Once again, the Masters produced a predictably unpredictable conclusion that provided tournament patrons and millions of television viewers with a varied cast of characters who served up ample amounts of excitement and suspense.
While pre-tournament favorites Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy were slogging towards identically dismal finishes of T40, two of the game’s most talented – and also most overlooked – players took center stage and offered up yet another riveting finish in golf’s most anticipated event.
Former Georgia Bulldog Bubba Watson defeated 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff, becoming just the second American player other than Woods or Phil Mickelson to win the Masters in the 21st century.
Sunday’s final round did not quite produce the fireworks of last year’s scintillating shootout that concluded with Charl Schwartzel, Oosthuizen’s South African compatriot, taking home the green jacket with birdies on the final four holes.
Watson matched Schwartzel’s late birdie run, but his came a bit earlier, as he notched four consecutive birdies beginning at the 13th. That enabled him to erase a lead held almost the entire final round by playing partner Oosthuizen, who vaulted to the top of the leader board with the first double eagle ever recorded in Masters history on the par-5 second hole.
After 12 mostly uneventful holes, Watson was two strokes off Oosthuizen’s lead, but pulled even after his run of birdies ended at the 16th. After both players missed birdie putts on the 72nd hole that could have decided the tournament in regulation, they returned to the 18th tee, with both again missing birdie opportunities.
The playoff continued on the 10th, and both missed the fairway off the tee, with Watson’s drive sailing into the right trees, as it did earlier in the afternoon. Seemingly in a spot of bother, Watson again found himself with an escape route, but one which required a hook of massive proportions to find the green.
As he had done a few hours earlier, golf’s most accomplished shaper of shots demanding significant hooks or slices put his extraordinary talents on display. He maneuvered his ball around the trees and towards the flagstick, with his ball landing perfectly in the middle of the green and spinning right, coming to rest within 12 feet of the pin.
Oosthuizen came up short with his second shot from long range, chipped well past the hole and settled for bogey. Watson eased his birdie attempt within tap-in range to earn his first major title, evening his playoff record in golf’s Grand Slam events at 1-1 following a playoff loss in the 2010 PGA Championship, one month after Oosthuizen had romped to his British Open victory.
After going winless in his first 4 ½ seasons on the PGA Tour, Watson now has four wins in less than two years and has established himself as one of the elite players in the game. His Masters victory propelled him from 16th to 4th in the World Golf Rankings, supplanting Hunter Mahan as the top-ranked American.
Watson, 33, has gradually risen up the professional golf ladder since leaving UGA in 2001 following a short but checkered college career in Athens. After transferring from a community college in Alabama, Watson enjoyed a productive junior season with the Bulldogs in 2000. He won the Schenkel Invitational in Statesboro and earned second team all-SEC and honorable mention All-American honors for a Georgia squad that won three tournaments, including an SEC title.
But Watson’s season ended ignominiously with a short missed putt on his final hole in the second round of the NCAA Championship resulting in the Bulldogs missing the cut.
That earned him a spot in coach Chris Haack’s doghouse, where Watson resided his entire senior season.
With five Georgia golfers meriting first, second or third team all-America honors in 2001, the Bulldogs enjoyed one of their most successful seasons ever, winning six tournaments and placing 5th in the NCAA Championship. Watson, however, was little more than a spectator, and left Athens with a strained relationship with his coach, which has since been mended.
Watson turned pro and spent a year-and-half at the mini-tour level, scoring a victory on the Hooters Tour before reaching the Nationwide Tour, where he spent three seasons from 2003-05. He improved in each of his three seasons there, playing well enough in ’05 to earn a PGA Tour card.
In his first start as a PGA Tour member, Watson finished 4th in Hawaii to open the 2006 season. He finished 90th on the money list as a rookie and was just inside the top 60 in each of the next three seasons.
During his early seasons on the PGA Tour, Watson was mostly known for his prodigious drives. He led the tour in driving distance from 2006-08, and placed 2nd each of the next three seasons, averaging between 310 and 320 yards all six years. After his Masters title, he stands 1st on tour with a 313-yard average.
Watson enjoyed a breakout year in 2010, winning in Hartford in a playoff, taking 2nd in the PGA in a playoff loss to Martin Kaymer at Whistling Straits and earning a spot on the Ryder Cup team. He followed with a similar season in 2011, winning in San Diego and New Orleans and playing on the winning American team in the Presidents Cup.
Coming into the 2012 Masters, Watson had already recorded three top-5 finishes, including a 2nd place showing at Doral, where he let a chance for a win in a World Golf Championship event slip away after a poor final round.
Even after another strong showing at Bay Hill (T4), Watson was not among the main topics of discussion coming into the Masters, as the sports media’s obsession with Woods reached even greater heights after his win in that event.
Woods crashed and burned with his worst showing ever in Augusta as a pro. McIlroy was right there with him after being just one shot out of the lead midway through the tournament, turning in a dreadful performance on the weekend.
The third player to attract much attention coming into the tournament – three-time Masters champion Mickelson – was headed on a similar path after a triple bogey on the 10th hole in the opening round dropped him to 4-over for the tournament.
But Mickelson played his next 44 holes in 12-under, and began the final round just one back of Sweden’s Peter Hanson, competing in the Masters for only the second time. Mickelson seemed positioned for a fourth Masters title, but another triple bogey, this one on the par-3 fourth after his tee shot ricocheted off the spectator stands into thick foliage well left of the green.
Mickelson was 3-under the rest of the way and did not make a bogey over his final 43 holes, but he came up two strokes short, placing 3rd in the tournament for the fifth time in his career.
Watson, who had never finished better than 20th in his first three Masters appearances, turned in solid rounds of 69-71-70 the first three days, beginning the final round in 4th place, three strokes behind Hanson. Watson started fast on Thursday (3-under after 8) and played his last six holes in 3-under the next two days after coming to the par-5 13th over par in both rounds.
Trailing Oosthuizen by four shots after the double eagle, Watson cut his deficit to two with a long birdie putt at the fifth, and remained two off the lead when the two reached the 13th hole.
Watson hit 9-iron into 13 and 8-iron into 15 for a pair of easy birdies, and hit two beautiful iron shots in 14 and 16 for two more birdies to pull even with Oosthuizen, who also birdied 13 and 15.
Oosthuizen has been mostly silent since his dominant British Open victory in 2010, but was a major figure in the Masters from the beginning, standing either 2nd or 3rd at the end of each of the first three rounds. He doggedly maintained his lead until Watson’s back nine surge and will likely be a factor in future majors, sporting one of the strongest all-around games on tour.
Joining Mickelson in a tie for 3rd at 8-under 280 were Hanson, Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar, the former Georgia Tech star and a St. Simons Island resident.
Hanson, who has emerged as a big tournament player (top 5 finishes in both 2012 WGC events), took the lead at 207 with a third round 65, but struggled the final day, beginning with a bogey on the opening hole. After going 14 holes without a birdie, including a shank off the 12th tee, Hanson played well over the final four holes, notching two birdies for a 73 and a tie for 3rd.
Westwood, who led after an opening 67, spun his wheels the next two days before closing with a 68 and his seventh career top-3 finish in a major since 2008, the most by any player ever without a victory. He made a strong run with four birdies over his final six holes, but it was a case of too little, too late.
Other than the two playoff participants, the player with the best chance to take home a green jacket was Kuchar, who was contending in a major late on Sunday afternoon for the first time. Kuchar turned in three solid rounds to begin the final round of the Masters four shots off Hansen’s lead.
Kuchar closed within two of Oosthuizen and was tied for second before three-putting from six feet for double bogey at the ninth. He fought back, briefly tying for the lead thanks to birdies at 12 and 13 and a tap-in eagle at 15, with his approach one of a host of memorable shots by multiple players the final day.
But Kuchar flared his tee shot well off the mark on the par-3 16th and made bogey, essentially dashing his chances for a first major title.
The talk of the tournament at the midway point was 52-year-old Fred Couples, who had the 36-hole lead at 139 after a second a second round 67. But Couples closed with scores of 75-72 and slipped to 12th at 286.