Golf fans awoke this morning, bleary-eyed and suffering the after-effects of a heart wrenching finish to the first Major golf tournament of the year. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS patriotically kept vigil over Louis Oosthuizen’s Masters championship progress at Augusta.
Few Majors in recent years have seen a finish as closely contested as the 2012 edition of the Masters. At any given time during the course of the final round, up to 10 players were in striking distance of the leader, especially when one considers the infamy of Augusta’s ability to induce meltdowns of epic proportions. Think Greg Norman in 1996 blowing a five-shot final round lead to lose to Nick Faldo by six strokes and Rory McIlroy’s final round 80 last year to allow Charl Schwartzel to walk away with the great green jacket.
So it wasn’t surprising when overnight leader, Swede Peter Hanson, began shakily dropping shots over the first three holes, seemingly destined to be yet another final-round leader chewed up and spat out by the illustrious course and its voodoo-like hold over player’s concentration. Holding a slender one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson and two-shot lead over Louis Oosthuizen, the final round was going to be anything but a dull affair.
Oosthuizen and playing partner, Gerry "Bubba" Watson, couldn’t have had more different starts to the final round. Watson dropped a shot at the very first hole while the 29 year old from Mossel Bay, played himself into Masters history with an incredible shot at the par-5 second. Oosthuizen hit his perfectly shaped approach shot onto the green that followed the contours of the undulating surface all the way into the cup, recording only the fourth albatross in course history and the first ever on the second hole. In a moment of absolute magic, Oosthuizen had changed the context of the round, from no longer chasing the leaders, but now having to fend off a chasing pack that included Top 10 players, former World Number ones and three-time Masters winners.
With the pressure of leading the field now firmly on Oosthuizen’s shoulders, it could have been so easy to crack under the pressure, on a course that offers ample opportunities to do so. The Augusta greens make putting on glass seem like an exercise in slow motion with some holes requiring more right angle attempts than a geometry exam. When Phil Mickelson, one of Augusta’s favourite sons, suffered his second triple-bogey of the tournament at the par-3 fourth, many South African’s would have been bellowing their own living room fist pumps, half expecting the biggest hurdle standing between King Louis and a second Major crown to be out the way.
But with so much golf yet to play, on a course where two or three shot swings can so easily occur on a single hole, we all held our tweets and continued our vigil into the small hours of a night that would turn out to be an emotional rollercoaster wrapped inside an action thriller. For all Oosthuizen’s early heroics Bubba Watson continued to plug away at the course, and the South African’s lead. As Louis was forced into making several tough par-saving putts, Watson, much like Kobus Wiese at an all-you-can-eat buffet, just wouldn’t go away. After his opening hole mishap, he never dropped another shot and recorded five straight birdies from the 12th to the 16th that lifted the American to a tie for the lead, going into the final two holes.
Although Oosthuizen played well to never lose the lead in the final round, every time Watson made a mistake off the tee in the final few holes, he would duly replicate with his own lapse in concentration and was never able to put serious daylight between them. Since his maiden major victory at the British Open in 2010, Oosthuizen's progress has been stunted by an ankle injury that saw him fall down the world rankings to 27. But over the last two rounds, he showed the steely determination and ice cool nerves that will no doubt feature in his contesting of many more major tournaments.
Watson with his unorthodox swing and bright pink driver, made the most of his extraordinary length off the tee, playing the par 5’s in 3-under that included a couple of near misses for eagle. His final round 68 was one stroke better than Oosthuizen, with both players finishing in the early Georgia evening on a final score of 10-under. On the 18th however, Watson had the opportunity to putt for the win, but instead both recorded pars to take the tournament to a sudden-death playoff.
Watson’s record of PGA playoffs was pretty decent, having won two of his three previous shootout deciders, both victories coming at the second extra hole. With both players hitting great tee shots as they replayed the 18th, Oosthuizen’s approach was outdone by Watson, and after watching the stocky South African's attempt slide wide, he once-again lined up to putt for the championship, only to push his attempt past the hole.
The 10th hole was up next to decide the winner, one which Oosthuizen had struggled with all week. But when Watson pushed his drive deep into the trees on the right, the whole of South Africa held its collective breath, hoping for the homeboy to unleash another monster drive down the middle and canter home to another Major win. But just as before, when opportunity knocked for Oosthuizen, he declined to open the door, and he too pushed his 3 wood far right.
Having caught the rough, Oosthuizen was in far better shape than Watson who seemed in deep trouble in Augusta's pine trees that was coincedently the same catalyst for McIlroy's prior year implosion. The South African didn’t quite connect as sweetly as he would have liked, leaving his second shot short of steeply inclined green. Watson, known for all manner of creative shotmaking, was going to need a hail Mary to get close, considering he had no direct line of sight of the pin and a ball that nestled tentaivley on a bed of pine needles. But hail Mary he did, and proceeded to craft a sublime shot that will no doubt overtake Oosthuizen’s albatross as the ESPN play of the day for weeks to come. The miracle shot landed on the green and spun viciously towards the hole, a feat almost unimaginable, given the lie in the trees.
American fans following the two golfers, jumped deliriously on the course as the World Number 14 looked set to win his first Major even as Oosthuizen lined up his third. When he failed to get up and down, only narrowly missing his par putt, Watson had two shots for victory from just two metres out. Winning with a par at the second extra playoff hole, Watson denied South Africa the stoic image of two best friends, in Schwartzel and Oosthuizen, passing on the winner's green jacket from one to another. In the end the tenacity of Watson won out on a day that will surely go down as one of the most memorable in golf’s history, and certainly Augusta’s. Just not so much if you're South African. DM
Photo: Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa (R) shakes hands with Bubba Watson of the U.S. after they finished their round tied during final round play in the 2012 Masters Golf Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, April 8, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar