Things have changed a bit since ’92, but not by a whole lot, which is one reason I hold the Masters in such high regard. Not every gathering at Augusta National has been fabulous from a competitive standpoint, but more often than not, the club gets everything right, which leads to premium levels of suspense and big-game performance. Here are my six best Masters over the last two decades. I was going to include a few clunkers, but then, common sense prevailed. There is no such thing as a bad Masters.
6. 1996 – We begin, quite ironically, with one of the darkest dramas in golf history. Lost in the wreckage of Greg Norman’s epic Sunday collapse is that Nick Faldo won by five, not just by a whisker. Fifteen years later, Norman’s six-stroke edge at the start of the day remains the largest blown 54-hole lead in PGA Tour history, a generation-defining loss that taught us the difference between heartbreak and a horror show. A setting orange sun and funereal atmosphere around the 18th green serve as everlasting memories. To this day, golf fans talk about Norman’s slow-motion plunge with pained facial expressions.
It was gruesome, it was unjust, but the ’96 Masters was one of the most significant ever played. Two of the game’s giants had their reputations amplified to an extreme that afternoon, and in getting to know Norman pretty well since, I believe the loss basically destroyed his golfing will – his competitive passion and inside-the-ropes intensity. Tiger Woods won by 12 the next year, and man, that was all she wrote.
5. 1995 – Ben Crenshaw is the most right-brain pro golfer I’ve ever met, a lot more artistically inclined and emotionally connected than the rest. His second Masters triumph is excellent proof of that trait, as Crenshaw arrived at Augusta National straight from the funeral of his longtime mentor, Harvey Penick, with his swing in tatters. Five minutes on the range with his caddie, Carl Jackson, was all it took to fix things. When you’re golf’s accidental genius, you don’t ask why.
On a Sunday leaderboard stacked with stars, Davis Love III had the best chance to catch Gentle Ben, but the sunny side of fate wasn’t about to let that happen. More than in most sports, golf’s deepest storylines are donated by the losers. It’s a tough game. Stuff happens. The ’95 Masters, however, was the ultimate feelgood. To think that we went from Crenshaw’s not-a-dry-eye high to Norman’s mega-downer spells out the potency of the magic made at Augusta National. Home of the Unvarnished Memory.
4. 2010 – After three consecutive lackluster Masters, last year’s affair brought the old ball yard back to life. Phil Mickelson claimed the green jacket for a third time, beating Lee Westwood, and though Woods didn’t seriously threaten, he did finish T-4 in his first post-hydrant start. When Phil hugged Amy, his cancer-stricken wife, not long after Tiger dropped the smug attitude on Peter Kostis in his brief post-round interview, all seemed right with the world.
Beyond that, however, was the 6-iron Mickelson threaded between a pair of adjoining tree trunks on the par-5 13th, a second shot from 206 yards that stopped 4 feet from the hole. If Philly Mick makes the eagle putt, you can make a case that it was the greatest shot in Masters history. He didn’t, which leaves me to wonder if it should even rank ahead of Tiger’s lucky hole-out chip from behind the 16th green in 2005. By the sum of its parts, however, 2010 was fabulous.
3. 1998 – A poor man’s version of 1975, so to speak, with Mark O’Meara holing an 18-foot birdie putt at the last to beat Fred Couples and David Duval by a stroke. Any three-man duel full of superb shot making is worth savoring, but when it happens at a major championship, the suspense becomes intoxicating. Adding to the plot in ’98 was one final display of brilliance by Jack Nicklaus, who finished T-6 at the age of 58. When the Golden Bear began the final round with a surge up the leaderboard, the mid-afternoon roars at Augusta National were among the loudest I’ve ever heard.
Nicklaus would get to within two strokes of the lead after a birdie at the seventh. Duval made up six strokes on Couples from the ninth to the 13th and led O’Meara by three with five holes to play, but O’Meara birdied Nos. 15, 17 and 18. That glorious Sunday, and all the sharp turns of momentum, provide a stellar example as to why the Masters is the best golf tournament on earth. Don’t get up to use the bathroom. You might miss something.
2. 1997 – It was over before sunset Friday, once Woods had taken a three-stroke lead and began planning his 36-hole victory march. That he won by 12 at the age of 21 in his first Masters as a pro, hitting 9-irons into par 5s and utterly demolishing the field – we’re talking about a degree of dominance no one had ever seen by a kid barely old enough to drink. Never mind the historical value. What Tiger did that week was as close to impossible as reality will allow, a landmark performance with stupefying implications. To think that he did it again three years later at the U.S. Open only makes the ’97 Masters seem more magnificent. Fluke, anyone?
1. 2004 – Quite simply the best golf tournament I have ever covered. Mickelson’s first Masters title was made possible by one of the finest finishing kicks in the tournament’s history: five birdies on the last seven holes to edge Els, who eagled the 13th to take a three-stroke lead, parred in and still didn’t make a playoff. There were back-to-back aces at the 16th and K.J. Choi’s hole-out for eagle at the 11th, but in retrospect, they were merely a warm-up act during a two-hour display of fireworks every bit as dramatic as the closing stages in 1986.
That Masters remains the best ever because Nicklaus won it, but for Mickelson, who was infamously major-less before the ’04 breakthrough, beating Els with a furious rally totally redefined him as a player. For all the prior near-misses, he could not have vindicated himself better, and while picking up three more major titles since, he has emerged as one of the best golfers ever. He’ll never catch Woods, but Philly Mick is the people’s favorite. In April 2004, he finally gave everyone reason to believe.