Last Man Standing

April 20, 2009
April 20, 2009

Table of Contents
April 20, 2009
SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus

Last Man Standing

Angel Cabrera, who knows a thing or two about surviving tough circumstances, emerged from a drama-filled final round at the Masters with his second major title

EARLY MONDAYMORNING, hours after he had stolen the 73rd Masters, broken the heart of all ofKentucky, dusted Tiger and Phil, avenged an embarrassed countryman's epicscrewup and cemented his own legend, Angel Cabrera was whooping it up at arented house in a stately Augusta neighborhood. Two dozen people had turned upfor the party—friends, players, caddies, friends of friends. Already a f√∫tbolchant had rung out in the night: "Olé, olé, olé, olé, Pa-to, Pa-to!"Cabrera's nickname has long been El Pato, the Duck. For the final round,Cabrera had worn his trademark Sunday yellow shirt, which turned out to matchquite nicely with a green jacket. Now, holding court at his party, theArgentine was barefoot, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. ¬∂ Cabrera'sappetites are like his drives—prodigious. Earlier in the evening a quaintMasters tradition had compelled him to eat a champion's dinner with the AugustaNational members. Eschewing the lobster macaroni and cheese and otherdelicacies from the buffet, Cabrera settled on an irresistible item called theTiger Woods Cheeseburger. The burgers were smaller than expected, so a famishedCabrera ate nine of them, washed down by gulps of red wine. Back at the house,as it neared 2 a.m., he took lusty sips of his favorite drink: Coke mixed withFernet Branca, a bitter, aromatic spirit brewed from grapes and more than 40herbs and spices. Suddenly a song broke out, to the tune of Happy Birthday:"Saco verde to you/Saco verde to you." Saco verde, of course, meansgreen jacket. At the song's end Cabrera disappeared into a bedroom and thenemerged wearing a huge smile and the prized blazer, size 46 regular. Everybodyscreamed, and the party raged on.

This is an article from the April 20, 2009 issue

Cabrera's victoryowed much to his brio. The closing holes of the final round were so taut,"you couldn't hardly spit," said Fred Sanders, caddie to Kenny Perry,and yet Cabrera seemed to be the only one on the course who was having fun,playing to the crowd with fist pumps and offering playful high fives to hisplaying partner, Perry, who didn't quite know what to make of the gesture.Before Cabrera took it away, this was supposed to be Perry's Masters, but thesoft-spoken Kentuckian wanted it too much. Perry is a bighearted country boy,and he was desperate to win for his ailing mom, his hometown of Franklin (pop.8,079), the raucous galleries that had embraced him and the loving family thathad helped him unwind every night with games of cards and H-O-R-S-E. Aback-nine birdie binge had put Perry two strokes up with two holes to play, butthe immensity of the opportunity overwhelmed him. He skulled a chip on the 17thhole to make bogey—only his fifth bogey of the week and his first since the12th hole on Saturday—and then played three messy shots at 18, ultimatelyleaving himself what every little boy dreams about until he grows up and has toface it: a 15-foot par putt to win the Masters. Behind the green, Perry's wife,Sandy, his sweetheart since the eighth grade, gathered with their three kids.Back home, the congregation at the Franklin Church of Christ was holding itsevening Easter service, and more than a few prayers were muttered for a man whonever fails to worship there when he's in town. Over at Country Creek GolfCourse, on Kenny Perry Drive, dozens of regulars had gathered for the telecast.Perry's 85-year-old father, Ken, still picks up the balls on the Country Creekrange most every day in denim overalls, but he elected to watch TV at home withhis wife, who has been waging a long battle with cancer. With so much restingon one putt, it's no wonder Perry's ball couldn't get to the hole. The fightwent out of him right then and there, even though Perry had a chance forredemption in the playoff. "It didn't seem like new life," saidSanders. "He seemed a little flat."

Cabrera, apowerfully built former caddie from Córdoba, is one of the heaviest hitters inthe game, but he's a big man with soft hands. He further broke Perry's spiritwith a spectacular par save on the first extra hole, Augusta National's 18th.After hitting his drive into the woods on the right, Cabrera got a lucky bouncewhen his desperate second shot ricocheted off a tree into the fairway. Cabrerathen spun a wedge from 114 yards to within six feet and poured in the putt.(Chad Campbell, a taciturn Texan, was eliminated from the playoff when hemissed a short par putt on the low side after finding the right bunker with hisapproach.) On the second playoff hole, the par-4 10th, Perry's second shotmissed wide left, and Cabrera closed him out with a textbook par.

Perry, 48, hadbeen bidding to become the oldest winner of a major, but after the crushingloss he seemed resigned to the fate of never winning the big one. His onlyother chance came at the 1996 PGA Championship, played in front of the homefolks in Kentucky, but he made a mess of the first playoff hole in a loss toMark Brooks that still haunts him. "Great players make it happen, and youraverage players don't," Perry said on Sunday night. "That's the way itis. That's why they are where they are, and we're all down here."

CABRERA'S TRIUMPHelevated him into rarefied air. He's now one of only 14 players to have wonboth the Masters and the U.S. Open. He slipped on the green jacket 41 yearsafter countryman Roberto de Vicenzo was denied a chance at a playoff at theMasters because he signed an incorrect scorecard, leading to his immortalstatement, "What a stupid I am." Asked if his victory would ease thelingering sting of that gaffe for his country, Cabrera said, "This win, totake back to Argentina, it's going to help a lot."

Cabrera, 39, ishalfway to the career Grand Slam, and he may just be getting started. MickeyWright, the LPGA Hall of Famer known for the purity of her swing and herknowledge of others', once put Cabrera on her list of the game's five bestalltime ball strikers. Cabrera's action was self-taught during spirited moneygames among the other caddies at Córdoba Country Club, where Cabrera beganlooping after he dropped out of school at age 10. He grew into a ball basherwho viewed putting as an inconvenience, and his hasty work on the greensbetrayed a belief that it was best to get the unpleasant act over with as soonas possible. Cabrera's putting has improved over the last two years as heexperimented with long putters—he's the first player to win a major with abelly putter, though he uses it unconventionally, without anchoring it to hisstomach—and committed to more practice and a consistent routine on the greensthat includes spending more time examining his putts. He passed the ultimatetest by draining a series of crucial putts on Masters Sunday, including amust-make 15-footer for birdie on the 16th hole after Perry had stiffed his teeshot to within a foot. "He has willed himself to become a good putter,"says Charlie Epps, the Houston-based instructor who began working with Cabrerain 2007. There can be no doubting Cabrera's resolve. At the '07 U.S. Open atOakmont, in which he nipped Tiger by a stroke, Cabrera was introduced to theworld as a man of few words and many cigarettes, a living embodiment of thegauchos who populate Argentine folklore. Shortly after his U.S. Open winCabrera quit smoking cold turkey, and it's saying something that he survivedAugusta National's greens without a relapse. (Arnold Palmer never won anothermajor after he quit smoking in the late 1960s.)

For all of hisgifts, Cabrera's greatest strength may be a toughness that came from hishard-knock life. Cabrera was left by his parents at age three to live with hispaternal grandmother, Pura Concepción, in a tiny tin-roofed house on a dirtroad at the edge of a garbage-strewn arroyo. He took on menial jobs to feedhimself, and he survived on his wits and fists. In Córdoba there is anindigenous dance called the cuarteto, a lively, rhythmic step similar to themerengue. The cuarteto is a staple of the Cordoban social scene, and growingup, Cabrera forged quite a reputation at the dance halls. "He was always inthe street fighting," says Rodolfo Monjes, a longtime caddie at CórdobaCountry Club. "Usually over a girl." Three scars adorning Cabrera'sface attest to his pugilistic past. No wonder, then, he wasn't the slightestbit intimidated when Woods and Phil Mickelson threw their best punches onSunday.

THE STORY of thefirst three rounds had been the return of the roars to golf's most symphonicstage as the lords of the Masters offered up more playable conditions than inrecent years, nicely complementing the warm weather and mostly mild breezes.While Perry and Cabrera pushed the 54-hole lead to 11 under, Woods andMickelson never quite got going, and both were stuck at four under throughthree rounds. Their matching scores gave golf fans everywhere the Sundaypairing they had been craving, even if Tiger and Phil were being sent off anhour ahead of the leaders. They hadn't been paired at a major since the 2002U.S. Open at Bethpage and hadn't played together in the final round since the'01 Masters, both tournaments, it should be noted, won by Woods. Theircomplicated relationship has been analyzed in the kind of detail usuallyreserved for Lindsay and Sam, but for all the digs and slights through theyears, even Tiger and Phil couldn't help but get into the spirit of theirSunday showdown.

"They bothloved the pairing," said Mickelson's swing coach, Butch Harmon, whopreviously worked with Woods. "At lunch [on Sunday] in the champions'locker room they were needling each other like crazy."

Around Augusta,Tiger is revered but Phil is beloved, and Mickelson captivated the enormouscrowds with a laserlike approach shot at the long par-4 5th hole. When heburied the putt (his third birdie in four holes), the crowd erupted and thenbolted to the 6th tee. Tiger was left to putt a six-footer for par with a largepart of the gallery having collectively turned its back on him. Woods finallyshowed some fight on the 570-yard 8th with two mighty blows to set up an eagle,but Mickelson answered with his sixth birdie in seven holes. After parring 9from out of the trees—where else?—Mickelson stood within one of the lead,having tied the front-nine record with a six-under 30. (Fighting his swingthroughout the round, Woods said he "Band-Aided" his way around in 33.)If you are a golf fan, you could barely breathe.

But even thoughhe was playing the golf of his life, Phil is still Phil, and eventually,inevitably, he had to make a mistake. This one was a killer, as he pulled histee shot on the nasty par-3 12th hole, the ball dying on the bank fronting thegreen and rolling back into Rae's Creek, leading to a double bogey. Mickelsonwas rattled enough to blow two ensuing golden opportunities: a 10-footer forbirdie on 14 and a four-footer for eagle at 15.

In a Mastersparable of the tortoise and the hare, Woods patiently chased down Mickelson,and when Tiger stuffed his tee shot at the 16th and made birdie, the two were10 under and tied for second, setting Augusta National on its ear.

Perry still had aone-stroke lead, but he was looking shaky while laboring to 11 straight pars toopen his round. (Cabrera had bogeyed 4, 5 and 10 but would get back in the gameby birdieing both back-nine par-5s.)

The fun didn'tlast much longer. Woods's and Mickelson's bids both petered out at 17, whenTiger made bogey out of the trees and Phil missed another short putt, forbirdie. Each left Augusta at a crossroads. Mickelson may have been buoyed byclipping Woods 67--68, but when the U.S. Open returns to Bethpage in June, Philwill be celebrating the dubious three-year anniversary of his self-immolationat Winged Foot. This Masters marked the first time since then that he had beena factor at a major. Mickelson turns 39 the week of the Open, and the window isclosing for the onetime boy wonder. Woods, 33, will be the favorite atBethpage, but in the meantime he is left to ponder another Masters that gotaway. After taking three of six from 1997 through 2002, he has won just one ofthe last seven. The evolution of the course into a tighter, more penal test hastaken away much of his power advantage, and as he has entered his 30s he hasdisplayed a distressing vulnerability on Augusta's treacherous greens.

At least Woodsand Mickelson can be confident they'll have other opportunities at Augusta.What made Perry's failure so gut-wrenching was the knowledge he may never get achance at redemption.

Cleaning out hislocker, Perry tried hard to be philosophical. "Hey, life goes on," hesaid, but there was little comfort in the cliché. His family was waiting in aparking lot behind the clubhouse and still seemed stunned by the day's brutalconclusion. Perry's 24-year-old daughter, Lesslye, was taking it the hardest,sitting on the ground alone, clutching a handful of tissues. A few months agoKenny had walked Lesslye down the aisle when she married a local boy in aceremony that attracted much of Franklin. "She's so torn up," Sandywhispered. "She keeps saying, 'This can't happen twice to him. It's notfair. He's too good a person, he's too good a father. It's just notright.'" Kenny eventually materialized, carrying his oversized golf bag anda diet soda, the strongest stuff he drinks. ("To the best of my knowledge,he has never smoked a cigarette or tasted alcohol or said a bad word," saysPerry's father.) For Cabrera the revelry had already begun. Meanwhile, Perryand his family wordlessly piled into a van and drove off into a cold, darknight.

"They both loved the pairing," Harmon said ofTiger and Phil. "At lunch [before the round] they were NEEDLING EACH OTHERlike crazy."
No wonder Cabrera wasn't the slightest bit intimidatedwhen Woods and Mickelson threw THEIR BEST PUNCHES on Sunday.



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PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichSCRAMBLING MAN Cabrera stayed in the game when he saved par from the trees on the first playoff hole.PHOTOBOB MARTINPHOTOFRED VUICHJUST SHORT After bogeys on his last two holes cost Perry, he almost chipped in to win on the first hole of sudden death.PHOTOROBERT BECKCROWD-PLEASERS Mickelson and Woods put on a show, but back-nine blunders stalled their comebacks.PHOTOROBERT BECKANGELIC A self-taught former caddie, Cabrera has long been one of the Tour's big hitters.