For a tournament steeped in tradition, this year’s Masters really cut loose. What’s next? Billy Payne beginning the tedious Butler Cabin green jacket ceremony with 10 minutes of ribald stand-up? Queen Elizabeth appearing at the British Open — hatless?
In a year in which the Eisenhower Tree went down, Tiger Woods missed the tournament and Phil Mickelson might as well have, we saw Bubba Watson cruise to a victory that was locked up as he strolled to the tenth tee.
That means the tournament that doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday ended before it began.
As Watson and Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old Future of Golf, approached the eighth green, Spieth held a two-shot lead that had the golfing world utterly amazed. Apparently his mind remained uncluttered by all the potential calamities lurking around Augusta National. Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.
He had begun the day tied for the lead with Watson, took the lead with a birdie on the second hole, and watched Watson bogey the third. He chipped in from the deep front bunker to match Watson’s deuce on the fourth hole, and again matched Watson’s deuce on the sixth. Counting Spieth’s bogey at five and birdie at seven, the players had both parred only the first hole. Back-nine-worthy action.
Then came the big change. Spieth bogeyed both eight and nine while Watson birdied both. The four-shot swing proved decisive.
"Eight and nine were the turning points of the day," Spieth said at his post-tournament press conference. "Two, two stroke swings in a row. That’s very difficult on this golf course to come back from."
For the next two hours, we kept waiting for the annual Sunday excitement to erupt. The disasters at 12. The eagles at 13 and 15. The birdies at 16.
Instead we got nothing. The top three finishers played the back nine in a collective even par. Watson and Jonas Blixt birdied 13. Spieth bogeyed 12, and Watson bogeyed 10.
And that was it. No Mickelson blasting from the pine straw. No Woods curling in a chip. No Nicklaus charging through the pines. Watson stepped onto the 10th tee with a two shot lead, and when he walked off the 13th green, he led by three, his final margin of victory.
Not that he took all the breath-holding out of the equation. Bubba being Bubba, he disdained yet another Masters tradition. He refused to play it safe coming in.
On the 13th hole, he played so dangerously close down the left side that he actually clipped a few trees. What might have been disastrous instead left him with a sand wedge to the hole.
"Well, I’m not very smart," Watson said at his press conference. "I can tell it hit some trees, because, I mean, that’s not the line I really wanted to go on.
"I knew it, when it took off, it was cutting a little too much. I knew I hit it really hard. Obviously, when you get a roar on your tee shot, you know it’s pretty good. I could start breathing again once I hear them clapping and roaring."
"His drive on 13, I’ll never forget," said Spieth. "I thought that it was out-of-bounds, 70 yards left—and it’s perfect. When he had wedge into 13, I said, okay, well, this is pretty ridiculous!"
And then on 15, there was Watson, in the pines, actually contemplating reaching the water-guarded green instead of laying up safely.
"There’s a bigger, taller gap, I was thinking about hitting the 8-iron up this gap, and I told my caddie, I said, ‘I’m not going to do that to you!’ I was trying to hit it in the bunker. But you know me, I wanted to get it a little closer to the pin, and so I cut it a little bit without telling my caddie I was going to do that."
Watson even "got a little loose on the tee shot" on 17, and had to chip out to the right of the green, but made his par save look routine. "To get that up and down was way big for me," Watson recalled.
Spieth also broke the tradition of the 17-year Youngest Winner Ever cycle, which dated back to 1963, when Nicklaus became the youngest Masters winner. Steve Ballesteros broke the record in 1980, and Woods broke it again in 1997. This should have been Spieth’s year, but it will be soon enough.
"Oh, it was so much fun, it really was," he said. "I took it all in, standing ovations for both of us to each green. It was a dream come true. Although it sits a little hard right now, I’ll be back, and I can’t wait to be back."
Watson would break another tradition, becoming the fourth player, and first since Arnold Palmer in 1960 to win his second Masters in only his sixth appearance. "It’s overwhelming, you know, to win twice, to be with the great names…small town guy named Bubba now has two green jackets.
"It’s pretty wild. It’s pretty cool."
Even if it isn’t traditional.