so pulling off that shot in the final round of a Masters’ victory ranks as the most staggering feat in major championship history. It was called “the shot heard ‘round the world.”

The lowdown: Sarazen holed a 4-wood from 235 yards at Augusta National’s 15th hole, erasing a three-shot deficit with a single swing. Notably, he was playing alongside his rival, Walter Hagen. Sarazen went on that Sunday to defeat Craig Wood in a playoff.

2. Tom Watson’s chip-in at the 1982 U.S. Open

Wow factor: Given Watson was tied for the lead with Jack Nicklaus, who already was in the clubhouse, the combination of nerve and touch it took to hole out from the deep rough behind the 17th green that Sunday at Pebble Beach makes Watson’s shot the most clutch chip in major championship history.

The lowdown: Watson drilled a 2-iron over the 17th green into the deep grass just off the putting surface, sending a buzz through the galleries at Pebble Beach. The mistake made it look like Nicklaus would win. Watson had more than the thick rough to navigate. He had a slippery downhill patch of green. Caddie Bruce Edwards famously told Watson to “Get it close.” Watson, more famously, told him, “I’m gonna make it.” Watson did, rattling an improbable birdie off the flagstick on his way to winning.

3. Larry Mize’s chip-in at the 1987 Masters

Wow factor: Mize was the classic underdog, the hometown Augusta boy who used to work the Masters’ leaderboards in his youth. That Mize, winner of just one PGA Tour event to that date, would knock off two of the titans of the time, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman, in a playoff added to the fairy-tale appeal of his chip-in to win at the second playoff hole (No. 11).

The lowdown: With Ballesteros eliminated at the first playoff hole, Mize took down Norman a hole later, improbably holing a 140-foot chip with a sand wedge from right of the 11th green to win.

4. Ben Hogan’s 1-iron at the 1950 U.S. Open

Wow factor: The fact that Hogan limped his way around Merion just 16 months after he was nearly killed in a head-on collision with a bus magnifies the dramatic nature of the shot that helped him win the U.S. Open.

The lowdown: Needing a par at the 72nd hole, with a stiff wind in his face, Hogan plucked a 1-iron from his bag. A 1-iron was notoriously difficult to control, but Hogan carved a wondrous shot into the 18th green, setting up a two-putt par that got him into a playoff he would win against Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio.

5. Bob Tway’s bunker shot at the 1986 PGA Championship

Wow factor: All tied with Greg Norman going to the 72nd hole at Inverness, Tway looked doomed flying his approach into the sand aside the 18th green. He faced a bunker shot onto a treacherously quick green that sloped away from him. The delicate nature of the play under pressure added to the stunning quality of the unexpected hole out.

The lowdown: Nestling his bunker shot to a landing spot just a foot onto the green, Tway watched his shot gently roll into the hole. The excitement turned him into a human pogo stick as he leaped up and down in that bunker. Norman missed his chip and chance to force a playoff, making Tway the first player in modern history to win the PGA Championship with a birdie at the 72nd hole.

6. Tiger Woods’ chip-in at the 2005 Masters

Wow factor: After pulling his approach long and left of the 16th green that Sunday at Augusta National, Woods looked like he was going to have trouble getting up and down for par. A birdie didn’t seem possible from there.

The lowdown: A shot ahead, Woods ignited an explosion around the 16th when he chipped up onto the swale that makes that green so difficult, his ball taking a circuitous route to one of the most unlikely chip-ins in major championship history. Woods needed that birdie as he finished with back-to-back bogeys but still prevailed against Chris DiMarco in a playoff.

7. Jerry Pate’s 5-iron at the 1976 U.S. Open

Wow factor: Just 22 years old, Pate needed all his brashness and confidence to pull off a difficult shot from 190 yards out, from the rough, over a lake. He delivered a shot that made veterans marvel.

The lowdown: With a one-shot lead, Pate just missed the 18th fairway with a drive to right. Under enormous pressure, Pate knew a 4-iron would cover the distance with his normal swing, but his caddie, John Considine, warned they were faced with a flyer lie. So Pate decided on a 5-iron, instead, and he delivered a straight and true shot over all that wet trouble to within 2 feet to set up a closing birdie and seal his victory. “It was the highest, softest flyer you’ve ever seen,” Pate said.

8. Shaun Micheel’s 7-iron at the 2003 PGA Championship

Wow factor: A relative unknown, there were plenty of doubts whether Micheel could close the deal as he headed to the 18th hole that Sunday at Oak Hill. Nicklaus, Hogan or Woods couldn’t have delivered a better answer with a final full shot to win the PGA Championship.

The lowdown: With  a one-shot lead on Chad Campbell, Micheel missed the 18th fairway left, but from 175 yards out, he put the surest pass on a 7-iron he could muster, carving his approach shot to 2 inches to set up a closing birdie and claim the victory.

9. Phil Mickelson’s 6-iron at the 2010 Masters

Wow factor: Mickelson took a risky play at the 13th hole on that Sunday that could have made him repeat the line he uttered after blowing a shot off a hospitality tent to the lose the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006: “I’m such an idiot,” he said in Winged Foot’s aftermath. Instead, Mickelson showed his genius.

The lowdown: It may not have been the high percentage shot, or the smartest shot, but it was a great shot. From the trees right of the 13th fairway, from 207 yards off pine straw, Mickelson threaded a narrow gap between a pair of trees to hit the green and set up a two-putt birdie that gave him the confidence and momentum he needed to finish off his victory there.

10. Bubba Watson’s gap wedge at the 2012 Masters

Wow factor: Under pressure at the second hole of a playoff, Watson shaped a shot around the trees that would have made Seve Ballesteros’ proud. Watson orchestrated one of the great escapes in major championship history to set up his victory.

The lowdown: After pulling his tee shot right and into the trees along the 10th fairway, Watson’s imagination became the 15th club in his bag. From 155 yards out, he used all his creative powers, slinging a hard hook with a gap wedge around the trees to within 10 feet of the flagstick for a two-putt par to defeat Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff. Watson had to keep the shot low, until it cleared one tree line, then watched it bend and rise to Masters’ fame.

Getty Images

Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”

Getty Images

Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:11 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.

He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.

Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.

“I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”

Getty Images

A performance fit for a King

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:08 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 40 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.

So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just captured the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the scrum, he was asked instead to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.

“Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”

But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud. With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.

“Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.

But the connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.

Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.

Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.

Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”

McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.

“I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.

And entertained, of course.

Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy said.

“And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’"

McIlroy chuckled at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.

During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.

But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, where he was admittedly searching.

“The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.

McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with former PGA Tour winner and putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.

“He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.

Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.

And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.

“The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career.  

Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.

Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.

Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.

“I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”

Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.

“He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, closing with a bogey-free 64 and winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.

“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.

Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.

But after a turbulent 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.

There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.

A kiss for his wife, Erica.

A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.

The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.

“Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”

Getty Images

McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 1:06 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Fresh off a stirring victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy offered a pair of culinary factoids about two of the game’s biggest names.

McIlroy regretted not being able to shake Palmer’s hand behind the 18th green after capping a three-shot win with a Sunday 64, but with the trophy in hand he reflected back on a meal he shared with Palmer at Bay Hill back in 2015, the year before Palmer passed away.

“I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy said. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

A few minutes later, McIlroy revealed that he is also a frequent diner at The Woods Jupiter, the South Florida restaurant launched by Tiger Woods. In fact, McIlroy explained that he goes to the restaurant every Wednesday with his parents – that is, when he’s not spanning the globe winning golf tournaments.

Having surveyed the menu a few times, he considers himself a fan.

“It’s good. He seems pretty hands-on with it,” McIlroy said. “Tuna wontons are good, the lamb lollipops are good. I recommend it.”