Saturday, April 20, 2019

How Tiger used Masters history (and Jack) to help him win at Augusta

After Eldrick Woods's epic fifth victory at Augusta National, the reporting on the event was exasperating.  Many sports writers went on and on about how he hugged his son, Charlie (harking back to Tiger's embrace with his father, Earl, after his first victory, in 1997), which is appropriate for the Today Show and other news magazines, but not what one would hope to read from sports journalists. The New Yorker wrote a piece about the Tiger roar. Karen Crouse of the New York Times wrote a newsworthy piece, but no account I read alluded to the real reasons for Tiger's victory.

Many writers said that Francesco Molinari's wet ball double-bogey at the 12th was where he lost the tournament, but the great Italian golfer was still well within victory; his response was a nifty birdie on the 13th.  Amen Corner was not his undoing.  Molinari's biggest mistake appeared as a non-event: after a poor drive on the 15th -- not a disaster, for it is a par five -- he laid up to the left side of the fairway, where the pin was also located, giving him no chance for a good shot to the green. (Molinari, who bested Tiger in last year's British Open, was classy in his post-round remarks, admitting that he made "a mess of the hole.")

Tiger's tee shot to the 12th green was thought by many to be a safe reaction to Molinari's shot into Rae's Creek. But Woods had a plan long before he stood on the tee box, because of his appreciation for Masters history.  And Jack Nicklaus.

On April 13, 1986, Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket, in large part due to his birdie run on the back nine. The highlights reveal very little about his bogey at the 12th.  Yes, his back nine 30, six under par, included a bogey.  But what amazed me was how Jack described it to the press after his round, referring to it as "an acceptable bogey." Nicklaus calls the 12th at Augusta "the scariest par-three in all of golf."

Why? Nicklaus knew that the swirling winds above the 12th hole were not to be trifled with.  And the traditional sucker pin placement on Sunday -- so tempting, so inviting -- is to be avoided, at all costs. His tee shot at the 12th sailed over the green -- what golfers sometimes call a 'bail out,' or in golf parlance, the best place to miss.  He chipped onto the green within 8 feet of the hole, and missed the putt for par.  No big deal. Sigh of relief and move on.

Tony Finau, the extravagantly gifted 29-year-old playing in the final group with Molinari and Woods, also went into the water on 12, and he may be excused for not knowing about how Nicklaus dealt with the 12th hole.  But surely he must have known of Jordan Spieth's day at the 12th, only three years ago, went he put his ball in the water twice for a quadruple bogey.  What's more remarkable about Spieth's first tee shot is that it landed short and to the right of the pin, an aggressive and totally unnecessary strategy, given his three stroke lead at that point.  (He lost by three strokes to Danny Willett.)

So where then, did Tiger put his tee shot? It looked to be headed for another county, on the other side of the green, taking the water out of play. He followed with a pretty good lag putt and an even better par-saving putt. A bogey would not have knocked him out of the tournament.  What may have sealed it for him was his shot at the 16th, a par-three where he could be aggressive. (There were two holes-in-one that day!) Tiger's ball flight was very much like that of Nicklaus's tee shot 33 years earlier.

Many would later point to Tiger's 70 foot lag putt at the 9th green as a turning point, and I would have to agree. It was just before the leaders would begin the back nine, where the Masters on Sunday kicks into another gear.  The putt looked like it might stop 20 feet short of the hole, before it kept trickling downhill, at a snail's pace. This was a great example of Tiger's imagination, his creativity, his ability to see the ball roll in his mind's eye before executing the stroke. To walk away with a par after what seemed to be a certain three-putt bogey, if not worse, certainly set the stage for what was to come.

But at the 12th, Tiger did what he had to do to keep him in the tournament. Just ask Jack.