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Breathless finish at the 2011 Masters

Monday, April 11, 2011

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AUGUSTA, Ga. - There's a lot of adjectives that could be applied to one of the most riveting, turbulent Masters tournaments in history. The one that fits may be how everyone felt at the finish line - breathless.

Tiger Woods had a strong run up the leaderboard from seven shots back, but he fell back to a tie for fourth, four shots back of the winner. (Associated Press)

It may require a book longer than "Moby Dick" to put into proper context what a whale of a back nine the world saw on Sunday.

The drama and suspense came in waves. So many twists and turns stand out, it's hard to rank which was the most memorable.

We had a Tiger Woods charge from seven shots down to a first-place tie at the turn. We had poor Rory McIlroy channeling his inner Greg Norman with a self-destructing 80, sending the 21-year-old kid from a four-shot advantage to out of contention by the 10th hole with a confounding triple bogey.

Once McIlroy imploded, the lead became one big hot potato. It looked for certain at one point that Woods might emerge from a five-way tie at the top. Galleries were roaring at every scoreboard change, wondering who among a pack that reached 10-under-par - Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald, K.J. Choi, Bo Van Pelt and Woods - would pull it off.

"It must have looked great on TV," said Day. "I can't wait to watch it."

Nothing was more stupefying than the conclusion to golf's most scintillating traffic jam. The Masters champion ended up being maybe the least recognizable name from that overcrowded leaderboard. Schwartzel, the 26-year-old son of a chicken farmer from South Africa, won with an unprecedented four consecutive birdies on the closing holes.

"This game's a funny game. Things just happen," Schwartzel said. "Sometimes it just sort of snowballs."

That would accurately describe Schwartzel's bizarre final-round 66 and 14-under-par 274 total. His day began with a chip-in from off the green on the first hole, followed by jarring a 114-yard wedge for an eagle at No. 3. He made 10 consecutive pars before going on that closing birdie binge, which took Scott from a two-shot lead after finishing No. 16 to falling two shots short.

"I'm usually a pretty good closer," said Scott. "I didn't do a bad job today, but Charl did much better. Incredible finish."

The game's ultimate closer, Woods, sent the Augusta galleries into a tizzy with a dazzling front-side 31. He had two huge chances to take the lead by himself, but failed to drop a 6-foot eagle putt at No. 15 or an 8-foot birdie on the par-3 16th.

"I should have shot an easy 3- or 4-under on the back nine and I only posted even," said Woods.

It was that kind of topsy-turvy day. Just one disbelieving occurrence unfolding after another, including a final scoreboard with no American in the top three, a first in the Masters history.

If anyone still thinks golf is dominated by the good, ol' USA, then you haven't been paying close attention to the sport's shifting global tide. For the first time since 1994, no American holds any of the four major titles.

Over the last two hours Sunday, a golfer from six of the seven different continents was at least tied for the lead at some point. Who knows, if the South Pole had some permanent residents and could develop a junior golf program, then maybe someone from Antartica could one day get on a Masters leaderboard.

On this steaming Augusta day that was chuck-full of drama, it's ironic that the champion ended up being someone who tapped into the knowledge of the Masters' greatest teacher, Jack Nicklaus. Before playing in his first Masters last year, Schwartzel took advantage of a lunch conversation he had with the six-time champion at countryman Ernie Els' Autism Golf Day.

"I've never met Jack, I knew he sort of liked hunting a little bit," Schwartzel said. "That's the way I got the conversation going, just by talking about hunting."

Nicklaus eventually took Schwartzel through all 18 holes at Augusta, giving him the nuances of which flags to attack and tips on how to think your way around the course.

Schwartzel said he was in awe of being in Nicklaus' presence. Luckily, a mutual friend that introduced them made sure to take down notes as the Golden Bear was talking.

So on the 25th anniversary of Nicklaus' epic last major victory, and on the 50th anniversary of South African Gary Player being the first international player to win at Augusta, the 75th Masters show was finally stolen by a Jack-like closing from another South African.

When the day began, golf agent Chubby Chandler was eagerly anticipating a breakthrough victory from his young superstar client, McIlroy. When the final putt went down, he was bear-hugging another client, Schwartzel, in celebration as he came off the 18th green.

It was a fitting end to arguably the wildest Masters of all.

Reach Gene Frenette at gene.frenette@jacksonville.com; (904) 359-4540

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