The Masters tournament was decided by a risk-taking lefty who outplayed a wonderfully talented field, paced by a phenomenal player in his 20s the entire golf world should suddenly start to fear.
No, it is not 2004.
Bubba Watson is now a two-time Masters champion, besting a field of contenders led by 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who told us more about both his talent and maturity in defeat this weekend than most tournament champions ever show in victory.
Watson displayed championship mettle all tournament, shooting three rounds in the 60s to win his second green jacket in three years, this time by a margin of three strokes over Spieth and Jonas Blixt.
The old saying at the Masters is that the tournament doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday, so if that were truly the case this year, the event was all but over before it began.
If anything hurt the final stretch Sunday at the Masters this season, it was simply Watson outpacing the field, making the last four or five holes more about coronation than competition.
The final two hours of coverage for CBS were full of great shots and wonderful Masters perspective—and a constant barrage of reminders that Nick Faldo has three green jackets—but it lacked the tension of the previous two seasons, when the winners, Watson and Adam Scott, each won his first green jacket in drama-filled playoffs.
Remember that when comparing the ratings from Sunday to past years. Forget about Tiger and Phil.
And look, I'm not being naive. I understand how important big stars are to the average sports fan. I get that installing Tiger Woods into the mix instead of a relatively anonymous European player like Blixt—OK, not relatively anonymous as much as completely anonymous, I grant you—would have added some extra juice to the proceedings.
I don't know, however, if replacing Bubba with Phil would have been better for the Masters, or for golf. I certainly don't think replacing Spieth with Woods would have been better for either.
There will be a lot of articles written in the next few days about the Masters, and many of them will try to convince readers that everything that happened—or didn't happen, in terms of drama—Sunday was because one guy in a red shirt wasn't there. Here is one such take, from Brian Murphy of Yahoo Sports:
And even if he hasn't won a green jacket since 2005(!), he is there on Sunday on the back nine, and he is close to the lead, and he is applying pressure. And you care about him. And even though I was with everyone who said the Masters is bigger than Tiger, that his back surgery and ensuing absence did not mean we would not get a great show, it turned out the show wasn't as good.
Same goes with Phil, who disintegrated into triple-bogey hell on Thursday and Friday and missed the cut. When Phil is around, pressure is applied. Heart rates quicken. Cheers are louder.
That's what was missing on Sunday.
I don't mean to pick on Murphy's story alone, but he made that point very clearly, so running a bevy of others that agree seems redundant. And regardless of how many people make the argument, it's still an unfair one to make.
If Woods played the exact same round as Matt Kuchar, the roars would not have been much louder. The pressure would not have been any tighter on Watson, who still would have sashayed down the 18th fairway with an insurmountable lead.
Would Phil really have gotten bigger cheers than Bubba?
Maybe. It's possible, but the patrons at Augusta revere their past champions. And while Mickelson has three green jackets and is the far more accomplished lefty, Watson came into this year's tournament as a former champion himself. There is a special place among the grounds for past winners.
So yes, it's possible that Phil's roars would have been bigger than Bubba's, but it won't be that way anymore. Not at Augusta.
Watson is one of 17 players—including Mickelson and Woods, of course—to win multiple green jackets. For the rest of his life, no matter how many events he wins in his career, Watson will be revered at Augusta, in the same way other two-time winners like Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer, Jose Maria Olazabal and Tom Watson are.
Whenever a golfer wins a major by three strokes and no player is within two shots over his final five holes, the tournament will surely be remembered for lacking some of that quintessential Masters luster. But, man, were there still some big names on the first page of the leaderboard, even without Tiger and Phil.
Forget about the "best player to never win a major" moniker, Rickie Fowler should be called the most mediocre player who has never won much of anything to be inexplicably beloved by the next generation of golf fans.
Fowler has one career win since turning pro in 2009 and just nine top-three finishes in 109 professional tournaments, but if you go to any practice range during any tournament—yes, even the majors, where he has as many missed cuts as recorded top-10 finishes since 2011—and the galleries are lined with kids wearing pastel Puma hats with flat brims, just waiting for an autograph from their golfing hero.
Sure, the television ratings may not show this, but one can make the case that Fowler being near the top of the Masters leaderboard will do more for the future of golf than either Woods or Mickelson being there.
Kuchar is probably the best player to never win a major right now, something that could surely happen this season with the way he has been playing. Kuchar is not a draw on television in that he will bring new eyeballs to the tournament when casual fans see his name atop the leaderboard, but he has been a solid, dependable and incredibly likable figure on the PGA Tour for years.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that a few more close calls could vault Kuchar into the everyman role Mickelson relished in the years before he won his first major. Crowds love Kuchar. Having a likable guy come close before eventually winning a major can be great for golf. Having it be someone like Kuchar would be even better.
And now let's take everything just written about Kuchar and replace his name with Lee Westwood, and the conversation is nearly the same. People who suggested the Masters leaderboard didn't have enough big names probably weren't looking at the actual leaderboard.
The only man who was in contention on the second nine on Sunday that we haven't mentioned is Miguel Angel-Jimenez, and while the 50-year-old is hardly the future face of golf, he sure is fun to watch. He wasn't the only one—for three rounds, Fred Couples wowed the patrons at Augusta with a championship-caliber performance. Freddie made the turn Sunday at three under par, just two shots off the lead at that time, before the second nine got the best of him, shooting five over on the last nine holes.
We shouldn't forget about the heir apparent to the Tiger throne. While he wasn't in contention for much of the weekend, Rory McIlroy—clearly one of the favorites whenever he tees off in a major—finished in a tie for eighth after a final-round 69. Would the roars have been bigger for Tiger than they were when Rory carded birdies on holes seven, eight, nine and 11?
Even Scott was in the Masters mix heading into the weekend before a dismal third round hurt his chances of competing for back-to-back jackets.
Scott wasn't the only one either, as the early rounds were littered with big names moving up and down the leaderboard.
No, none of them were Woods. That's just fine for golf. It has to be.
Missing the cut with Mickelson were the likes of Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Ryan Moore, Patrick Reed, Keegan Bradley—this is starting to sound like a future Ryder Cup team—as well as Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els and several other Masters champions like Charl Schwartzel, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman and Angel Cabrera.
So, yes, perhaps the names who were there Sunday lacked a bit of the overall star power of those who weren't, but that speaks more to the depth of talent on the PGA Tour at this point in golf's history that so many talented players could end up watching on the weekend at Augusta with the rest of us.
That is a good thing for golf.
Make no mistake, not having Tiger and Phil on the course Sunday is never a good thing at the Masters. This year, however, exposed that as an inevitability, as age and health issues to the Big Two have given others the opportunity to step into the vacant spotlight. We should embrace that.
Bubba Watson may not be Phil Mickelson right now, but the 35-year-old two-time Masters champion sure as heck could be in eight years. Who's to say Watson can't win three more majors in that time? He has proven, twice, he has what it takes to win down the stretch in the biggest pressure situation in golf.
The way Bubba plays the game has become must-watch golf, and while he only had one win from his 2012 Masters victory until this weekend, life got in the way of golf for a while.
But you can't pen him into the typical-surly-athlete box, because then he'll turn around and offer up this gem about approaching the 18th green and seeing his son Caleb: 'I hate to say this, because I have it on right now,' he said, tugging at the lapel of his green jacket, 'but having my son means more to me than the green jacket.'
A risk-taking lefty who is easy to root for—in part because he cares more about his family than golf—just won the Masters? Are we sure this isn't 2004?
Golf seems like the game is in good hands today, even if we are in a time when those hands are starting to change. It won't be about Tiger and Phil forever. We need to stop wishing it were.
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