News & Opinion

Masters immortalizes its winners and losers alike

Jordan Spieth and Danny Willett at 2020 Masters
Danny Willett (foreground) and Jordan Spieth share a laugh during practice this week at Augusta National, but they have known the emotional peaks and valleys of the Masters. Spieth, the 2015 champion, blew a 5-stroke lead on the final 9 holes in 2016 to open the door for Willett to win.

At Augusta National, the players who agonizingly miss winning the green jacket often hold places in golf lore as big as the champions'

"Losing feels a lot worse than winning feels good.”

– Curtis Strange, 1995 Ryder Cup

Within seconds after Phil Mickelson holed that 18-foot birdie putt to win the 2004 Masters, the usual herd of golf scribes began scrambling from their work stations in the Augusta National media center to the 18th green, an uphill walk of maybe three or four minutes. It made no sense to cover the journey in a mad dash. The club does not allow running on the grounds, at least during tournament week, and inside-the-ropes access is strictly forbidden, be it Thursday morning or Sunday evening.

Once the throng had cleared, I left the building and started up the hill. Just as I passed the rear entrance to the clubhouse, about 80 yards or so from all the humanity and hysteria surrounding the 18th, a large man with a familiar face emerged, walking directly toward me en route to the locker room.

“Don’t you [bleeping] say anything to me!” Ernie Els roared as our paths were about to cross. The outburst startled me. Not in a thousand years would any clinically sane journalist intrude on a guy who had just seen the biggest moment of his life swiped from him – in heroic fashion, no less – by a primary rival who had never finished the job at a major championship before.

It shook me up, but I had my own job to do. While chatting with Mickelson’s caddie, Jim Mackay, on the front porch of the clubhouse perhaps a half-hour later, I felt a hand clutch my shoulder from behind. “Man, I am really sorry,” Els said with a sheepish grin. “That was wrong of me. I feel bad. I don’t know what the hell got into me.”

Although entirely unnecessary, it was an apology above and beyond any I’ve ever received from a professional athlete, which isn’t to suggest there have been many. If winning a Masters is golf’s ultimate accomplishment, losing one brings on a pain unlike any other. At no other tournament are heartbroken runners-up (and 54-hole leaders gone awry) remembered more vividly, their careers defined at least in part by the squandered opportunity or admirable performance that wasn’t quite good enough.

You show up looking for a green jacket and leave in need of a straitjacket. Els shot a 67 in the final round, made a pair of eagles and went bogey-free from the fifth hole on. A year earlier, Len Mattiace piled up six birdies and an eagle, made his first bogey on the 18th to post a 65, then took an X on the first playoff hole in falling to Mike Weir. As Greg Norman showed us time and again, there are lots of ways to lose a Masters:

Succumb to a legend (1986).

Get struck by lightning (1987).

Crash and burn (1996).

Fight to the finish (1999).

There’s no solace in blowing a Masters the year after winning one, as Jordan Spieth did in 2016, although it does put a defending champ in good company. Arnold Palmer claimed his second title in 1960, then butchered the 72nd hole the following April, gifting Gary Player the victory with his closing double bogey. Palmer probably fumbled more majors in the red zone than any golfer in history, but he is unquestionably the game’s most beloved figure. Go figure.

Three months after losing to Mickelson, Els was beaten by none other than Todd Hamilton in extra holes at the British Open. The Big Easy was a little angry after that defeat, too, and stalked away from an informal media gathering with the demeanor of a man who had just about reached his limit of close encounters. As opposed to Norman, who seemed to grow more accustomed to falling on the sword as his career reached an inexorable conclusion.

After his epic collapse in ’96, which was finalized with a tee shot into the pond left of the 16th green, Norman arrived at the media center and was asked if he’d like any water. “No, thanks,” he replied. “I’ve had plenty of that today.” Such acts of chivalry are rare in a world of triumph and tragedy; the Shark earned himself a boisterous roomful of laughter for the quip. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Brandt Snedeker wept in his post-round interview after making a mess of his opportunity to win the 2008 Masters. A Sunday 77 will do that to a tour pro.

As we spend the next four days providing our undivided attention to the occurrences at golf’s most notable graveyard, the difference between April and November will become far less significant. The leaves are changing color, the azaleas long gone, but what remains is a fascinating contest of man vs. land that morphs into a battle within for those who have positioned themselves in the weekend hunt.

Ain’t no season going to change that.

Given the two-tee start and heavy traffic that will characterize this year’s final round – a threesome on almost every hole for a considerable portion of the day – it seems more likely that someone could post a low number early, wait out the leaders, then win the 84th Masters while eating a pimento cheese sandwich in front of a TV. The beautiful thing about sports is that there is no script. Once play begins, all the pre-tournament talk becomes irrelevant, the prognosticators merely guessers.

By week’s end, somebody will win and everybody else won’t, and if we’re lucky, so to speak, at least one contender will go down in flames and qualify for immortality in the legion of would-haves, could-haves and should-haves. The Masters loves its losers more than does any competitive institution. The good news? Those guys only have to wait five months for another chance.

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