What really defined this year’s Masters golf tournament, which ended Sunday, was its emotional extremes. Not in a long time has one of golf’s majors (or any sporting event, for that matter) taken fans on such an emotional rollercoaster, from extreme sadness to extreme joy, in such a short period of time.
With the hubbub of last year’s controversy about Augusta National Golf Club’s men-only membership policy all but a distant memory, this year had but one focus: golf. And after yesterday, few fans were left disappointed.
But before Sunday’s joy, the sadness: The tournament opened Thursday with news of the death of Bruce Edwards, the long-time caddy of legendary golfer Tom Watson. Edwards, who had toted Watson’s bag for three decades, had been fighting a very public battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Edwards’s battle ended only hours before the first tee shot at Augusta. He was 49.
Edwards had become the darling of the golf world because of his determination to continue caddying despite a very visible deterioration. He was the real star of the 2003 U.S. Open, when his man Watson, now in the senior ranks, turned back the clock 20 years and contended in the early going. But by the end of last season, Edwards had to retire. The damage done by the progressive loss of his motor nerves became too great. Edwards continued to slide from there, dying only a year after the initial diagnosis.
Being the great champion that he is, Watson bravely played on last week but missed the cut, surely overwhelmed with emotion in the wake of his friend’s death. But Edwards will not soon be forgotten, and Watson has vowed to continue raising awareness of ALS in his memory. (Also, a new book about Edwards’s life has just been released by the esteemed sports writer John Feinstein.)
As if the news about America’s favorite caddy weren’t enough, Friday marked the end of a golfing era when Arnold Palmer drove down Magnolia Lane for the last time as a competitor. This was Palmer’s 50th straight and final Masters. The 74-year-old is no longer able to contend or even come close to making the cut. In Palmer’s post-round press conference Friday he admitted, with a tear in his eye, that his competitive spirit was as fiery as ever but that his septuagenarian body wouldn’t let him play any longer. The ageing process had advanced too far and its toll too great for him to continue.
Despite his poor play, Arnie’s Army was as big as ever as hordes of fans scrambled to catch one final glimpse of “The King” walking Augusta’s lush fairways. Nobody wanted to see him go. But fans understood it was time. No golfer transcends time and class and creed like Arnold Palmer. No golfer has done more for the game than Palmer. It’s impossible not feel a personal connection with the man. He was golfing royalty but at the same time such an everyman. Thankfully, Palmer has indicated that he will continue to participate in the Masters in some fashion, possibly as an honorary starter.
By the time weekend arrived, it was time to have some fun. By Sunday, heavy-heartedness had been replaced by a collective joy reminiscent of the days when players like Palmer and Watson were themselves winning the Masters.
There was something special in the wind blowing through the Georgia pines. Phil Mickelson, the left-handed star who reluctantly wore the dreaded title of “best player never to win a major,” was in the hunt. Shaking that label had consumed Mickelson for years, and he had rededicated himself to golf in the off-season, trying to get the no-major monkey off his back. He seemed especially determined to win this time.
While many players of all ages and nationalities were in the hunt Sunday afternoon, in the end it came down to a duel between Mickelson, the southpaw from San Diego, and South African Ernie Els. Els played flawlessly, making two eagles, including one at the par-5 13th hole, and carding a stellar 67. After he finished, all he could do was watch. The pressure was on Mickelson, who needed a birdie at Augusta’s storied 18th for the win.
It seemed inevitable that he would rise to the challenge. Mickelson was cracking a half-smile all week, even during the moments where the pressure was greatest. He was having too much fun out there. He knew it was his time. But as the fans quieted and the ball left his putter blade, it looked like the putt might be getting away from him. For a moment, just a tiny moment, it seemed as though the ball might break too much and miss on the low side of the hole. But somehow, perhaps fatalistically, it hit the left edge of the cup and dropped.
As he rather awkwardly jumped in the air for joy, the rest of America jumped with him. This was for real. It was a win for the ages, and maybe the most popular since Nicklaus’s sixth and last win in 1986.
Mickelson’s stunning and long-overdue first major capped off a rollercoaster week at Augusta, one that will not again soon be duplicated.
–Adam Daifallah is a member of the editorial board of Canada’s National Post. He has a blogsite here.