So what did we learn from The Masters?
First—and foremost—Phil Mickelson has put the ghosts of Winged Foot behind him once and for all. He put on a remarkable display on the back nine on both Saturday and Sunday to win going away after it appeared likely the tournament would be decided on the 18th green or in sudden death.
Second, Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods: for good and for bad. There is not another player on the planet who could have come back after a five month layoff and all the self-created tumult in his life and figured out a way to tie for fourth in a major championship. He’s still the same golfer. He’s also still the same person: pitching himself to corporate America during his Monday press conference; authorizing the release of a creepy ad in which his dead father is used to try and sell product; slamming clubs and barking profanities (but no f-bombs) and then getting upset when Peter Kostis asked him about it.
If you expected different, I hope you weren’t disappointed. Those of us who didn’t expect different just sort of shrug, move on and focus on all the truly wonderful stories that made for a remarkable week at Augusta.
The weather was beyond spectacular, which—along with some very inviting pin placements—made for very low scoring. Think about this for a second: Mickelson’s winning score of 272 was two shots higher than Woods’ winning score of 270 back in 1997 when the golf course was 500 yards shorter. I wonder if The Lords of Augusta will lengthen the golf course to 8,000 yards before next year.
Actually, I doubt it. I think they learned a lesson when they went too far with their course alterations that—along with cold, windy weather—led to Zach Johnson winning with a one-over-par 289 three years ago. That was about as dreary a Masters as anyone could remember (no knock on Johnson) and I think the green jackets enjoyed all the roars echoing off the trees on Saturday and Sunday. So don’t expect anything more than the usual tweaks the club makes every year if only to figure out how to spend some of its endless supply of money.
The golf tournament had almost every possible story line imaginable: Tom Watson, who hadn’t made a cut since 2002, shot 67 the first day and finished tied for 18th with his son Michael caddying for him and reminding him constantly that he could still play the golf course even at 60. Fred Couples was in contention almost until the end, looking for all the world as if he was playing a casual round at dusk back home. It looked as if the most serious thing on his mind Sunday afternoon was wondering who was going to win the Rangers-Flyers showdown for the last playoff spot in The East.
Of course that’s not true. One thing people tend to miss about Couples is how competitive he is. Because he looks and sounds casual about his golf game, people think he’s just strolling around making birdies. I remember back in 1998 when I was working on “The Majors,” I spent a lot of time with Couples. That was the year he led The Masters almost the entire week before losing by a stroke to Mark O’Meara. I remember talking to him a month later at The Memorial and he still wasn’t over it.
“A bunch of us went to dinner that night (after The Masters) and I remember no one said a word,” he said back then. “I kind of felt bad because everyone was looking at me to see how I was doing and I was just too down to talk at all.”
You don’t win as much as Couples has won without caring. You don’t have to slam clubs or scream, “goddammit Tiger you suck,” to be competitive. I’m the last person in the world who should or will give anyone a hard time for using profanity. Those of us who use it too much try to control it and sometimes we fail—which is our fault. But when we’re called on it, the best thing to do is not to say, “I don’t think it’s a big deal,” especially if you’ve said a few days earlier that it’s a big deal.
Back to Mickelson: A lot of people, myself included, wondered if he’d ever recover from the Winged Foot meltdown and win another major. He was 36 at the time, two years older than Arnold Palmer was when he won his last major and three years older than Watson was when he won the British Open in 1983. Clearly, the loss scarred him and his attempt to declare his win at the 2007 Players a major win came off as kind of silly.
But he hung in there. One thing people miss about Mickelson is that he’s a grinder. For all the talk about his great talent and ability to pull of magical shots (or not pull off magical shots) he is constantly trying to figure out how to get better: changing swing coaches, bringing in different people to help with his short game and his putting, trying different routines to prepare for majors.
Of course everything in his life changed last year when his wife Amy and then his mother were diagnosed with breast cancer. If he had managed to win the U.S. open at Bethpage last June they would have started filming the movie the next day. He took a break from the tour while Amy underwent surgery and when he came back in August—to slightly less fanfare than Woods at Augusta—he lingered in the press room in Akron after his first meeting with the media, thanking people for their good wishes and trading jokes with writers he IS friendly with as opposed to his long-time rival.
“You know I hate to say this,” he said at one point, “but I think I actually missed you guys.”
He hadn’t played well this year prior to Augusta. Whether it was the genuine distraction of Amy’s continuing struggles to feel well because of the side-affects of her medication or missing the emotional jolt he gets when Woods is playing, he never seriously contended. In the end, none of those tournaments mattered and they certainly don’t matter now. He played memorably down the stretch and it is probably fair to say that his hug with Amy behind the 18th green will be replayed a lot more in the future than Woods’s hug with his father back in ’97 which feels a lot different now to many people than it did prior to November 27th.
In all, it was an amazing two weeks in sports. The Final Four produced a national championship game for the ages and The Masters had so much shot-making your head needed to be on a swivel to keep up. I’m always exhausted when I get home from The Final Four/Masters trip but I remind myself on the way home how incredibly lucky I am to get to go to both events every year.
This year, especially after what happened to me last June, I’ve never felt that way more than I did last night.
Now that I am finally home after 29 of the last 42 days on the road, I’m going to try to take some time to get my life back in order. (You should see my office right now). So, I’m going to skip the blog on Tuesday and Thursday this week unless something monumental occurs—like a two-game Mets winning streak. I hope everyone understands.