Friday, April 17, 2009

2009 Masters winner Angel Cabrera from Argentina

If there's any golf tournament that is steeped in tradition and history, it's the annual Masters tournament, held each year in Augusta, Georgia. It's the sentimental favorite tournament for remembering the old guard of mostly US elite golfers, like Bobby Jones (1902-1971), Ben Hogan (1912-1997), and Arnold Palmer (1929). Palmer has his very own tournament, which Tiger Woods won last month for the upteenth time. Palmer was again honored with the task of taking the first drive. It was also the last tournament for all-time great Gary Player, the diminutive South African who burst on the scene and was an immediate rival to Palmer and a young Jack Nicklaus (1940). Player epitomizes class, grace and sportsmanship, all the good things that help make golf one of the most honorable sports out there. In what other sport are you supposed to call penalties on yourself?

Gary Player (1935) is in his seventies and long out of contention to win a PGA tournament, let alone a major like the Masters. But, having been a past champ, he and others who would not otherwise be allowed to play, have earned exemptions to allow them to compete not so much because they have a chance, but to be seen by the adoring fans. Last year, Greg Norman, a superstar in the 80s, almost won the British Open. This allowed him to earn a spot in this year's Masters. It might be his last invite since he failed to make the cut on Friday and thus only lasted two days. It was also the final invite for former Masters champ Fuzzy Zoeller. His claim to fame was winning the Masters in his very first try as a PGA professional.

Early on, it was clear that Tiger Woods would have to perform beyond superbly to have a shot at winning. He often seems to tread water in the first two days of a tournament before making his move on "moving day," which is Saturday. He's never lost a major tournament when he started the final day in the lead. This year, he seemded to be too far behind the strong play of Chad Campbell and this year's almost Cinderella favorite, Kenny Perry. I only took notice of Perry in the last five years or so. Now 48, most PGA pros around that age fade from the spotlight, and usually never win again. Not so Perry who has found himself usually in the top ten ranking and enjoying the occasional win which proves that guys over 40 can be competitive. Vijay Singh also blossomed late in his career and is the most successful golfer ever in his 40s. I can still recall the unexpected excitement watching Jack Nicklaus win the 1986 Masters at the age of 46. Kenny Perry would have been the oldest winner of the Masters, had he won. Instead, he, Campbell and the 2007 US Open winner, Angel Cabrera (1969)ended up in a playoff that lasted two holes but had some incredible drama.

On the final day of the Masters, Tiger Woods was paired with the second greatest golfer in the world, Phil Mickelson, the master of the short game. It was amazing to watch Mickelson shoot a 30 on the front nine while Woods struggled with mediocre play. It seemed as if every approach shot Phil made landed a few feet from the hole, setting him up for numerous birdies, while Tiger Woods was several feet away. Tiger wasn't on his "A" game and Phil was pretty brilliant. He could have ended up in the playoff were it not for landing one of his tee shots in the water and missing a couple of putts. During the first hole of the playoffs, both Perry and Campbell were sitting comfortably in the fairway with their drives while Cabrera landed in the trees. He had a chance to hit his second shot on or near the green but it hit a tree and ended up in the fairway. I honestly thought that Cabrera was finished at that point. Wouldn't you know it, both Perry and Campbell failed to land their second shot on the green while Cabrera landed his third shot just a few feet away of the hole, allowing him to score an easy par while Campbell bogeyed and Perry lucked out for a par.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, 2009 Masters, sabres crossed, ready for battle.

The lesson here is that you can't count yourself out so easily because you've made a mistake like Cabrera did, because your competition might also screw up, especially when under intense pressure, like having the entire golfing world watching you vie for a major title.


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