April 15, 2019: Opportunity beckoned. Of that, a small parade of players could not argue.
Deflation resonated. Of that, they’d all agree.
Chances to win the Masters are just too rare to let them slip away without feeling the sting. Yet on a day when six different players had at least a share of the lead in the final round of the 83rd Masters and when scoring conditions remained generous, those who came up short sorted through their emotions and would not say they should have won.
Ah, but could have won is a different slice that elite players were in position to serve up.
Francesco Molinari pointed to a tee shot at the par-3 12th that if it “were 1 yard further left” would have remained dry, and Brooks Koepka suggested his 8-foot birdie try at the 72nd hole took a curious turn that wasn’t there a minute earlier. As for Dustin Johnson’s 17-foot birdie roll at the final green, it was dead center, just one roll shy.
So, yeah, they can maybe dwell on what might have been.
But for Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, young talents thrust for the first time into the furnace-like atmosphere at Augusta National on a Sunday, their flirtation with the lead came almost unexpectedly – they had started the final round five and seven shots off the lead, respectively – and so they were not hanging their heads.
“I’m not one bit sad,” Schauffele said. “It was an awesome experience. I feel like I got a very full, fully-filled Masters experience here in my second year.”
It’s likely that tens of thousands of patrons went home with their tanks similarly filled with enthusiasm, as much because The People’s Choice, Tiger Woods, won, as because of the serious challenge thrown his way on the iconic holes that make Augusta National’s second nine a timeless treasure.
It’s like a dream, honestly. It’s what I watched as a kid. It’s what I watched growing up. To be part of it and give it a good run … it was an incredible experience.
“I enjoyed the battle,” said Koepka, who at one point was tied for the lead on the second nine. “I enjoy everything that goes on with it”, Xander Schauffele.
“It’s nice to see his story, his comeback, and to be a witness in the first person,” Molinari said. “It’s nice.”
Maybe in time they will all re-assess the proceedings that will make the final round of the 2019 Masters quite memorable. When and if they do, their roles in this drama will be clearly defined by where their fates turned:
Molinari started the day at 13-under, which proved to be the winning score posted by Woods. The turning point came at Golden Bell, the legendary par-3 12th, where Molinari teed off with a two-stroke lead.
The yardage, 155, called for a 9-iron, but Molinari opted for “a chippy, 8-iron” because “I didn’t want the wind to gust and get the ball too much.” A shrug of the shoulders: “I just didn’t hit it hard enough.”
It hit 1 yard right of a bunker, and rolled into Rae’s Creek. Double-bogey.
Woods’ shot had come on the heels of a birdie at 15 to go to 13-under, so Koepka knew he’d be two behind with two to play.
“I thought I still had a chance on 17 and 18,” he said, only birdie bids from 13 and 8 feet failed to drop.
Johnson played 12 of the quietest holes imaginable and sat 8-under, comfortably off the lead. Then, some second-nine magic – birdies at 13, 15, 16 and 17 pushed him to 12-under, and for a short time, he shared the lead.
By the time he got to the 18th green, Johnson trailed by one, needing a birdie to tie. A brilliant shot out of a fairway bunker gave him a 17-foot try, but he couldn’t convert, and yet another contender fell off of Woods’ radar.
Cantlay was the day’s most unheralded story. The youngster was in just his third Masters and started the day seven shots back. Out in 33, he birdied the 11th to get to 10-under, then eagled the par-5 15th just after Molinari was going into Rae’s Creek. At 12-under, Cantlay – he of the T-50 position through 36 holes – was your leader by one.
It didn’t last long, as he three-putted the par-3 16th and went wide right with his tee shot at 17 and long left with his approach to bogey that hole, too. He shot 68 – 278 for a share of ninth, but he should take solace in a stirring bid.
Schauffele, making just his second start in the Masters, had 33 on the vaunted second nine at Augusta, but after getting to 12-under with birdies at 11, 13 and 14 to seize a share of the lead at one point, he couldn’t maintain the pace.
A birdie that might have gotten him into a playoff didn’t arrive at the 15th, nor at any of the next three holes. But no tears, nothing but cheers.
“It’s like a dream, honestly,” Schauffele said. “It’s what I watched as a kid. It’s what I watched growing up. To be part of it and give it a good run … it was an incredible experience.”
Molinari, again, getting a chance to make amends for the 12th. A birdie at 13 put him back into a share of the lead, but at 15, his 2019 Masters came to a crashing halt. Wide right off the tee, he was too far left with his lay-up and proceeded to make his only mental mistake of the week.
“Trying to go for the flag from the left side (and 80 yards out),” he said. “It was obviously close to the branches.”
His ball caught a branch, then found the pond and with his second double-bogey in four holes, the superb ball-striker was out of contention. (He would shoot 74– 277 and finish in a tie for fifth.)
“Maybe next time it will be better for me,” Molinari said. “But it was nice to be out with him. He played well, he hit the right shots at the right time and deserved to win.”