It turns out that the oldest bromide about the Masters is off by two days. The tournament really starts on the back nine on Friday.
Long before the dramatics of the final round can unfold, the Masters is shaped by the 36-hole cut—who slips in and who slips on the banana peel. This year Friday was even wilder than usual, as the gales that blew through Augusta sent scores soaring and produced the highest cut of the go-go '90s, a six-over-par 150. (The record high is 10-over, in 1982.) The race to make the cut, what Gary Player calls "the tournament within the tournament," had the kind of sprawling drama associated with the other big event of the spring.
"It was like March Madness out there," said Paul Stankowski after making a tricky eight-footer for par on the 36th hole that prevented what would have been the biggest upset of the second round. An opening 70 had landed Stankowski a spot in Friday's final threesome, but eight bogeys and a double later he came to the last hole thinking he needed a birdie to advance to the weekend. A hooked approach shot left him an impossible chip, and after running a bold attempt by the hole, Stankowski turned to his caddie and said, "Hey, at least we'll be home for Easter." He then brushed in the ensuing putt for an unsightly 80 and moped his way to the scorer's tent, where he was told of the reversal of fortune. "Crazy game," said Stankowski.
"Crazy is not the word for a 62-year-old man who thinks he can make the cut at Augusta," says the ageless Player, who did just that with a 149. "The word is merely optimistic? Competing in his 41st Masters, Player became the oldest player in the tournament's history to earn a weekend tee time, bettering Sam Snead's 24-year-old record by seven months. Player called Friday's flashback-inducing 72 "one of the great highlights of my life" but added that it wasn't even the tournament's best round by a sexagenarian, giving the nod to Gay Brewer's 72 last Thursday. "That was the round of the week, man," says Player, "and I don't care what anybody does the rest of the way."
It has been 31 years since Brewer, 66, won his Masters, but you wouldn't know it by his retro wardrobe or rhythmic swing. His 72 produced a pair of Masters records: best round by a player over 65 and oldest player to shoot par or lower. Brewer, a likable man with an ever-present Pall Mall and a complexion sprinkled with gin blossoms, last made the cut in 1983, and on Thursday he credited the spring in his step to some groovy New Age powders he has been taking to alleviate the pain in his arthritic knees. Alas, on Friday, "My legs were wobbly by the 3rd hole," Brewer said after struggling to an 86. "It's a shame I couldn't really swing at the ball, because the chance to make the cut doesn't come around often. That's what some of us come here dreaming about."
The weekend is more than just the reverie of the very old, like the graying past champions playing hooky thanks to lifetime exemptions, and the very young, like the two fuzzy-cheeked college undergrads who made the cut, Joel Kribel and Matt Kuchar. The Masters has by far the smallest field (88 this year) of the major championships, and only the low 44 and ties (and any player within 10 strokes of the lead) survive past Friday. With so few players, "anyone who makes the cut is in contention, assuming you go low on the weekend," says Tom Lehman, who didn't get there thanks to an 80-76. The most famous example of this is Curtis Strange, who in 1985 shot 80 in the first round, made the cut with a 65 and then blazed his way to a two-stroke lead on Sunday before giving the tournament away on the back nine. "What's unique and so much fun about Augusta is that it dishes out so many different fates to so many different people, and quickly," says Strange. This year Darren Clarke and Davis Love III labored to make the cut with two-round totals of five over, but with matching 67s last Saturday they shot themselves back into contention. "I don't know if I can win," Love said on Saturday, "but at least you're asking the question. Nobody was asking me that last night." There are fringe benefits to making the cut—the esteem of colleagues, a shot at the double Ryder Cup points that go to the top 10 finishers and an inflated paycheck—and Clarke cashed in on the most coveted of them, the automatic invitation to the '99 Masters given to the top 24 finishers this year, by tying for eighth.
The Masters hasn't always had a cut. During the first 23 editions, all of Bobby Jones's guests played four rounds. "A lot of guys were unhappy when they announced they were putting in the cut [for the 1957 tournament]," says Doug Ford, the '57 champ. "[Ben] Hogan especially. He said you shouldn't invite a player here and then send him home on the weekend." Perhaps Hogan's whining was a premonition—at age 44 he shot 76-75 to miss the inaugural cut by a shot, although he would make nine of the next 10 before retiring from Augusta in 1967.
This year, last Friday was a good day for discussing 401(k)s, as a startling number of the game's youth-challenged stars were sent packing. Greg Norman hardly put up a fight during rounds of 76-78, his worst showing in 18 Masters and second straight missed cut since his self-immolation in '96. Between the ropes he looked distracted, even bored, and outside them he was a font of platitudes. "We can all play with ifs, ands or buts, but it just didn't happen for me," he said after Friday's round, during which he had only one birdie. "It wasn't meant to be, so be it." Norman did allow that "my first four or five days were the best I've ever had here. It was the easiest and quietest week I've had in a long time." That's because no one cared about Norman's annual psychodrama amid the pines. He left Augusta as a 43-year-old with a bad shoulder and a history of close calls.
A quartet of marquee major championship winners seemed to think it was better to go out with a splash rather than just fade away. The 15th hole was the waterloo of Raymond Floyd, Nick Price and Tom Watson. They all drowned balls there during the second round while taking double bogeys and missed the cut by a lone stroke. Lehman never recovered from his triple-bogey 8 at number 15 on Thursday, which featured two rinsed wedge shots. (Not to be outdone was Lehman's singles opponent in last year's Ryder Cup, Ignacio Garrido of Spain, who took an 11 on 15 during the first round on his way to an 85. Garrido, too, missed the cut.)
Nick Faldo did his best Scott Hoch impression, blowing a two-foot par putt on the 36th hole to miss the cut by a shot. Moments later he stomped up the hill between the final green and the clubhouse, leaving size-12 divots as he went, acknowledging the questions of dogged reporters with only a sarcastic roll of the eyes. Faldo was nominally more responsive than Vijay Singh, who shot 76-80 to end his streak of consecutive cuts made at 53, the fifth-longest such streak in Tour history. "Go away, go away, go away," the surly Singh told reporters after signing his scorecard.