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Hawk's Nest: Separating Masters fact from fiction

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Think of this week’s Hawk’s Nest as a lie-detector test – an honest attempt to separate fact from fiction as defined by the 78th Masters. An interesting golf tournament? Perhaps, but without a nuclear-bomb dose of drama down the stretch, the 2014 edition falls into the middle of the pack on my list of memorable majors.

Just five of the world’s top 20 players entered the weekend with a realistic chance of factoring, which left us with a ballroom full of Cinderellas and minimal star power, which isn’t exactly a sexy combination at Augusta National. Hey, Rory McIlroy teed off in Saturday’s first group in the company of a non-competing marker – who beat him by a stroke – then shot a 69 Sunday to grab one of the cheapest T-8s of all-time.

Where is the Dude in the Red Shirt when you really, really need him?

This Masters was basically the opposite of last year’s offering: a snoozer until the final hour, when things suddenly began exploding with excitement. So let’s just sift through the aftermath and closely examine the head-on collision between perception and reality.

The Masters doesn’t start until Sunday’s second nine. It’s a longtime adage that pays homage to the tournament’s compelling nature, but for the first time since 2008, the final result was dictated largely by what happened on the first nine. Bubba Watson picked up two strokes on Jordan Spieth at the par-5 eighth, two more at the par-4 ninth, and just like that, the golf gods threw it into cruise control.

Watson made eight pars and one birdie on the back – and was never seriously threatened. His closing 69 was two strokes better than anyone who teed off in the final 10 groups; the other 19 guys combined to shoot 28 over par. Among the seven players who finished in red figures, Miguel Angel Jimenez had the best final nine (33), but he’d fallen too far back to inflict any serious suspense.

Somebody dumped a bucket of cold water on the fireworks, which can happen when a couple of Masters rookies are trying to chase down a guy who hits it 350, can shape his ball either way and is wriggling in all his 5-footers. Oh, well. Thanks for watching, folks.

Spieth is the game’s best young player. An hour into my live chat Sunday afternoon, you could have sworn the young Texan was going to win by six, slip his arms into the emerald blazer and head straight to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Not so fast, hombre. Spieth’s first two drives Sunday were misses to the left – I’ve covered this tournament enough to know what that can mean.

It’s a long walk to the clubhouse, however, and much to Spieth’s credit, he began playing some brilliant golf. The hole-out from the bunker at the fourth. The tee shot that stopped 3 feet below the pin at the par-3 sixth. The testy downhiller for birdie at the seventh. At that point, with Spieth leading by two, the 78th Masters quietly shifted into a match-play mode.

Having missed the fifth fairway with a 3-wood, the kid chose the same club off the par-5 eighth. Had he become distrustful of his driver? Spieth sent a nice, straight play 10 yards left of the fairway bunkers. Bubba whipped out that pink gorilla stick and launched one halfway to Interstate 20. The same thing basically happened at the ninth, where Watson’s massive length advantage allowed him to play a much shorter hole than his opponent.

Augusta National has always been a second-shot golf course. When those second shots are struck with short irons, the greens become easier to negotiate, but back to the original point – Spieth ranks 107th on the PGA Tour in driving distance in 2014. He’s not exactly short, but he’s almost 20 yards behind McIlroy and 28 shorter than Bubba, at least according to the statistics.

“His drive on 13, I’ll never forget,” Spieth said of Watson’s 376-yard clout over the river and through the woods bordering Raes Creek. “I thought it was out of bounds, 70 yards left, and it was perfect.”

Size does matter, particularly at the biggest events, where scoring opportunities are often confined to one’s ability to overpower the par 5s. As much as I love Spieth’s fight, as sure as I am that he’ll win a major in the next few years, he hasn’t won a premium-field event. McIlroy, who turns 25 next month, has won two majors by eight shots apiece and five premiums overall. Case closed. For now.

Fred Couples is amazing. Imagine this scenario: Mr. Comfort Zone makes another inspiring run at the 2015 Masters, then chooses not to play in the 2016 tournament because the anchored-putter ban prevents him from shaking in a 4-footer. How sad would that be? What about the ageless Bernhard Langer, who nudged Couples by two shots in the Geritol Ball Division (Jimenez led all seniors at 4 under) and hasn’t used a normal putter since he was 6 months old?

I have become maddeningly conflicted by the pros and cons of the pending ban. A huge proponent when it was first announced, I find myself coming up with more and more reasons why the game will only hurt itself by instituting such an abolition. No one should expect the USGA and R&A to change its position just because a couple of geezers make some noise during the second week in April, but this tournament just wouldn’t be the same without the Freddie Factor.

Watson’s second shot at the 15th was a ridiculous risk. He led by three with his ball in the left rough, his path to the green greatly hindered by one of former Masters chairman Hootie Johnson’s tree plantings. The safe play? Punch it down the fairway to a favorable distance and hit a wedge onto the shallow putting surface.

Not Bubba. “I had 181 [yards] to the front and that’s the only number I was worried about,” he said. “I told my caddie [Ted Scott], ‘You tell me what to do. If you want me to lay up, I’ll lay up.’ I hit a low 6-iron, choked up and cut it a little bit.”

Even my man Brandel Chamblee was impressed: “Nobody hits that shot at 15 through the trees. Nobody.”

I’ve looked at the replay five or six times, and yes, it was a very daring decision. From a wide-angle perspective, however, the alternative was no bargain, either, given how many players struggled with the half-wedge third shot into 15 from an ultra-tight, downhill lie.

It killed Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson in the second round, and with 3 ½ holes to play, I don’t think Watson wanted anything to do with a finesse shot, given the circumstances. His lead was big enough to justify taking the chance, and if you watch the replay, you can see how laying up wouldn’t have been all that simple.

“I was trying to hit it in the [right greenside] bunker, but you know me,” Bubba added, “I wanted to get it a little closer to the pin, so I cut it a little bit [more] without telling my caddie.”

Scott must have loved hearing that, but then, we’re talking about a player who hooked a gap wedge 30 yards onto the 10th green to win a sudden-death playoff two years ago. By comparison, this was a piece of cake.

Bubba can’t handle the pressure. You can’t win two Masters in three years while struggling to clear your throat, but Watson is a jumpy, high-strung horse. His first green jacket in 2012 was followed by a stretch of relatively listless play – his victory at Riviera two months ago ended a 22-month drought.

“It took me a year or so to get adjusted [and realize] that I’m not really that good,” he admitted Sunday night. “I’ve got to keep practicing.”

He’s obviously being modest, but for all his talent, Bubba’s fluctuating concentration levels are what keep him from winning more often. I think he performs better under immense competitive duress because he really bears down, fueled by a fear of failure that simply isn’t as persistent at lesser tournaments.

“Last year was rough with the pressure of trying to prove himself,” Scott said. “But this year, his attitude has been great. It’s been a lot of fun to work for him this year.”

My chats all weekend were sprinkled with negative comments about Watson’s on-course demeanor – too many to pass off as mere coincidence. I’ll be the first to admit that those forums aren’t exactly the most credible source of public opinion, although Bubba’s ruffled feathers have been on national display in both victory (Riviera) and defeat (Hartford) over the last eight months.

Scott took the blame for the loss in Connecticut last summer, but the fact of the matter is, the lanky lefty is a demonstrative dude, which is not a felony. Oh, and by the way? Spieth was the one slamming clubs and yelling at himself down the stretch Sunday evening. Some people want their golfers to double as choirboys. Others might admire the competitive fire.

Larry Mize is five shots better than Dustin Johnson. Never mind that Mize closed with a pair of 79s to finish dead-last among those who played 72 holes. Or that Johnson missed the cut at a tournament many think he should be eating for breakfast. Only at Augusta National can you find such a humbling dichotomy among the game’s top-tier performers.

Sandy Lyle and Mike Weir stick around through the weekend; Mickelson and Luke Donald don’t. It’s a crazy and somewhat forgettable storyline, but relevant in that the Masters is the one event that really doesn’t give a damn who you are or how much money you’ve won lately.

Even the boring ones are pretty interesting. If nothing else, this Masters seemed to prove it.