TREVOR IMMELMAN may have won the green jacket, but the real victor last week was big, bad Augusta National, which solidified its standing as the nastiest course in the land. Last year's carnage-filled Masters, at which no one finished under par, could be blamed in part on the freakish wintry conditions, just as the soaring scores this year on Sunday had something to do with the 20-mph winds. But there was more to 2008's Masters disasters than the conditions during the final round. ¬∂ Augusta National is less a golf course than an 18-hole fun house, replete with booby traps. It is a course with zero margin for error, and it asks questions that, apparently, few players can answer on Masters Sunday. The wind provided a cop-out that many players were happy to reach for, but the course could have been had. To soften the effects of the breezes, the lords of Augusta had watered the greens for the final round, meaning that, as Phil Mickelson put it, "almost every pin was the easiest one we have." Geoff Ogilvy, one of the most astute observers of course setups among the players, said on Sunday, "There's birdies out there. If somebody shoots four or five under today, I wouldn't be surprised, but they're going to have to play well." ¬∂ Yet among the leaders no one could get it done. (Miguel Angel Jimenez's four-under 68 took him from 35th place to a tie for eighth.) No one in the final 11 twosomes broke par. Paul Casey had a 13-hole stretch during which he was nine over. Brandt Snedeker started in second place, made a mind-boggling nine bogeys and still tied for third. Steve Flesch was only two strokes back at the turn but shot a messy 42 on the back. Tiger Woods muddled through a sloppy round, during which he didn't birdie any of the par-5s and yipped his way to 30 putts, yet he still moved up to second by shooting an even-par 72, leaving him three shots behind Immelman.
What, exactly, was going on here? Immelman's steady play on Sunday was certainly a factor. The 54-hole leader was even through the first seven holes and one over for 15, forcing everyone else to try to go get him. "You can't chase around this course," Ian Poulter said, "and that's what guys are having to do, because he's playing par golf. If you do, you'll make mistakes, and that's what everybody is doing."
Poulter may have been correct, but there was another explanation: Three of Immelman's primary pursuers—Casey, Flesch and Snedeker—simply seemed overwhelmed by being in contention.
Casey's miseries began with a double bogey on the 4th hole, where he left a straightforward bunker shot in the sand. After another bogey on 5 he was standing over a short par putt on the 6th hole when a gust of wind moved his ball slightly, resulting in a one-stroke penalty. "That's out of your control and difficult to handle," Casey said, and he accordingly moped his way to bogeys on the next two holes. His coach, Peter Kostis, was not happy about how Casey lost his composure. On GOLF.com, he wrote that Casey got "rattled," adding, "For Paul to win a major, he knows he can't get caught up in circumstances like that."
April 20, 2008
Snedeker, 27, also struggled to control his emotions. He produced one of the few Sunday roars with an eagle on the 2nd hole, grabbing a share of the lead, but then made only two pars from the 6th to the 16th holes. "I think I'd put myself in a psychiatric ward," he said during a teary press conference. "I went from extreme highs to extreme lows, and that's what you don't want around here."
Flesch met a watery demise on the par-3 12th. He can blame the swirling winds, but his tee shot barely reached the middle of the creek, and led to a double bogey. Thus deflated, he bogeyed four holes in a row beginning at the 14th. "I played well all week," he said. "I simply played nine bad holes, and that's the way I'm going to look at it."
Woods avoided the signature disasters of the other pursuers but will still be runner-up for the third time in the last five majors (TEEING OFF, page G40). He had started the day six back, but it would have taken only a 69 to get into a playoff. "He thought his tournament was over after not birdieing 13 and 15, and bogeying 14," said Woods's playing partner, Stewart Cink. "Lo and behold, we get into the [postround] scorer's area and find out that Trevor had doubled 16. Tiger shook his head and said, 'He had to make it interesting, didn't he?'"
"Interesting" is a generous way to describe Sunday's action, as for the second straight year the Masters devolved into a U.S. Open--style war of attrition, and this edition was especially lacking in drama. Augusta's normally die-hard fans didn't even pretend to be enjoying the spectacle. When the leaders' scores were posted for the 13th hole—showing Immelman's birdie that pushed his lead back to four—the massive bleachers around the 15th and 16th holes began clearing. Augusta National had suddenly become Dodger Stadium.
In only his second year Augusta National chairman Billy Payne has proven himself to be a forward thinker, but he may need to consider revisiting the course's old setups, which almost every year produced memorable Sunday pyrotechnics. Augusta National has grown brutally long and increasingly narrow, and it still boasts the most frightening greens in championship golf. Unless Payne chops down a bunch of trees and shaves away the second cut, the course will continue to humiliate the game's best players, especially on days when the weather is less than perfect.
"It's a tough, tough course," said Casey, who managed to find a silver lining in his devastating final round: "I broke 80."
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After Immelman doubled 16, Woods shook his head and said to Cink, "HE HAD TO MAKE IT INTERESTING, DIDN'T HE?"