Charl Schwartzel won the 75th Masters tournament and Rory McIlroy lost it. The drama unfolded across an endless Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, but each player saw his destiny revealed on the very first hole.
Schwartzel’s name evoked myriad gasps of “Who’s he?” when it popped up on the leaderboard. Only fervid golf fans were aware that he finished in the top 30 of all four majors in 2010. Fine, but his best finish was a tie for 14th at the British Open.
Similarly, he lurked, barely noticed, at Augusta. An opening 69 left him in a 7-way tie for 7th place. A 71 on Friday left him in a 6-way tie for 12th. Still finding strength in numbers, Saturday’s solid 68 placed him in a 4-way tie for second.
That group trailed McIlroy by 4 shots. The 21-year-old Irishman had been unflappable for three days, grabbing the spotlight — and the lead — with an opening 65, followed by a 69 and 70. Perhaps he had learned from last year’s British Open, when he opened with a scintillating 63, but followed it up with an obese 80.
Schwartzel, in the penultimate group, began Sunday’s round by sinking a 100-foot chip and run for birdie. Two holes later, he topped that by holing out a sand wedge from 114 yards for eagle.
“I think it would have been a pretty straightforward shot if it wasn’t for all the people that had trampled it,” Schwartzel said at his post-Masters press conference. “I was forced to use a little 6-iron and run it up the hill. As it hit the green, it started looking good.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a roar that loud around me. It was just a great way to start. Around the third hole, I had exactly 114 yards, which was a perfect sand wedge for me.”
You hole two shots like those on two of the first three holes, you’ve got to feel like it’s your day, right?
“From the word go on the first hole,” Schwartzel continued, “things started going for me. You know, it’s always nice when things start in the right direction.”
Things certainly didn’t start in the right direction for McIlroy. He missed a short putt on the first hole, making bogey. He drove into a fairway bunker on the second hole, hit it again on his second shot, and barely salvaged par. He missed another short par putt on the fifth, and a short birdie putt on the ninth.
The missed putts took their toll. “I lost a lot of confidence in my putting,” McIlroy said at his press conference. “I didn’t really get anything going, and was sort of second-guessing lines and second-guessing my speed, and on these greens, you can’t do that.”
Karma. By the turn you had a leader with confidence shaken, feeling he could do no right, and a challenger feeling he could do no wrong.
On the 10th tee, McIlroy became the first player in Masters history to visit the Butler cabin during play. He wound up making triple-bogey. How? He missed a 15-footer for double-bogey.
Then, rapidly, he bogeyed 11, carded a 4-putt bogey at 12, and drove into Rae’s Creek on 13.
“I think, it’s Sunday at a major, what it can do,” said McIlroy, reflecting on what he learned from his escapades. “This is my first experience at it and, hopefully, the next time I’m in this position, I’ll be able to handle it a little better. I didn’t handle it particularly well today, obviously, but it was a character building day, put it that way. I’ll come out stronger for it.”
Stoked by his early success, Schwartzel just cruised along, making par after par.
“There’s so many roars that go around Augusta, especially the back nine,” Schwartzel recalled. “It echoes through those trees. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking at the leaderboard.
“But sometimes, I would look at it and not register what I was looking at, and that sort of helped. I knew going up 15, that’s the first time that I saw Adam Scott had made a couple of birdies, and Jason Day. From there on, I knew it was now or never, you have to start hitting some good shots and converting them.”
And with that, Schwartzel kicked it into another gear, and fashioned a finish unlike any other in Masters history. He closed with four straight birdies. The 26-year-old South African, who had never been in contention in a major before, found the serenity to roll in birdie putts from 10, 15, 12 and 18 feet, while all about him, Augusta exploded.
“I just had so much confidence in my putting stroke at that stage that I knew if I can relax, you know, my hands, that I would be able to make a proper stroke. And I was able to do that every time.”
The new champion even sounded like a wily veteran as he summed up Sunday’s events: “Golf is really a funny game. One moment you’re on top of it, and the next it bites you.”