Young lions don't fear Tiger
When, on this unforgettable Masters Sunday, Tiger Woods’ eagle putt found the bottom of the cup on the eighth, cacophonous roars traveled across Augusta National.
And up the spines of his rivals.
“You hear those roars and you immediately know who they’re for,” Geoff Ogilvy said.
In a crowded couple of hours, Woods had improbably come from the depths of seven shots back to tie the lead of the 75th Masters.
Over at the CBS command post, they were cueing throwbacks to remind us of what happened on these pristine grounds 25 years ago, when a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus defied the years and the odds to win a sixth green jacket.
When Woods saved par from the greenside bunker on the ninth with a 20-footer that never left the cup, it seemed for all the money in that gorgeous white clubhouse to his left that he’d be writing his own history in winning a fifth green jacket.
But the real lesson of this dramatic Sunday afternoon is that there’s a new order in golf.
Younger players who have no scar tissue when it comes to him don’t melt just because Tiger Woods is making a run, as evidenced by 26-year-old winner Charl Schwartzel and his chilling four-hole close.
Jason Day grew up in Australia idolizing Woods; he decided to dedicate himself to golf after reading a book about the 14-time major champion.
“I think was he was 5-under through nine holes,” Day would later say of Woods.
“Is that correct? Oh, man. That guy's a freak.”
He may be a freak, and Day may revere him in the sentimental way one does his boyhood heroes, but the truth is that the 23-year-old was three back of Woods after making bogey at the seventh, yet he beat him by two.
And Day didn’t even win the tournament.
There’s another side to this new paradigm, too.
Woods, at 35 and still finding his game — both technically and spiritually — in the wake of the scandal that ruined his life, isn’t the same player.
He showed enough in finishing in a tie for fourth at this Masters to say that he may again climb that mountain; that he’s certainly not finished.
“Each tournament, he’s getting better and better,” his caddie, Steve Williams, told me as he waited to leave Augusta National.
But he’s not there yet.
Because on the back nine, where the Masters is won, where Jack shot 30 in 1986, where seven of the top 10 finishers on Sunday went under par, Woods managed just a tepid even-par 36.
“I should have shot an easy 3- or 4-under on the back nine,” he conceded.
He shockingly missed a short par putt on 12, couldn’t find the green with a 7-iron on the easy par-5 13th ( leading to an rally-killing par), then blocked an eagle putt from four feet on the 15th to pretty much doom him to another close-but-no-cigar finish.
But there’s something else that’s different, too.
Even if Woods had made a few more putts and a few less mistakes, there’s nothing to suggest Schwartzel would’ve cared.
“We were figuring that he was going to birdie a couple of the par-5s,” Schwartzel said matter-of-factly of Woods.
“So I wasn't feeling at all disappointed with the 11 pars I made (since holing out his approach on the third).
“I wasn't losing any ground.”
The South African knew he had the same chances at the two par-5s.
What no one knew was that he’d strike it like Ben Hogan and putt like another South African, the great Bobby Locke, coming down the stretch.
Clinically, Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to emphatically win his first major.
Sure, he got lucky early, chipping in for birdie on the first and holing out on the third for eagle.
But when Adam Scott hit it to 18 inches on the par-3 16th, grabbing the outright lead at 12 under par, Schwartzel didn’t blink. He responded like a champion.
“I knew it was now or never, you have to start hitting some good shots and converting them,” he said.
Like putts from eight feet on the 15th, 15 feet — with two feet of break — on the 16th to tie Scott, then 12 feet on 17 and 15 feet on the last hole, three balls out.
Not one of those putts even looked like it might miss.
No winner at the Masters has ever finished like that.
And he did it with the heat on.
Schwartzel most reminded me of his best friend, Louis Oosthuizen, who won last year’s British Open at St. Andrews in a canter.
“That was a huge inspiration,” Schwartzel said.
“We grew up together from a young age. We played every single team event, tournament against each other, and we represented South Africa for so long.
“We basically are the best of mates.
“Just to see him do it made it, in my mind, realize that it is possible, and just sort of maybe take it over the barrier of thinking that a major is too big for someone to win.”
This is a factor not to be underestimated: the more majors the next generation of golfers wins, the more their contemporaries start believing that they can, too.
In other minds, though, a major can seem too big to win.
Rory McIlroy became the third straight twentysomething to implode after having the third-round lead at a major.
Dustin Johnson shot 82 with a three-shot lead on Sunday at the 2010 U.S. Open and Nick Watney had the same lead at the 2010 PGA Championship before imploding. On Sunday, McIlroy, the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, posted an 80 — totally falling apart on Amen Corner after starting the day with a four-shot lead.
McIlroy is too good not to come back, but this one will hurt.
As Woods left, jumping into the black SUV with Williams behind the wheel, he didn’t seem particularly happy, either.
For he knows those five majors he needs to overtake Jack aren’t going to get any easier to win.