AUGUSTA, Ga. - The slow-paced solitude of Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club was replaced a day later by the hurried hum of activity, the kind tingling with hope and major excitement that has become synonymous with Masters Monday.
One week a year, Augusta National’s gates are opened to the public, and when spectators were allowed in Monday at 8 a.m., many brought with them a youthful look of wide-eyed appreciation for 365 acres of panoramic greenness. Seemingly forgotten, for a few moments, are the players who will compete for the first major championship of the year in men’s professional golf.
The setting here is always the star, the stage upon which the world’s best test themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. If interest and television ratings offer any clues, it’s that the Masters draws a captive audience. We’ll expect to be entertained this week with drama, which can take on many forms: comebacks, farewells, reunions, unknowns, amateurs, shocking collapses, overall excellence.
Like most years, scintillating story angles are lurking, none more than the possibility of a Sunday afternoon duel among golf’s biggest names, all of whom have positioned themselves and satisfied their fan bases with strong starts to the PGA Tour season.
Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, and Rory McIlroy have all won tour events in the past two months, and appear to be peaking, by design, just in time for the Masters. To have one in the mix come Sunday’s final round, based solely on their recent form, seems highly probable; providing all four with a chance to win, tantalizingly possible.
However this week plays out, it might be tough to match the scene from a year ago, when Charl Schwartzel earned his first major championship, part of a trend that has been two years in the making. Mickelson, at the 2010 Masters, is the most recent major winner who already owned one. Since then, the last seven major champions have been first-timers.
Schwartzel might have something in common with Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, McIlroy, Darren Clarke, and Hopkinton’s Keegan Bradley, but he blazed his own path, becoming the first winner in Masters history to finish with four consecutive birdies. When he made 4 on the par-5 15th hole in the final round last year, he was tied for the lead. When he holed an 18-footer on No. 18 less than an hour later, he owned a two-shot victory the hard way. Even now, it’s not easily describable.
“Obviously, while you’re doing it, the last thing you’re thinking about is that you’ve just made four birdies. You’re thinking, ‘I’m trying to win the Masters.’ It never even crossed my mind when I finished that I just made four birdies,’’ Schwartzel said. “Obviously, it became quite a thing. I realized nobody ever had done it.
“To close off any tournament with four birdies would be a fair task. But to do it at the Masters, I think it’s something very special.’’
In just his second Masters appearance, the 27-year-old South African with the unique name had left his mark on the game. He emerged from a battle royale - eight players held at least a share of the lead during the final round, including McIlroy and Woods - by seizing the moment, instead of letting it seize him.
If anything, Schwartzel credits his ability to handle the pressure, not to mention his pre-tournament prep work on the fastest greens he could find, as the key component down the stretch.
“All I can say is for some reason that whole week, especially those last few holes - except for the 18th tee - I was very, very calm. Calmer than I normally am. Why that was I’ve got no idea,’’ Schwartzel said. “That played a big role in me executing the shots I did and making the birdies.’’
Schwartzel hasn’t won since the Masters, but he has been consistently good. He followed his major breakthrough with a tie for ninth at the US Open, tie for 16th at the British Open, and tie for 12th at the PGA, and has a pair of top-5 finishes among his five tour starts this season. He registered for the tournament Sunday, and began Masters week on Monday with a practice round, joined by Padraig Harrington.
Woods was the last to successfully defend, winning in 2001-02, so the odds are stacked against Schwartzel. But nobody expected him to win last year (he was ranked 29th before the tournament, 11th after, and is currently eighth), and certainly not in the manner in which he did. What would he like to do differently this year?
“Nothing. Last year worked,’’ he said, laughing. “I think probably the biggest challenge this year is there’s obviously going to be more eyes on you, people want to see whether you can live up to the challenge.
“But that’s something I have to get around in my head not to worry about. I have to go out there and treat it as a new tournament.’’
Hope springs eternal at the Masters, at least until the tournament starts on Thursday, when it’s typically interrupted by reality. But it’s fun to play out certain scenarios, and the thought of another eight-player logjam on Sunday, featuring Woods, McIlroy, Mickelson, Donald, Lee Westwood, Bradley, and others is almost too much to ask for.
The way they’ve been playing, though, it probably doesn’t hurt to ask. So we’ll do it nicely.
“It’s good for the game of golf,’’ said Jason Day, who tied for second last year in his Masters debut. “I think it’s going to be great for the Masters this year. Obviously with Tiger just winning recently, and with how Rory has been playing this year . . . Phil, as well, he’s been playing great.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of hype. It’s going to be pretty exciting, I think. Hopefully we can have another exciting finish like we did last year.’’