When it was finally over, and eight or nine guys had blown a chance at the green jacket in one of the wildest, giddiest Masters Sundays ever, it was left to a kid to put it all in perspective. Rory McIlroy, 21, had started the final round four strokes in front. It took two holes to lose the outright lead, two more to get it back and then seven ghastly swings on the 10th hole for it to disappear forever (POINT AFTER, page 70). Afterward, eyes watery and red, the young lad from Northern Ireland sighed, "Being in the lead and winning is not the same thing."
No kidding. Seven other players besides McIlroy held at least a piece of the lead at some point during the final round of the 75th Masters. All but one was done in by mistakes large and small. Tiger Woods whiffed a pair of teeny-tiny putts on the back nine. K.J. Choi bogeyed three of the last seven holes. Adam Scott failed to birdie either back-nine par-5. Jason Day's furious rally was blunted when he couldn't take advantage of easy pins on 15 and 16 and had to settle for deflating pars. Angel Cabrera bogeyed 12 and 16. Geoff Ogilvy came to the 18th hole needing a birdie but after a perfect drive couldn't even find the green from 145 yards.
And so, on the 50th anniversary of Gary Player's first Masters victory, it was left to his countryman Charl Adriaan Schwartzel to produce a finishing flourish for the ages. The lanky 26-year-old had already rattled McIlroy with a pair of hole-outs in the early going: an all-but-impossible bump-and-run with a six-iron from way right of the 1st green for a birdie and a dunked sand wedge from the 3rd fairway for a stunning eagle. "The shot on 3 was good," Player, 75, said in a Golf Channel interview on Sunday evening. "The shot on 1 was as great a shot as I've seen at Augusta."
Schwartzel, who came into the Masters with six worldwide victories but none in the U.S., played prevent defense from there, following a bogey with 10 consecutive pars. Lying 2 just off the back of the green of the par-5 15th hole, assessing a delicate chip, Schwartzel was at 10 under and a stroke behind a surging Scott, who had stiffed his tee shot at the par-3 16th hole and was about to get to 12 under. Schwartzel responded with a crucial up and down to stay within one of the lead and then forged a tie at the 16th hole by burying a 15-footer that had 18 inches of break. A leaky drive left Schwartzel blocked by trees on 17, but he expertly carved a nine-iron to 12 feet. On the fastest green on the course he poured in the putt to take his first solo lead of the week. A textbook birdie on 18 gave him four in a row to close out the tournament, something no other winner has done in the long history of the Masters. Schwartzel's 66 was good for a four-round total of 14-under 274 and a two-stroke victory over Day and Scott. "The way he played, with those birdies to finish, that's as good a golf as I've seen," said Player, who, it must be noted, is prone to hyperbole. "I can't get over how he finished. I really got a kick out of that."
Schwartzel's victory was a surprise, but not a fluke. Says Ogilvy, "If he doesn't have the best swing on Tour, it's in the top two or three. He has a great short game and a great putting stroke. He's probably more sensible than most upstairs. What's not to like?"
Schwartzel also has a fan in a four-time major champion. "We've seen in Europe and Africa that when he has a chance to win he usually does," says Phil Mickelson, whose balky putter left him in 27th place. "He's a closer. There's no higher compliment for a player."
For all the admiration that Schwartzel elicits, few of his peers profess to know much about this shy, soft-spoken, classy champion, who has just begun his first year playing a full schedule in the U.S. ("I've played a practice round with him and a couple tournament rounds, and I can't tell you a thing about him," says Day.) Schwartzel grew up outside Johannesburg, working on his family's chicken farm. His father, George, a top amateur who dabbled in the pro ranks, taught the game to Charl and his younger brother, Attie, who plays on the South African tour. As a junior, Charl received support from a foundation headed by Ernie Els. He turned pro at 18 and within three years had won his first tournament, sticking with the simple principles imbued by his father, who took him out for his first nine holes at age 4.
Schwartzel's game and manner offer little flash, but he is actually a bit of a daredevil. He has his pilot's license, owns a prop plane and enjoys hunting for big game. "Like a proper African," says his manager, Chubby Chandler, "he likes to go deep into the bush and shoot things." Schwartzel has bagged water buffalo and elephant, among other things. His occasional companion is boyhood friend Louis Oosthuizen, 28. Last summer, in the wee hours after Oosty had blown away the field at the British Open, a victory party was held at the Jigger Inn, the famed pub just off the Old Course's 17th hole in St. Andrews. Schwartzel cradled his friend's claret jug and announced, "I want one for myself."
"He inspired me so much," says Schwartzel. "He made me think it's possible to do something big like win a major."
These two old friends have become headliners among a number of talented young players who have filled the vacuum left by Woods and Mickelson, who have combined to win just twice over the last 15 months (both by Phil). McIlroy has been considered the player with the most upside ever since his pedal-to-the-metal closing 62 to win in Charlotte last May. His bogeyless 65 to open this Masters was even more impressive and invited comparisons with Woods circa 1997, when he too was 21. Last Friday, McIlroy and his callow playing partners hijacked the tournament; he fired a 69 that was matched by flashy young American Rickie Fowler, 22, while Day, a 23-year-old Aussie who, like Fowler, was playing in his first Masters, stormed to a 64 that was a stroke off the course record. Along the way the group had a palpable chemistry and good cheer even as they couldn't resist some youthful bravado. "All three hit it similar distances off the tee," says Chandler. "There was a little competition building throughout the round. They were swinging harder and harder, each trying to outdrive the other. In the middle of the bloody Masters!"