Augusta National take a bow


AUGUSTA, Ga. – We’re waiting for golf’s next big star to take charge with the game in transition.

We thought we might be crowning wunderkind Rory McIlroy before he took a detour on his way to Sunday’s coronation ricocheting his tee shot at the 10th hole off a tree and into Masters lore. McIlroy might still be the Once and Future King, but he’s got some work ahead breaking the scar tissue that comes with an epic collapse.

Charl Schwartzel stepped up as a bright new candidate claiming his first major championship.

We learned at Augusta National just how loaded the game is with youthful possibilities.

We learned Tiger Woods’ bid to regain his supremacy might be hard fought even when he masters his new swing because this new breed is as fearless as it is hungry. Schwartzel is only 26 years old. McIlroy is 21. Jason Day, at 23, made a hard charge before tying for second.

This marks three consecutive major championships won by a player in his 20s. Martin Kaymer was 25 when he won the PGA Championship last August, Louis Oosthuizen 27 when he won the British Open last July.

The game feels young again, but there was irony in being reminded Sunday that an ageless star singularly towers over the game.

We were reminded at the Masters that this invitational tournament started by Bobby Jones in 1934 is as fresh and vital as it’s ever been.

We were reminded that no matter who’s playing, whether it’s Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer or Woods, the stage is the star at Augusta National.

Some may not be fond of the exclusivity of this private club, but if you’re a golf fan, you have to love the wondrous formula the membership has created for identifying the game’s best players.

Pebble Beach and St. Andrews may be treasures, but no golf course in the world consistently delivers dramatic theater like Augusta National.

Risk and reward war more mischievously here than at any other championship venue. We saw it again Sunday with more epic tales of wonder and woe added to tournament history.

McIlroy shoots 80 to squander a four-shot lead. Schwartzel closes out his victory with four consecutive birdies. Woods experiences both wonder and woe within a single round charging early with four birdies and an eagle on the front nine before missing a pair of 3-foot putts and squandering one birdie chance after another on the back nine.

There was so much more with Geoff Ogilvy making five consecutive birdies to leap into the hunt, with Luke Donald chipping in at the 18th to give himself hope, with Adam Scott knocking down flags and putts in equal measure and Day closing hard also.

“Incredibly exciting finish,” Scott said. “It’s amazing what happens at this place.”

The stage is a living, breathing character in the action, especially down in Amen Corner, where the drama plays out with azaleas sprawling like fire at the feet of all those towering pines and with dogwoods aglow in splintered golden rays of sunlight piercing the tree tops.

And yet amid the beauty, there’s something ominous, like the rustling of vulture’s wings.

McIlroy knows the sensation now, just like Greg Norman (1996), Ed Sneed (1979) and Ken Venturi (1956) did before him. They’re the only players to lose leads off four shots or more in the final round of the Masters.

“I don’t think there’s a lead big enough around here,” Scott said.

Sunday’s denouement was head-spinning. You needed a dose of Dramamine to fend off motion sickness with all the lead changes. Eight different players led or shared the lead. At one point, nine players were within two shots of the lead.

Some may not like sportswriters gushing over this place, but there’s a reason. The event so consistently lives up to its hype. It delivers more blockbuster sequels than Hollywood. It rarely disappoints.

“There are so many roars that go on around Augusta,” Schwartzel said. “Especially the back nine. It echoes through those trees. There's always a roar. Every single hole you walk down, someone has done something, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking at the leaderboard. But sometimes, I would look at it, and it would not register what I was looking at.”

Schwartzel wasn’t alone. This Masters bordered on sensory overload. This Sunday finish delivered more plot twists than you’ll see in 10 U.S. Open final rounds.

“It was unreal,” Day said. “It's probably the most excited I've ever been in a golf tournament.

“You're out there in the middle of the fairway, and there are roars around you and you don't know what's going on. And then all you see is that little number pop up on the leaderboards, and everyone is screaming. And it's an amazing feeling to be out there in the thick of things.”

Golf may go through some dramatic changes in the next year, but no matter who finally emerges as its next big star, he’ll take second billing to the Masters when the game returns to Augusta National.