Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bubba's Shiny New Green Jacket

It doesn't happen often, but there are occasional years where The Masters doesn't quite live up to its slogan. Sometimes, "a tradition unlike any other" can seem an overly dramatic turn of phrase. As with every major sporting event, when the final round is never really in doubt, when the memorable is absent and the banal is pervasive, the significance of the victory is dampened by its overt blah-ness. Thankfully, this was not the case today. Today the tradition really was, well, unlike any other.

I don't ever remember a Sunday at Augusta like this. Thanks to an oddball meteorological "winter", the famous azaleas and various other flora were nowhere in evidence. The course was all subdued green, the grass and Georgia pines interspersed with the brown of pine straw and the brilliant white of the bunkers, but devoid of any other color. The altered aesthetic was of a piece with the play this Sunday round, as surreally taut and compressed as has ever graced that hallowed ground. And all of the theater came from, if not exactly unlikely quarters, at least not from the projected favorites. Rory McIlroy finished an abysmal +5, as did Tiger Woods, whose traditional Sunday red attire was a mere perfunctory blip on the radar.

Instead, we were treated to Bo Van Pelt acing the 16th on the way to a tournament-best 64, and to Adam Jones doing the same en route to a 68. As dynamic as those moments were, they too were just footnotes.

In the end, the day hinged on three improbable shots. First, there was Louis Oosthuizen's touched-by-a-golf-angel albatross on the second. How a shot that seemed so ordinary when it initially touched down somehow traversed the length of the green and found the cup is purely the business of Augusta's inscrutable whims. The double eagle catapulted him from 7 to 10 under and a lead, and though Oosthuizen slightly lessened the sheer badassery of the moment with a phenomenally awkward double-hive-five with his caddy, that shot changed the entire trajectory of the afternoon.

Of course, the capriciousness of Augusta giveth, and it taketh away. Phil Mickelson started the day in the final pairing looking to add a fourth green jacket to his collection. Unfortunately, he got just a shade overly ambitious on the fourth tee. The shot was intended to be aggressive, a grip-and-rip assault on the pin. But it carried, and carried, and carried, and clanged off the railing of the observation bleachers into the worst lie imaginable. The hole wound up a disastrous triple bogey, and essentially derailed Lefty's momentum.

The third meaningful shot ... we'll table that for the time being.

The rest of regulation play was a cavalcade of small but immensely important moments. I can't recollect a Sunday with so many players still in striking distance as the sun descended. Oosthuizen, Lefty, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Peter Hanson, and Ian Poulter were all in contention heading down the back nine. The ebb and flow of their collective efforts, the flashes of brilliance and instants of agony, were breathtaking. And oh yeah, there was also Bubba Watson, who played his college golf just a chip shot down I-20 at the University of Georgia. All day long, the gallery chants of "Go Dawgs!" and "woofoofooffooff!" were audible through the television as the beloved UGA alum vied for the game's ultimate honor in front of what was, in many respects, a home crowd.

Bubba is something of a maverick force (both in game and personality) in the PGA. To wit: he's worn bib overalls and rapped in a music video, and he bought the General Lee from "The Dukes Of Hazzard" last year. He's an eccentric with a gonzo emotional barometer and a penchant for recklessness and neon pink drivers. He's never had a single formal lesson, and his technique is, to put it politely, erratic. His feet shift every which way when he swings, he never takes the same angle twice with the club head, and you might show video of him to aspiring ball strikers as an example of what not to do. Unless you're talking about results. The man seems to bend the ball to his will, executing shots that most wouldn't even be brazen enough to attempt. In fact, most wouldn't even conceive of the possibility of said shots. The word that gets used over and over again by multiple, knowledgeable parties is "creative." And he demonstrated the aptness of that superlative repeatedly today.

While Watson was mounting his unconventional charge up the leader board, the rest of the field was refusing to go down quietly. Playing stubbornly gutsy golf, Lefty, Westwood, Kuchar, and Hanson all finished 8 under. That mark would have been enough if Bubba hadn't played a dizzyingly sublime back nine including four consecutive birdies, and if Oosthuizen hadn't flat-out refused to make a mistake.

When the dust and smoke cleared, Watson and Oosthuizen were left standing at 10 under apiece, and teeing off for a playoff hole on eighteen. The hole played out in almost a carbon copy of what they'd just finished doing in regulation. Both began with unfathomably long drives. Both hit perfectly decent approach shots. Both missed their birdie putts by excruciating inches and settled for par. And so it was on to the tee at 10 for a second playoff.

As they had on 17, both golfers made utter messes of their tee shots, though Watson appeared to come out the worse for wear, buried in the tree line far right of the fairway. Oosthuizen made a decent salvage job of his lie, leaving a massive second shot just shy of the green and in good shape for an up-and-down par. Bubba was in bad shape. Now, about that third pivotal shot:

I have watched The Masters every year since I was old enough for my eyes to properly focus on a TV screen. I was even fortunate enough to attend it in person once, for the Saturday round in 1997, which you may recall was the year Tiger conducted a scorched-earth campaign on Augusta National, finishing a monstrous 18 under par and 12 strokes ahead of his nearest competition. I have a distinct recollection of standing in the gallery on the eleventh fairway with my dad, watching drive after drive come to rest more or less parallel with our vantage point. Then: Tiger. Necks craned in unison as we tracked his shot; a behemoth drive that described a parabola well beyond anything previous, impossibly long and perfectly on line. A sort of breathless, nondescript sound escaped our collective throats, equal parts incredulity and admiration. It was otherworldly to behold, a signifier that the man was simply playing the game differently than everyone else. That shot was a masterpiece of power and transcendent skill.

Frankly, it didn't have jack on Bubba Watson's second shot on 10 in today's playoff. He was so far off the fairway and so ensconced in the Georgia pines that he couldn't even see the green. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, over. Hitting a blind shot off pine straw through a damn forest and getting it anywhere close would be a fool's errand. And then he went ahead and did it anyway. That shot, THE shot, exploded off the club head, careened through the trees, exited, somehow bent its mid-flight trajectory sixty or seventy degrees on what had to be an ungodly amount of spin, and looped onto the green as the fabled roars of Augusta rent the impending dusk like tornado sirens.

From there, it was all denouement. After chipping on, Oosthuizen's par putt looked perfect all the way to the hole, but just skimmed the lip and rolled past. Watson, left with an easy two-putt for the victory, got it six inches from the hole in his first attempt. As the crowd started to cheer his win, he held out a hand as if to say: "Hush, people. this isn't over yet and I wanna get it right." He took his time, walking around, studying it. On air, Jim Nantz quipped about lining up a six-inch tap-in putt, but when those six inches are the only thing between you and a green jacket, I imagine you feel compelled to make sure that last stroke goes off without a hitch.

It did. As Bubba tearfully embraced his caddie, then his mother, and then his closest peers who hung around after their own eliminations to see this day played out, the enormity of the moment clearly got the better of him. We can excuse him, though, since he got the better of the enormous moments all day long. The tradition unlike any other has a very nontraditional champion. Cue the piano music.

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