Through the wreckage of Rory McIlroy’s Masters dream marched Charl Schwartzel here last night. The South African’s joy at winning his first major was in direct and pitiful contrast to the devastated young Ulsterman. A crestfallen, shattered figure who limped out of Georgia as forlornly as Greg Norman 15 years before.
So much for a procession. McIlroy’s 80 turned the season’s opening major into a stampede and an astonishing stampede at that. Augusta had never seen anything like it, the 26-year-old eventually emerging from a mass of contenders. Schwartzel prevailed by two shots from two Australians, Adam Scott and Jason Day, with a group in fourth including Tiger Woods and Luke Donald. It truly was one of the game’s most staggering finales.
But with respect to the winner, and even allowing for the proximity of Woods, the spotlight remained on Rory. Poor, poor Rory. Cruel did not begin to describe the experience as the 21-year-old’s bid to become the second youngest Masters champion went up in a hail of pine needles. His torture rivalled Norman’s 78 which so infamously handed Nick Faldo victory and was much, much worse than the other 80 McIlroy suffered in the second round of last year’s Open at St Andrews. This horror show was the most wretched reverse by a third-round leader in 75 stagings of the Masters. From starting four shots clear, he finished 10 behind; from starting, first he ended tied for 15th.
It was beyond meltdown. It was spontaneous golfing combustion. Essentially, it came down to one tee-shot, which led to six dropped shots in three holes. The drive on the 10 th will be replayed as long as McIlroy graces golf’s bigger stages. And after this trauma we can only pray he does recover to take his rightful position. Blessedly, his courageous statements afterwards indicates he will.
“I thought I hung in there on the front nine,” said McIlroy, who will this morning fly to the Malaysian Open. “I just hit a poor tee-shot on the 10th and it unravelled from there. I lost it and couldn’t get it back. I’m a very disappointed at the minute and I’m sure I will be for a few days. But I will get over it. I’ll have plenty more chances, I know. Hopefully, this will build a bit of character in me.”
Portents of the carnage to come arrived in just 28 minutes. This was all it took for McIlroy to lose his four-shot lead as Schwartzel - a stablemate of McIlroy’s - eagled the third from the fairway and McIlroy missed his first of many tiddlers on the first. But he recovered his lead with a 25-footer on the seventh and held on until the 10th. Alas, his resolve was an illusion.
McIlroy had driven so well all week. Yet his much-vaunted motion suddenly deserted him in the most catastrophic fashion. His hook was so wild it ended up between two cabins on the very edge of the course, not much more than 100 yards from the tee and with a forest separating him from the cut stuff. Those who know him best had feared as much. “I have played with Rory a lot, when he gets under a bit of pressure he does have a pull-hook in his bag, ” said Lee Westwood, who also shares the same management company.
McIlroy chipped out from this unvisited and uchartered part of Alister MacKenzie’s masterpiece but then, trying to force his third, hooked into the woods again. From there he hit a tree and when he did chop on to the putting surface had already taken five. The treble-bogey seven hauled him back to eight-under and even though he was within two of the lead, so severely had he been affected perhaps it would have been kinder if he had missed the cut two days before. On the 11 th he three-putted for a bogey. On the 12 th he four-putted, three-putting from two-feet. On the 13 th he drove into Rae’s Creek. It was so sad to watch and, in truth, he did rather well to play the rest in one-over.
“My heart goes out to Rory,” commented Donald. “He's a young player, he'll bounce back, I'm sure. He’s got a great future ahead of him. He's just got to use this as a learning experience.”
In fairness. McIlroy was not the only player leaving Magnolia Lane thinking of the what could have been. None of the other competitors will be any more rueful than Woods. When he went out in 31 shots - equalling the lowest front nine of the week - he drew alongside McIlroy. He had started off seven strokes behind, but within the space of two remarkable hours, a 15 th major - and more pertinently a first major in three years - seemed almost certain. Never before had Woods ever won a major when trailing after 54 holes. Was this the time, the time to put the sex scandal behind him, the time for redemption even?
No. There were a few classic Tiger moments, not least the eagle on the eighth. But he could only manage to par the back nine and so his losing run continued. His 67 hauled him to the same result as last year.
Tiger knew he was at least one-shot short. As it turned out, he was four. The action did not let up. So many players were in contention it was hard to know where to look, like one of those 40-runner sprints at Newmarket. Geoff Ogilvy was there, as was Day, the swaggering debutant. K J Choi, Angel Cabrera, Bo Van Pelt… thee were candidates for green all over the property. Donald was in the heart of the drama, chipping in on the 18 th to rapturous acclaim. His celebration was ecstatic but he was destined to reflect on a double-bogey on the 12th .”That killed me,” he said. “My one bad swing of the round.” And so it was left to Scott, Day and Schwartzel.
The former thought he finally had it, finally won the major his talent always merited and bagged Australia’s first green-jacket. With his belly putter, Scott played the final five holes in two-under - and Day birdied the last two. But Schwartzel was inspired on that closing stretch. He birdied the last four holes in one of the Masters’ most glorious climaxes. The eight-footer on the 17 th took him one ahead and then this son of a chicken-farmer was audacious enough to hole a 20-footer on the last. With that outrageous grandstand finish for a brilliant 66, Schwartzel - a prodigy of Ernie Els - to become South Africa's third Masters champion.
The 26-year-old’s best friend is Louis Oosthuizen, the Open winner from last July. Schwartzel promised to emulate that success and didn’t take long. Chubby Chandler, the supremo of the International Sports Management, arrived here yesterday expecting to bring home the champion. He did, just not the one he anticipated. It provides further proof that nothing can ever be taken for granted in golf, particularly at Augusta. That sort of game, that sort of course, that sort of day. Incredible.
Greg Norman 1996 - Six shots
It seemed certain that Norman – not to mention Australia – would finally get his hands on a Green Jacket when, on the Saturday, he extended his lead over Nick Faldo from four shots to six. But in perhaps golf’s cruellest capitulation, Norman ended up losing to Faldo by six shots. Faldo fired a 66, Norman a 78. The Englishman, winning his third Green Jacket, was more overcome than Norman, hugging the vanquished on the 18th green.
Ed Sneed 1979 - Five shots
A solid pro for many years, Sneed had appeared in the 1977 Ryder Cup. Two years later, his big moment seemed to have arrived when he assembled a five-shot lead going into the final round. With three remaining, he was still three clear. Then the nightmare began. Three par putts came agonisingly close to dropping, forcing him into a play-off with Fuzzy Zoeller and Tom Watson, which Zoeller won. Sneed never came close again.
Ken Venturi 1956 - Four shots
Looked certain to become the first amateur to win the Masters when taking a four-shot lead into the final round. A brilliant 66 on the Thursday had sent him clear and such was the quality of his play thereafter that a final-round collapse was inconceivable. But on a windy day, Venturi three-putted six times in a disastrous 80 to lose out to Jack Burke.