Charl Schwartzel was added to the list of oddly-named South African golfers to have won a Major when he claimed the 2011 Masters at a sun-baked Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.
Schwartzel was at the heart of a mouth-watering day’s golf that saw the famed Augusta course set up perfectly for low scoring and drama. His final round 66 was enough to distinguish him from a tightly packed leaderboard that produced the most exciting final round of any tournament in recent years.
The twenty-six year old South African got his round off to the dream start when he chipped in from the right of the first green for an unlikely birdie. His good fortune continued when he holed his second shot to the par-four third hole, but a bogey at the next and a run of pars saw him partially forgotten about while the fireworks around him started to go off. Tiger Woods lit up the front nine with a birdie-birdie-eagle run through holes six, seven, and eight to go out in five under par. Woods’ long game looked good all week but, after ditching the putter he has won thirteen Majors with in favour of a different model, he struggled on Augusta’s notoriously treacherous greens. Misses at the twelfth, fifteenth, and sixteenth halted his momentum and meant his quest for a fifth green jacket would have to wait another year.
Paired together for the final round, the two Aussies Adam Scott and Masters debutant Jason Day fed off each other to produce rounds of 67 and 68 respectively. Both made their move on Augusta’s infamous back nine where the rolling hills have been crafted throughout the years to produce holes that produce agony and ecstasy in equal measure.
Scott’s birdie at eleven catapulted him to another at fourteen and gave him the confidence to roll in clutch putts at the next three holes which lifted him into a tie for the lead heading down the last. A par at eighteen put him in the clubhouse at twelve under and on the same score as Day who showed an almost irreverent regard for what the Masters is about by birdieing the seventeenth and eighteenth with majestic putts at both. Day was brilliant throughout the week (a second round 64 proving the best round by anyone over the four days) and blew away the notion that success at Augusta is reserved for those who have the intimate knowledge of the course that only comes with years of experience.
For all the big moves that were going on, the final pairing of Rory McIlroy and Angel Cabrera were slow out of the blocks. McIlroy started the day with a four shot lead – the product of some breathtaking ballstriking through the first three rounds – but bogeyed the first. Not ideal; but by no means disastrous. His drive on the second found a fairway bunker and his shot out clipped the lip. Still, a third shot into a greenside bunker and an up-and-down from there induced some calm in the twenty-one year old.
A holed birdie putt at the tricky par four seventh saw him go out in one over par 37 and still in the lead. Then McIlroy found out what “back nine on Sunday” really means. A quick hook off the tenth tee saw him play his second shot from between two cabins. His third shot darted left and his fourth shot hit a tree and bounced back towards him. A chip and two putts later he recorded a triple-bogey seven.
On the next hole he three putted from no great distance and a total lapse of concentration led to a four putt on the perilous par three twelfth. You could sense it coming and another pull off the thirteenth tee saw McIlroy’s ball, and hopes of recovery, rest in the stones at the bottom of Rae’s Creek.
Cabrera, the lumbering Argentine and 2009 champion, failed to gather any positive momentum and was consequently overtaken by those playing in front of him. With seven holes to go, however, he found himself at ten under par and in a logjam at the top of the leaderboard. Considering his prodigious length he should have been pressing for eagles on the thirteenth and fifteenth holes but instead could muster only a birdie at the latter. The short holes proved his downfall as he bogeyed both twelve and sixteen to finish at ten under. McIlroy eventually signed for 80 and Cabrera 71. Cabrera used his paw-like hands to console the young Northern Irishman as they walked off the eighteenth green but the damage had been done.
It is no good saying “it’s ok, it’s a learning curve” or “he will win a bunch of Majors in the future because he is too talented not to”. McIlroy found out this Sunday how hard it is. Talent is not enough. It will take a lot to recover from his crushing disappointments in recent Major championships. That McIlroy will contend again is a given. That he will win is not.
For McIlroy the back nine was a worst nightmare. For Schwartzel it was a dream come true. After lingering near the lead for the first two thirds of his round he sprang into life over the final six holes. A chip and a putt on fifteen provided one birdie, a one putt on sixteen gave him two in a row, a sublime cut round a tree with his second shot on seventeen made it three and a birdie on the 72nd hole saw Schwartzel bulldoze everyone out of his path.
His incredible finish overshadowed the chip in of Luke Donald on the final green that meant he finished ten under and in a tie for fourth alongside Australian Geoff Ogilvy who had five birdies on the trot over the back nine.
Schwartzel’s winning score of 274, fourteen under par, and the way he compiled it, will long be remembered. The South African’s win came on the fiftieth anniversary of South Africa’s-Godfather-of-golf Gary Player’s first win at Augusta and means he can stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow countrymen Louis Oosthuizen, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, and Trevor Immelman as Major winners.
The final round of the 2011 Masters was golf at its finest. It was refreshing to see a Major that was a birdie fest and not the grind-a-thon that the game’s governing bodies have been intent on producing in recent years. Great shots were rewarded and bad ones were punished – but not unfairly. For all the thrills, however, came the inevitable spills and McIlroy’s collapse has left a sour taste in the mouth. He claimed last year, after shooting 63-80 in the British Open, that he had learned from it, that he had learned to control his emotions, to slow down everything. Why did he not draw on this experience on Sunday? It is a shame that this Masters may well be remembered for how McIlroy lost it as much as Schwartzel won it.