Despite a closing two hours or so memorable for all that is great and good about golf, it is sadly not for the terrific shot-making and exemplary sportsmanship of the two main protagonists that the 77th Masters Tournament will be most vividly recalled.
Indeed, Adam Scott’s eventual and historic victory – the first ever by an Australian at Augusta National – limped home fourth in the “significant event” category during four controversy-laden days amidst the Georgia pines.
Most shocking – and ironic amidst the often-pointless pedantry of golf’s most rule-ridden venue – was, of course, the astonishing and unprecedented decision that allowed the biggest draw in the game to compete over the closing 36 holes and, perhaps not coincidentally, boost television ratings across the globe. You had to laugh really. In the same week that Augusta National chairman Billy Payne confirmed the club’s desire to see golf played under “one set of rules” in the wake of the upcoming judgment on the Scott-style anchoring of putters, his cohort, former USGA president Fred Ridley, gave what even the mildest cynics viewed as preferential treatment to world No.1, Tiger Woods.
Truly, it beggared belief that Ridley could look at the location of the penalty drop made by Woods on the 15th fairway during day two and not conclude something might just be amiss. At the very least, a prompt post-round and pre-scorecard signing conversation with the four-times Masters winner would have made sense. To do nothing was, as one high-profile rules-official commented dryly last Monday, “surprising”.
It was, as things turned out, also convenient. By taking some of the blame themselves, the green jackets were able to mitigate their initial error in not slapping a two-shot penalty on Woods. And – somewhat at least – justify allowing him to play on. Still, it was a strange decision, one that will no doubt reverberate through the professional game. When next a player unwittingly falls foul of golf’s ever-more complicated regulations, what will be the result? Will he be afforded the same leniency under Rule 33-7? Aye right. He’ll be disqualified without hesitation, his ignorance no defence in the eyes of the law. Which is what should have happened to Woods.
As for the notion that Woods himself should have recognised his wrongdoing and voluntarily withdrawn, it is perhaps enough to say that such a move would have been entirely out of character. While there are surely some who would have done what so many saw as the “right thing” – the names Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw spring immediately to mind – the 14-times major champion is a different breed of cat. Given the opportunity to boost as never before his somewhat sketchy reputation, he predictably took refuge in the flawed decision of the committee and played on. Oh well.
Silver medallist on the controversy podium was the 14-year old Chinese sensation, Guan Tianlang. Proving many sceptics wrong – your columnist included – the slightly-built Asian-Pacific Amateur champion not only broke 80 all four days, he left with the silver cup awarded to the leading amateur. Marked by a wondrous display of putting on what are widely regarded as golf’s most difficult surfaces, his was a brilliant performance for one so inexperienced at such an exalted level.
Guan’s only black mark was the funereal pace of his play. Confirming the impression left at last year’s Australian Open, he played with a rare ponderousness matched only by the notorious slowpokes such as Jason Day, Kevin Na and Jim Furyk. But only Guan was penalised a shot for his tardiness, the young Chinese a victim of ignorance more than the length of his interminable pre-shot deliberations. Unaware of how the “system” works at professional level, the teenager failed to speed up after his initial warning – at least until the referee disappeared – and was docked the stroke so many others deserve but never get.
There was one more depressing realisation. Scott’s victory wielding a long putter he “anchors” against his chest means that four of the last six majors have been won by men adopting a method that will soon enough be illegal if the R&A and the USGA get their collective way.
Still, putter apart, it is impossible not to feel pleasure for a man who has paid his dues at the highest level. Narrowly second to Charl Schwartzel, who memorably finished with four consecutive birdies, at Augusta two years ago, Scott has rebounded splendidly. Throw in his traumatic collapse at last year’s Open Championship – four shots ahead with four holes to play at Royal Lytham, he finished with four bogeys and lost by one to Ernie Els – and the 32-year-old Queenslander’s play over the closing holes against the almost equally staunch Angel Cabrera was even more commendable.
In truth, Scott achieved greatness by an unorthodox route. Averaging 4.69 and only tied 35 on the par-5s is not exactly the traditional method for ultimate success at Augusta. Instead, the former Players champion “made” his score on the par-4s, where no one in the field bettered his 3.88 average. Oddly too, he won as a member of Sunday’s second-last group, the third straight player to do so after a run in which 19 from the previous 20 champions had been half of the final pairing on the last day.
All of which was in stark contrast to the generally mediocre performances turned in by the European delegation. In this age of parity – the last 18 majors have produced 17 different winners – only the highly promising Thorbjorn Olesen as well as Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood cracked the top ten. Olesen, tied for sixth, led the way, as he did over the last 54 holes. After opening with a disappointing 78, the 23-year-old Dane was ten under par the rest of the way, a feat no one could match. Otherwise, it was a week to forget for the old world, especially the highest-ranked of the bunch, Rory McIlroy.
Despite arriving on something of an up-tick after finishing second behind Martin Laird in San Antonio, McIlroy showed little of the spark that carried him to a brace of major titles in the last two years. Quite apart from any technical issues he may have, the young Ulsterman’s game is currently riddled with course management errors that do not speak well of the communication between him and his caddie, JP Fitzgerald. A suggestion – the man many view as the best bag-carrier on the planet, Billy Foster, will soon return to full employment after a year off through injury. Rory would perhaps do well to give the Yorkshireman – whose previous clients include Westwood, Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Seve Ballesteros – a call.
Speaking of change, it would not be a surprise to see some of that at the 2014 Masters. A rules official walking with every group – as is the case at the Open Championship – would be a good start, as would moving up the last-round starting times so as to alleviate the strong possibility of another play-off ending in near darkness. Best of all, however, would be a renewed promise to treat every competitor the same, no matter how much influence they may or may not have over those precious viewing figures. Money, after all, isn’t everything. Just a thought.