AUGUSTA, Ga. – They say the Masters doesn’t truly begin until the back nine on Sunday.
This one? Epic nuttiness.
So many lead changes you needed motion sickness pills to watch the scoreboard. A meltdown that makes Greg Norman’s heartbreak look good. And madness that went on right to the very end, until Charl Schwartzel made four straight birdies to end the hopes of all those players who’d had a chance to win it in the final two hours.
“There were so many numbers going up and down. It must have looked great on TV,” said Jason Day, who finished two strokes behind Schwartzel. “It was exciting stuff, it really was.”
For those who lost track of the leaderboard, here’s a rundown of some of the wackiness.
THE RUSH TO BUTLER CABIN: Despite a shaky front nine, Rory McIlroy had a 1-stroke lead as he walked to the 10th tee. All he had to do was make pars, and the green jacket would be his as a mere 21-year-old. But McIlroy, who still remembers Nick Faldo being gifted the Masters title by Norman in ’96, collapsed in spectacular fashion.
He pulled his tee shot into the trees left of the fairway, and the ball apparently ricocheted between two of the club’s famous cabins. McIlroy had no choice but to punch it back out, but then yanked his approach shot left of the green, near a scoreboard, before banging a shot off a tree limb.
He finally chipped it onto the green – barely. Two putts left him with a 7, and his lead was now a 2-shot deficit.
McIlroy could have survived it, but he three-putted for another bogey on No. 11. After a four-putt double-bogey on 12, the collapse was complete. After leading the first three days, the Northern Irishman wasn’t even on the leaderboard when the afternoon ended. He closed with an 80, finishing 10 strokes behind Schwartzel.
“I just hit a poor tee shot on 10 and unraveled from there,” McIlroy said. “I’ll have plenty more chances, I know that. It’s just very disappointing what happened today.”
TIGER’S ROAR: The roars were echoing through the pines like the old days as Tiger Woods reeled off four birdies and an eagle for a 31 on the front nine. Never mind his erratic game or the fact he hadn’t won since that infamous car crash 16 months ago. When he made the turn with a share of the lead, almost everyone expected him to tear through the back nine, dropping his challengers one by one.
But Woods isn’t quite his old self yet. A 3-footer for par should have been a gimme, but Woods banged it off the back of the cup for a bogey on No. 12. With a chance to take the outright lead on the par-5 15th, he missed another short putt for an eagle. He still made birdie, but on this wildest of days, it may as well have been a bogey for all the good it did him.
He would play his last three holes at par, and didn’t even bother sticking around for the finish.
BIRDIE STRING: Schwartzel running off four straight birdies was bigger, because they got him a green jacket. But Geoff Ogilvy made five in a row on Nos. 12 through 16 to jump to the top of the leader board.
“When I birdied 14, I thought I was in pretty good shape,” Ogilvy said.
But the Australian couldn’t go any lower, and there were still five groups playing when he finished. Ogilvy would finish at 10-under, tied for fourth with Woods and Luke Donald.
DONALD’S COMEBACK: The Par 3 Tournament winner has never gone on to win the green jacket, and that dubious streak sure looked safe when Luke Donald dunked his tee shot in the water on 12. Instead of being two shots off the lead, he was now four back.
But wait. Birdies on 15 and 16 got Donald within one shot of Adam Scott, only to give a stroke back on 17. When his tee shot on 18 landed on the right edge of a bunker, leaving him a lie only a stork could love, Donald was out of the mix.
Or was he?
Hitting off one leg, Donald’s ball came out perfectly only to hit the flag and carom back off the green. But Donald chipped in from the fairway, the ball bouncing several times on the green before dropping in to put Donald back at 10 under, one shot back.
“I dug in deep and made some birdies coming in,” Donald said, cheers of “LUUUUUKE!” still ringing in his ears. “But I think I’m going to come up a little bit short.”
THE AUSSIES: Adam Scott grabbed the outright lead for the first time with an 8-foot birdie putt on the 14th, giving all of Australia hope that its oh-fer at Augusta National might finally be over.
No way any lead was going to hold up for four holes on this day, however, and, sure enough, Scott’s second shot on 15 rocketed behind the grandstand. He managed a par, then stuffed his tee shot to 2 feet on the par-3 16th to take back the lead.
Meanwhile Day, his playing partner and fellow Aussie, had been stuck at 10-under for what seemed like an eternity on a day when the leaderboard was on spin cycle. (It was only three holes, actually.) But he made a long putt for a birdie on 17, then rolled in an 8-footer for another on 18. Suddenly he, too, was at 12 under with Scott.
But they were out of holes, and Schwartzel had just made a 10-footer to take the lead by himself. When the South African put his approach shot to a mere 20 feet, leaving him two shots to win the green jacket, Scott, Day and all of their fellow Aussies could only shake their heads again.
“I hung in there as long as I could,” Scott said. “Obviously, I can’t control Charl. When you birdie the last four holes at the Masters and you’re around the lead, that usually wins.”