AUGUSTA, Ga. – This was a contest not of attrition, but of addition, a free-for-all free of any of the traditional structure and form that defines the men's first major championship of the season.
Call it the mosh-pit Masters. Call it confusing. Call it a revolving door that Charl Schwartzel kicked in with the kind of Sunday performance that creates legacies, not that historians will have much luck piecing together a puzzle with more moving parts than a two-piece back swing.
On a sweltering April day no fewer than eight players held at least a share of the lead, and cheers, more so than the leaderboard, was the only way to keep up.
From the mayhem emerged Schwartzel, whose closing 66 started with a chip-in birdie at the first and a holed-out wedge at the third for eagle and ended with Sunday’s first and last moment of absolute clarity, a walk-off birdie and an infinitely misleading two-stroke victory for the South African over Jason Day and Adam Scott.
But this wasn’t a normal Masters. This wasn’t a normal anything. It was championship chaos, which began, as they normally do, with a collapse and escalated into Grand Slam anarchy.
Rory McIlroy may have won the 75th Masters on Saturday, as many predicted, when he holed a 20-footer for birdie at the 17th to secure a four-stroke cushion that may as well have been a 40-shot lead given the Northern Irishman’s steady play.
But the door opened with a bogey at the first. Less than 30 minutes into his round McIlroy had slipped into a tie for the lead and into a spiral that wouldn’t stop until he signed for a closing 80 and tie for 15th place.
Schwartzel, however, was headed in the other direction thanks to a chip-in from 30 yards at the first and an approach from 118 yards that caromed into the cup at the third hole. For those keeping score at home, that’s two putts through three holes.
Tiger Woods, making believers out of those who have doubted his “progress,” joined the scrum with a 13-putt front nine that added up to 31, his lowest front-nine score since 2005, the last year he tucked into a green jacket.
“I hit it good all day. I hit it good this entire weekend, so that was nice,” said Woods, who capped his front-nine charge with a 15-foot par save after short-siding himself at No. 9.
They played the first Masters with Augusta National’s nines reversed. Woods must have been confused considering how his day transpired. He was 5 under through eight holes and signed for a 67 to tie for fourth, his seventh consecutive top-10 at the former nursery.
Not a green jacket, but not bad considering it’s been a long 12 months since the four-time Masters champion returned to the competitive fray. But that will be of little solace to a man who is starting to look like the guy who once figured “second sucks,” particularly when things got interesting on the back nine.
McIlroy hit his drive at the 10th hole adjacent Jones Cabin and that would be as close to Butler Cabin as he would get. A triple bogey-double bogey-bogey stretch at the turn nixed his title chances. But there were plenty of players ready to take his place.
When Woods birdied the 15th hole at 5:10 p.m. ET there were five players tied for the lead – Woods, Adam Scott, Schwartzel, K.J. Choi and Angel Cabrera. When Day birdied the 13th hole 20 minutes later there were now six.
And on it went like a game of green jacket tag.
Scott pulled away with a birdie at No. 16 to go to 12 under, and Schwartzel, playing in the group behind him, answered with a birdie of his own at the par 3.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Masters this close,” said Luke Donald, who finished at 10 under. “The leaderboard was changing all day long.”
Schwartzel, 26, finally pulled away for good, closing with four consecutive birdies and even those victimized by his heroics were in awe of the fireworks.
“It was unreal,” said Day, who birdied the last from 10 feet to finish at 12 under in his first Masters. “It seemed like there were screams coming from every other hole.”
If the 23-year-old’s assessment sounds like youthful hyperbole, it wasn’t.
Phil Mickelson began the week contemplating putting two drivers in his bag, Choi headed out with four hybrids in tow, and Schwartzel rounded 72 with a singular purpose – to collect the major championship he’d dreamt of his entire life.
It was a dream that fully took root at last year’s Open Championship, late into the Sunday celebration of fellow countryman Louis Oosthuizen’s victory at the famed Jigger Inn adjacent the Old Course.
“He was looking at the Claret Jug and said, ‘I’m so happy for him, but . . .,’” said Chubby Chandler, Schwartzel and Oosthuizen’s manager with International Sports Management. “I said, ‘You don’t have to say anything. Your time will come.’”
That it would come so early and on such a wildly explosive afternoon was beyond anyone’s imagination.
“It’s what you dream of,” said Schwartzel’s caddie Greg Hearmon. “It’s just amazing. I’ve watched this since I was 12 years old.”
Two of the last three Grand Slam keepsakes have now gone to the Springboks, and two of the last three green jackets.
Schwartzel is a leaderboard watcher, not that Sunday’s bedlam was easily followed even inside the ropes, which makes the South African’s uncommonly calm super Sunday so impressive.
“When I saw him on the putting green today before the round I could sense the calmness,” Chandler said.
For Schwartzel, a superior ballstriker, it was that tranquility that proved to be his biggest asset amid the Masters mayhem. On the most volatile of Masters’ Sunday, Schwartzel was the calm that survived the storm.
Follow Rex Hoggard on Twitter @RexHoggard