It was the first Masters for a lot of things, such as a sudden-death playoff, a near tornado that caused an agonizing delay and the prolonged torture of Ed Sneed. When it was finally over down in one corner of the course, amid the blazing dogwood and azalea, the winner was just about the last man on anyone's mind at the beginning of the tournament and certainly the last man in the field alphabetically—Fuzzy Zoeller. In fact, with only three holes to play, winning the Masters was probably the last thing on Zoeller's mind. But maybe that is the only way it could have happened to a first-time visitor.
There was Zoeller, playing one hole ahead of Sneed and four strokes behind him with just those three holes to go. So Fuzzy finished his business first, making a par, then making a birdie, then saving a par, and after that he got out of the way—now just three strokes down—before something evil grabbed him. This left Sneed, who was merely trying to win his first major title, to face up to the pressure of protecting his lead, as he had been doing more or less successfully all day long—and the result was three terrible putts and three consecutive bogeys. In between there was Tom Watson, paired with Zoeller but not playing well enough to win anyhow, and he came in with three unspectacular pars. Playoff!
Before all of this, equally ghastly and thrilling things had been occurring throughout the afternoon, as they usually do on the final day of the Masters. Such turnabouts are apt to include Jack Nicklaus, and for a while last Sunday they did so again, or until a bogey at 17 kept him from making it a foursome when the sudden death began at the 10th tee.
It was on the second hole of the playoff, the brutal 11th hole, the start of what is known at the Augusta National Golf Club as Amen Corner, with Zoeller, Sneed and Watson all doing wonderful things under the bizarre and unbearable circumstances, that Zoeller out-wonderfulled everyone else. He made the kind of putt that had refused to drop for Sneed consistently and for Watson occasionally. The winner was a 6-footer for a birdie on that second extra hole, and it made the carefree Zoeller the first player ever to win the Masters on his first try, if you don't count Gene Sarazen and his double-eagle back in 1935, or Horton Smith, who won in 1934, which happened to be the first year of the Masters as well.
As is true in most major championships, someone has to lose in order for someone to win. This will be remembered as the Masters Ed Sneed lost as much as the or Fuzzy Zoeller won, for Sneed not only had that three-shot lead on Zoeller and Watson with three holes to play, but he also had six strokes on Zoeller and at least five on everybody else at the start of the day. Five-stroke leads tend to diminish when you shoot a final-round 76, which was what Sneed did after playing the best golf of anyone through Thursday, Friday and Saturday when he had rounds of 68, 67 and 69.
During these early days Zoeller's name had been mentioned but lightly in Augusta. Frank Urban Zoeller, hence F.U.Z., hence Fuzzy, was there because after four years on the tour he had won his first tournament in San Diego back in January. He is a strong, good-natured, long-hitting, bareheaded 27-year-old from New Albany, Ind. who usually manages to grin even when a shot goes wrong.
Zoeller grinned through his earlier rounds of 70, 71 and 69 and said things like, "I just like to play golf, and I think finishing fourth is better than fifth, and finishing 15th is better than 16th."
But after he got through with his leaping around after the sudden-death birdie, he confessed to what had been on his mind back there when he really had no chance at all unless Sneed suffered some major disappointments.
Zoeller said, "I was just trying to stay close to Watson, who's not a bad guy to stay close to."
It was Zoeller's staying close to Watson, who won the Masters in 1977, that got him into the scorer's tent on the 18th hole with a closing round of 70 and a 72-hole total of 280. Watson had the same total with his four rounds of 68, 71, 70 and 71, during which he spent a good bit of time playing poorly on the par 5s. Going for the 13th and 15th holes in two blows during previous rounds, Watson had put three balls into the water.
In the tent, Zoeller still couldn't give any thought to winning the Masters unless Sneed bogeyed the last hole. Sneed did just that by hitting a poor second shot with a seven-iron, creating a terribly difficult chip shot out of a lie that was about as close to being in the bunker as it was to being out of it. Sneed chipped nicely enough but left himself six feet below the cup and needing the par to win. His putt is still hanging over the edge of the cup and not falling in.
Zoeller had to observe all this in the company of Watson, who had completed his round in a blaze of missed birdie putts. Watching Sneed, Zoeller's caddie said, "He better hit it firm or it'll stay left." Sneed's putt obviously required a minuscule left-to-right break. It broke all but the last 100th of an inch, and the three golfers went to the 10th tee for what would be the third sudden-death playoff in a major championship in the past three years.
This was Watson's second loss in sudden death in a major tournament. Only last summer at Oakmont in the PGA he had watched helplessly while John Mahaffey beat him with a birdie putt, so perhaps he's getting used to it. As for Sneed, it was his first chance at even coming close to a major title, so perhaps the loss was all the more crushing, particularly in view of the lead he had held and let slip away.
Sneed is a fine, stylish player who had gone 12 under par in the first three rounds without putting extremely well. He had been the best tee-to-green golfer in the field—he bogeyed only one hole in the first three rounds—and if he had putted as well as an average weekend hacker, he would have won the tournament from the clubhouse to the airport.
The fact that Sneed is capable of hitting splendid golf shots was evident during his whole painful Sunday afternoon. No doubt it was stage fright that caused him to let three strokes erode through the first 10 holes and put Watson and Zoeller—even Nicklaus—in contention. But it was Sneed's inspired iron and bunker play that enabled him to save a par and get back two of those shots with birdies at 13 and 15.
In the playoff, Sneed had to overcome the worst possible frame of mind after throwing it all away. Moving almost immediately to the 10th hole, he hit first off the tee, perfectly. He hit first to the green, also perfectly, to within six feet of the cup. The trouble with this, as far as Sneed was concerned, was that Zoeller and Watson did the same thing. All three had makable birdie putts—and they all came close.
The same was true of their drives at the par-4 11th, where the green is guarded by Rae's Creek. Sneed, who was away, then hit his approach shot first, a shot he later would insist was looking very good "until the wind knocked it down." It went into the back bunker. Watson and Zoeller were both on in two with legitimate birdie possibilities.
On Sneed's third shot he almost accomplished with his sand wedge what he had continually failed to do with his putter. He very nearly holed it out, and this on a shot that he could hardly have expected to get close. Then Watson missed his birdie try. Zoeller didn't.
In reflecting on what it is like to blow a three-shot lead in only three holes for the Masters title, Sneed said, I don't feel like I ever lost my composure. On 16 and 17 I hit every shot just like I wanted to. On the two playoff holes I hit every shot just like I wanted to. I did hit a poor second shot on 18 because it was a guessing game. I was trying to bounce in a seven-iron and not get above the cup. The result was that I finished second. Somewhere in there I hope I've learned something."
This was not all of the torture Sneed was forced to undergo in this Masters. Friday was also horrible. He had shot his 68 on Thursday to trail the leader, Bruce Lietzke, by a stroke, but his 67 on Friday was obviously going to give him the 36-hole lead if it could outlast a fierce storm that came lashing across the course just after he finished.
For almost four hours he had to sit in the clubhouse and wait. Play was delayed for two hours, and after it resumed, Sneed had to wait through the drizzle until the entire field had finished at least the first nine holes. Otherwise his 67 would have been wiped out. To appreciate his experience, both then and later on, you have to understand that despite three victories on the regular tour in the past 10 years, the 34-year-old Sneed was largely known to the golfing world as the other fellow from Columbus, O. He was simply Tom Weiskopf's good friend, and he had been no closer to contending for a major title than, say, Fuzzy Zoeller.
Sneed sat upstairs in the clubhouse and squinted at rain, clouds, drizzle, and finally at various twosomes as they slowly reached the 9th green. It was only after the last group got there, around 6 p.m., that he knew the round was official and that he shared the lead with Craig Stadler, who had shot a 66.
As for Nicklaus, he wasn't a serious contender either until the shadows were falling over those last three crucial holes on Sunday. He was eight strokes back with 18 to play, four under par, and it was only after he did his usual TV thing of dramatizing the 15th and 16th that anyone—including Sneed, Watson and Zoeller—contemplated the possibility of Nicklaus winning his sixth Masters.
At the 15th he put on the top of his rain suit, rolled up his right trouser leg and gouged out a ball from the water onto the green and then rolled in a 15-foot putt for a par. At the 16th he sank one of those lovely, curling 18-foot birdie putts of his to get himself to four-under for the round and eight-under for the tournament. Still, it was only going to help Nicklaus if Sneed died, which Sneed did, but not just then.
The reason was that Nicklaus had teed off on the final day much earlier than he had in years, exactly 56 minutes and seven groups in front of the tournament leader. So in terms of timing, Nicklaus' theatrics took place just when Sneed was pulling himself back together with a brilliant bunker shot at 12 to save his par and then slipping in the birdies at 13 and 15 to make himself again look like the man who deserved this Masters and was going to get it.
If Nicklaus had known what Sneed was going to do, and that all he would need to get into the eventual playoff was a par-par finish, he might have avoided the horrible wedge shot he hit to the 17th. It bounded down a slope behind the green and cost him a stroke.
In retrospect, you could say that Zoeller won the Masters last Sunday in almost as many places as Sneed lost it. He did, after all, play the last four holes in two under par, and he did, after all, birdie the second extra hole. And nobody gave him anything on the two playoff holes. In fact, he gave away his putter on 11. In his elation he threw it high in the air and forgot to retrieve it. "I've got another one just like it in the car." he said later.
If you want to go back to the most important shot Zoeller hit to reach the playoff, you have to look to his gamble at the 15th hole. He was 235 yards from the front of the green, over the water, and the wind was straight into his face.
"I had to go for it because I was four shots back at the time," he said. "Now, I'll tell you exactly how far I can hit a three-wood. I can hit it 235 yards without any wind. I don't know how it got there."
Unremarkably, championships are won by shots which get there somehow, just as they are lost by putts which somehow don't drop. Zoeller's shot got there at the 15th, and Sneed's putt didn't drop at the 18th.
What's remarkable is that either of them was in a position for either of those things to matter in the Masters.