Superman teed off with a one-stroke lead in the Masters Tournament on Sunday, but as is often the case in the final round at Augusta National, it was a shell-shocked and defeated Clark Kent who staggered home.
Jordan Spieth had been atop the Masters leaderboard for the better part of three years. On his debut in 2014, he finished second. He won wire-to-wire in 2015, a dominance that continued through the first three rounds this year. By the time he turned for home at 5:05 p.m. this Sunday, Spieth’s lead was five shots. But for every dream realized on the closing holes at Augusta National, several nightmares are made real. By 5:50 p.m., the coronation had become a crucifixion.
He bogeyed the 10th hole. And the 11th. At the 155-yard 12th—the shortest hole on the course, and the prettiest little torture chamber in all of golf—he unraveled, rinsing two balls on the way to a quadruple-bogey 7. The finest ER in Georgia couldn’t have saved him, and soon England’s Danny Willett was slipping into the winner’s iconic green jacket. In keeping with Masters tradition, Spieth, as the defending champion, had to help Willett into it on live television.
“I can’t think of anyone else who may have had a tougher ceremony to experience,” Spieth said later, displaying an admirable gift for understatement.
Willett deserves enormous credit. No one shot a lower round on the weekend than his closing 67. Yet for all of his worthiness as a winner, the 80th Masters will be remembered more for a painful collapse than a stirring victory.
‘Twas often thus at Augusta National, and always thus will be.
More than any other major championship, the Masters is famous for its reverence of former champions, and almost every great golfer has had a defining triumph there. Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo, the “Big Three” of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, and far beyond to names like Hogan, Snead, Nelson and Sarazen.
But every bright Augusta star has a corona, a shadowy circle in which we find stillborn Masters, the men who fell short when it mattered most. For two such players, Sunday dawned with realistic prospects of bringing to a close years of disappointment with a first major victory.
Until Willett’s win, Lee Westwood was the face of English golf. He has won more than 40 titles in an impressive career, but none that would make the first line of his obituary. He fought his way into contention on Sunday while playing with Willett, but a late stumble left him tied for second with Spieth. It’s his third go-around as bridesmaid in a major, among 11 top five and 18 top 10 finishes. He has as many wins in majors as you and I.
The long-hitting Dustin Johnson also mounted a spirited challenge but putted with all the slap shot finesse of his future father-in-law, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. He finished tied for fourth, the fifth time since 2010 that he has let a major blow away.
Another “nearly” man, Sergio Garcia, was well positioned at the halfway stage, just four shots off the lead. The mercurial Spaniard is known for a fatalistic attitude born of four runner-up finishes in majors. To avoid more Sunday disappointment this weekend, he cleverly ballooned to a Saturday 81, ending his hopes early. It was, he tweeted, “a decent week.”
Westwood, Johnson and Garcia left Augusta no happier than the crushed Spieth. But at least Spieth’s already a major champion, just like his chief rivals Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. Golf’s new “Big Three” were all in contention Sunday at Augusta, and each with something far short of his best. And that sends a grim message to the sport’s supporting cast, which also includes former No. 1 Henrik Stenson and Rickie Fowler.
They now face the prospect of being golf’s equivalent of Andy Roddick, a sublimely talented athlete who had the misfortune to find himself competing against not one but three of the all-time greats in Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The knowledge that your best isn’t good enough is corrosive for a professional sportsman’s psyche.
Spieth, McIlroy and Day have combined to win five of the last seven majors and have the potential to build dominant, hall of fame careers over the next two decades. That leaves the “nearly men” of the Masters struggling to eke out a moment in the sun. Because the truth is they aren’t yet at even Roddick’s level. He at least lifted his major trophy before the deluge swept him aside. For golf’s supporting stars, it may already be too late.
Published at Newsweek.com on April 11, 2016.