The Masters That Never Was, Part IX: Rory McIlroy delivers with shot for the ages
Ed. note: This is the ninth and final installment of The Masters That Never Was, a fictional account of how the Masters Tournament might have played out had it been conducted this week at Augusta National Golf Club.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — We all know what happened. The whole world knows what happened. Golf’s first major of 2020 was a roller coaster of sporting weirdness from the start. A throwback Thursday first-round leader, Mike Weir. A bizarre subtropical windstorm in the second. A protestor disrupting the Saturday round. Tiger Woods, in a playoff and trying to win his sixth Masters title, disqualifying himself in Sunday’s dusk. How could the continuation of play on Monday be anything like normal with that sort of pedigree? Not possible.
Just to set the scene: After Woods exited stage right on the second playoff hole, two players remained in the tournament: Rory McIlroy, looking to become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam, and Jordan Spieth, looking to win his second green jacket, fourth major title and return to the front ranks of the game.
The playoff resumed on the 11th tee at 9 a.m. The day was glorious and both men were nervous as nightshift cats but trying to act relaxed, like Lee Trevino at his 1971 U.S. Open playoff against Jack Nicklaus at Merion.
“You think we’ll have enough daylight to finish this thing today?” Spieth asked McIlroy. The playoff, of course, is at sudden death.
“The way this week is going, probably not,” McIlroy said.
They both made routine 4s on the par-4 11th, if anything could be described as routine in this tournament. It was almost a relief that something unfolded in a relatively normal manner at this Masters.
As they arrived on the 12th tee, the entire hillside rose as one. The cheering was so loud you could feel it in your chest. McIlroy, with the honor, pulled a 9-iron, swinging it metronomically as he studied the treetops. He went back to his bag and chose an 8-iron.
“I’m going to hit a little three-finger cut,” he said to his caddie, Harry Diamond.
Spieth whispered to his looper Michael Greller: “Wrong club. Remember how Bryson’s smoke bomb swirled through here? He can’t feel it but that wind is coming off the left and will eat up anything with cut spin.”
In his excitement, Spieth didn’t realize how loudly he had been speaking.
“You like 8, right?” McIlroy said to his caddie.
“All day long,” the caddie said.
But the impact sound indicated that McIlroy had caught too much tee and hit the ball too high on the face. Standing in the first row of the gallery, Woods said to a GOLF.com reporter, “Sounded hollow. You gotta love that sound — when it’s off the other guy.”
Before the ball reached its apex, McIlroy had turned away, too distraught to follow its flight. He knew it was wet. It dribbled pathetically into Rae’s Creek, the wide, still moat that fronts the 12th green.
Spieth followed with a ruthless shot, scorching a drawing 9-iron over the bunker to the heart of the green. It was a redemption four years in the making.
McIlroy didn’t budge, re-teeing from exactly the same spot, as the rules allow, rather than moving closer to the green. As he explained afterward, ”I don’t love the 40-yard pitch. It’s a fiddly distance, the grain is into you and all you can see is the creek and the bunker. Your heart is racing because you’ve just screwed up in front of the world and now you have to play the most delicate shot on the golf course? No thanks.”
Wielding a 9-iron this time, McIlroy roped a hard draw that never left the flag. The ball took one hop and trickled into the hole for the damnedest par in Masters history.
Spieth, channeling Big Jack after he was beaten by Watson at Pebble, laughed and said, ”You little sonofabitch.” McIlroy galloped across the Hogan Bridge to retrieve his ball but this was no time to celebrate: Spieth still had a 30-footer to win the Masters. After all the intrigue that preceded this putt it seemed fated to go in, but Spieth narrowly missed on the high-side. He spun his putter into the air in disbelief. Two pars.
The protagonists then walked to the tee on 13, the short, beautiful, fraught par-5. Woods, now strolling among the spectators, said to anyone within earshot, “I guarantee you, this thing is gonna end right here.”
“Who you like?” somebody called out.
At that very moment, Rory McIlroy’s tee shot sailed into the right pines, scattering the gallery. It certainly didn’t seem like the winner would be McIlroy just then.
Spieth followed with a low, hooking 3-wood that expired in the first cut, dangerously close to the creek. It didn’t seem that either player would be able to go for the green in two.
“Does golf always look so hard from this side of the ropes?” Woods said.
His son Charlie stood over McIlroy’s ball and said, “I’m going to need everybody to take a breath and take three giant steps backwards.”
Everybody moved, except his father.
“You, too, Pops.”
Then McIlroy arrived. Tiger couldn’t resist offering a little commentary: “Lotta ways to make a 4, Rors.”
“But only one way to make a 3,” McIlroy said.
Moving quickly, he pulled his 2-iron and played a screaming hook around the tree in front him. Halfway to the green, McIlroy’s ball banked hard left and, improbably, headed for home. It skipped to the upper shelf of the putting surface and then slowly trickled down the hill, settling 22 feet from the hole.
“How the hell did you do that?” Woods asked.
“It’s like Snead used to say: If I want to hit a hook I just think, Hook.” McIlroy winked at him as he strode away.
From the other side of the fairway Spieth took his towel and began waving it in the air, a cute gesture that no one quite believed. There’s no surrender in the flinty Texan. “In any other situation I would have laid the ball up,” Spieth said later. “But I had to assume Rory was going to make 3, so there was no option but to go.” From 242 yards out he smashed a 3-wood that carried the creek but ran long and left, into the swale between the bunkers. Advantage McIlroy.
But then Spieth, after much deliberation, played an exquisitely delicate chip that bounced off the flagstick and sat on the lip. Spieth was in for his birdie and suddenly a three-putt for McIlroy, which would make Spieth the winner, seemed more likely than holing that slicing 22-footer to win. The situation was breathtaking in its simplicity.
“When I was a wee lad, my dad worked three jobs to help support my golf,” McIlroy said afterward. “He had noon to 6 shift as a bartender at Holywood Golf Club. If it was slow in the afternoon, he’d let me putt around on the carpet. There was about a 20-foot putt right in front of the bar, aiming for leg of a table. Broke about six inches, left-to-right. I stood over this putt to win the Masters and it was the exact same putt as in front of my dad’s bar. I’d hit the leg of that table thousands of times. I almost laughed out loud because I knew I was going to make this eagle putt, too. It was meant to be.”
When McIlory’s ball disappeared into the hole a roar went up around Augusta National that could have been heard all the way to that bar in Northern Ireland. It was a tribute to a great champion but also reflected the larger appreciation of the fans who had witnessed one of the most extraordinary tournaments in the long history of the game.
In Butler Cabin, at the Green Jacket ceremony, Woods helped McIlroy into his winner’s coat and said, “Welcome to the club.”
Two clubs, really. The elite club-within-the-club, the club of men who have won the Masters. McIlroy was No. 53, living and dead. He also became the sixth player to win the career Grand Slam. He’s in the pantheon forever now, alongside Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
Later, in remarks McIlroy delivered during the trophy presentation on the practice putting green, McIlroy said to the crowd, “Well, what are you folks going to do for lunch today?” It was not even 11 a.m.
“Golf’s a solitary pursuit, but you don’t become a golfer by yourself, so I just want to thank a few people here,” the 2020 winner said.
“Erica, my wife. My mum, my dad. Michael Bannon, my teacher. Harry Diamond, my caddie. Nick Faldo, my first golf hero. Padraig [Harrington] and Graeme [McDowell] and Darren [Clarke] and Shane [Lowry], you paved the way for all golfers from Ireland,” McIlroy said. He went on in this way for several minutes.
He acknowledged Spieth, standing on the edge of the green with various other former Masters winners and said, “If I had to be stranded on a desert island that had one golf course and there was only one other professional golfer who could join me, for all eternity, it would be you, Jordan, because you’re just so damn entertaining.
Spieth flipped his hat at the winner as if it were a Frisbee. McIlroy caught it on the microphone he was holding.
“I want to acknowledge Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts, for starting this club and this tournament,” McIlroy said. “For all the legends who did what they did to make this game what it is and hand it down to us. Arnold and Jack, that goes without saying. Hogan and Nelson and Snead before them. And Tiger after them.
“Yes, in the McIlroy house, this day — Monday, April 13, 2020 — will always be remembered as the day I finally won a Masters. But I think this week will be remembered, and properly so, as the one where Tiger Woods showed the world that golf is a different kind of game, one where you try your damnedest to win, but never at the expense of taking unfair advantage of others. If the world could abide by that principle, we’d have a better world!”
With that, and in what had to be the strangest and most moving closing moment of any trophy presentation, the crowd, thousands and thousands of people, collectively started singing the great U2 anthem, Pride.
One man come in the name of love;
One man come and go.
One man come he to justify;
One man to overthrow.
In the name of love,
What more in the name of love?
Fuzzy Zoeller then pushed Woods out on to the green, as if it were a dance floor. McIlroy began to roll his shoulders and bop his head with the spontaneous acapella version of the beloved song. McIlroy signaled for his wife to come out and join him, and they both started a low-fever dance. Woods, now joined by his girlfriend, did the same. It was an odd, beautiful end to an odd, memorable tournament.
“I did not think last year could be topped,” Woods said later. “I was wrong.”
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