Tuesday, April 14, 2009

SPORTS >> The Masters: So thrilling, it’s easy to forget your lunch

Leader sports editor

NASCAR has roar and raw power, basketball frenetic grace and non-stop action. Football offers us sheer brute force underneath all that speed and agility.

So it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that golf — a stoic, genteel, polyester game whose greatest showcase is introduced each year with a few treacly notes of the piano and a backdrop festooned with flowers — is the greatest spectator sport.

And yet I have risen from my couch to tell you that it is.

From 1 p.m. until some time shortly after six on Sunday afternoon, I was gloriously suspended above my life and cares, riveted by the action unfolding at the 75th Masters.

I became aware of my own piddling concerns only when smitten briefly with hunger pangs somewhere along the time Phil Mickelson was lining up a four-foot eagle putt on the 15th hole. (I had forgotten about lunch and grabbed a Triscuit shortly after Mickelson concluded his round).

Yes, it is an elitist sport played by men who were mostly pampered in their youth. Few golfers overcame traumatized family lives in inner city slums to reach the big time like in the NBA or NFL. Most of these fellows’ biggest concern as youngsters was whether to hit a knock-down six iron or a full-blown seven.

But what it lacks in inspiring up-from-the-bootstraps back stories, it more than makes up for in intense psychological drama and the demands it makes on the individual will.

On Sunday, we were offered two distinct dramas, though they very nearly melded into one. Mickelson and Tiger Woods were paired together in the final round of the Masters, an event most fervently wished for ever since the two became the two best golfers in the world a dozen years or so ago.

They weren’t in the final group — they were seven strokes off the pace, in fact — yet the five groups behind them, including the tournament leaders, were relegated to an afterthought as CBS honed in on the mano-a-mano between two golfers known for their icy personal relationship.

A brief handshake and an unsmiling staredown on the first tee, and the two were off on what quickly promised to become a classic showdown. Mickelson drilled his irons, laser-like, into the flags, birdieing six of nine holes to post a course-tying record 30 on the front nine.

Woods was no slouch, eagling No. 8 to post 33. Mickelson closed to within a single stroke of the lead before dumping his tee shot into the lake on 12 for double-bogey. Even then, Mickelson bounced back when both he and Woods birdied 13 and 15. But Mickelson’s birdie on 15 had to feel more like a bogey after he pushed a four-foot eagle putt that would have tied him for the lead.

Gut-wrenching stuff, especially after Tiger birdied 16 and he and Phil marched to the 17th tee, each six under for the day and a single shot out of the lead.

But the magic ended right there with Woods bogeying the final two holes and Mickelson missing another short birdie putt on 17 and bogeying 18.

The second drama of the day began shortly after the first one ended. Mickelson and Woods had combined to shoot nine under, but barring a fatal collapse by the three leaders left on the course, their pairing, however galvanizing, would become a footnote.

What makes the game of golf both so exhilarating and brutal to watch is that the players have no place to hide. A player can’t chalk up his own collapse to a foe’s exceptional defense. The fall from grace is his alone, along with each bad shot that went into its production.

So it is hard to witness a fellow implode, especially with so much on the line. Yet it is also why we watch. Kenny Perry, dubbed “nicest guy on the Tour,” had one arm in the green jacket when he birdied 15 and 16 and came to the 17th tee with a two-shot lead. But he bladed a chip shot at 17 for bogey and bunkered his drive on 18 for another bogey.

Meanwhile, Angel Cabrera offered us golf’s redeeming nature by making an all-or-nothing four-foot downhill putt on 18 to qualify for a playoff. I’ve stood over three-foot putts with absolutely nothing on the line and had to send groups behind me through while I put off hitting it. How these guys continued to pour in short putts all day has earned them my eternal awe.

Cabrera appeared all but doomed on the first playoff hole when he lay two in the middle of the fairway after tree trouble. But errant irons by Campbell and Perry followed by an approach to six feet by the Argentine gave him hope, and he cashed in when he rolled in the par putt shortly after Perry had saved par with a fantastic chip.

In a demonstration of another of the game’s special attributes — sportsmanship — Perry actually applauded Cabrera’s gutsy putt even though it ended up costing him the Masters.

Did that reveal an essential mental weakness on the part of Perry? Very possibly. I can’t imagine Tiger being as gracious, at least in the moment. It is Tiger’s singular focus, his nearly inhuman drive, that makes me pull against him. It serves him well, obviously, and I’m certain he’ll take his 14 majors over my acclaim any day.

Still, it was a heartwarming gesture by Perry.

It would have been almost impossible for the conclusion of the tournament on Sunday to have lived up to everything leading to it. Sure enough, Perry’s wayward approach and difficult chip on the second playoff hole allowed Cabrera to two-putt from 12 feet for the win.

Five hours of riveting emotion, 30 seconds of anticlimax. I’ll take it.

Such heartbreak, such triumph. Such a fantastic Sunday afternoon.