A tradition unlike any other.
At least Augusta National was back in full bloom for this Masters. It was nice to see vivid pinks, reds, purples and whites adorning the grounds, instead of just myriad shades of green.
And at least there were a few patrons on the premises, giving the illusion of a Masters returned to normal. Even if they lacked the full-throated, earth-rumbling roars so memorable from years past.
To me, the greatest Masters tradition created the time-worn adage, “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.” The Masters should feature a crowded leaderboard, with half a dozen players in contention as they round the Amen Corner. It should afford the opportunity of eagles and double-bogeys creating improbable four-shot swings.
The Masters is that edge-of-your-seat excitement of having no idea what might happen next, and that kid-on-Christmas-morning anticipation of those endless possibilities.
Sadly, for the second Masters in a row, we were pretty much denied all of that.
Sunday’s back nine gave us but one brief, shining moment — to borrow another tired, old cliché from CBS — of the Masters we used to know and love.
Hideki Matsuyama stood in the 15th fairway with a four-shot lead, contemplating the 227 yards remaining between his ball and the hole. His playing partner, Xander Schauffele, was doing his best to inject some excitement into the proceedings.
“Xander had just made three birdies in a row at 12, 13, and 14,” Matsuyama recalled in his post-Masters press conference. “I hit the fairway at 15. Hitting first, with Xander having the momentum, I felt, it was a four-stroke lead, and I felt I needed to birdie 15 because I knew Xander would definitely be birdieing or eagling.”
That explains the thought process behind one of those head-scratching “What was he thinking?” Masters moments. “Hit a 4-iron,” Matsuyama continued. “Flushed the 4-iron, and that’s why it went long.”
Did it ever. It caromed off the green like a Super Ball off macadam, took another leap, and dove into the water well behind the green. Despite the disaster, Matsuyama kept his poise. He calmly chipped safely to the fringe of the green, two-putted, and carded his bogey.
Standing in the fairway, Schauffele was stunned by Matsuyama’s choice. “I’m surprised he went for the green,” Schauffele said in his own post-Masters presser. “I think, if he had to do it over again, for how good his wedges have been this week, I think he would have laid it back. It doesn’t matter whatsoever right now, but he definitely made it interesting for me personally at that time. I definitely got a little bit hungry there, out of that bunker, and a little over-eager on 16, probably.”
Ah, yes, 16.
As they stood on the tee, Schauffele had the honors, and trailed by only two shots. All the drama ended with his next swing.
“I hit a good shot,” Schauffele said. “It turned out bad.”
The ball landed short of the green and trickled into the water, ultimately resulting in a triple-bogey.
“Let’s make a one!” Schauffele said when asked what his thought process was prior to the shot. “I hit a perfect 8-iron. It was 184 yards. I can hit my 8-iron 180 yards out here. I turned it right to left. The wind was left to right. It got smoked and eaten up. You could kind of see it. The ball hovered there…
“So, I was chasing. I was still two back. Hideki is a great left-to-right iron player. I figured, if I hit it close, he was going to hit it right on top. I was in full chase mode, so I have no regrets from that aspect.”
Schauffele’s triple enabled Matsuyama to go into ultra-conservative mode for his final three holes. Though he wound up only a shot ahead of wunderkind Will Zalatoris, the outcome was never again in doubt.
Which was good for Matsuyama. He had been focused all day on his effort to become the first Japanese to win a Major. “My plan this morning was to wake up about 9:30. But, needless to say, I rose much earlier than that and couldn’t go back to sleep.
“So I came to the golf course early. Had a really good warmup. I felt really good going to the first tee. Until I stood on the first tee, and then it hit me that I’m in the last group at the Masters tournament, and I’m the leader by four strokes. And then I was really nervous!”
He survived a wicked slice on his first drive, recovered from the woods to make bogey, birdied number two, and was on his way to a most memorable win.
“Up until now, we haven’t had a Major champion in Japan, and maybe a lot of golfers or younger golfers, too, thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s an impossibility.’ But with me doing it, hopefully that will set an example for them that it is possible, and that, if they set their mind to it, they can do it, too.”