AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP)—Charl Schwartzel should’ve known it was going to be a very good day at the very first hole.
After spraying his second shot far right of the green, he pulled out a 6-iron, chipped the ball off a patch of trampled-down grass, and watched it roll and roll and roll—right in the cup for an improbable birdie.
Think that was unexpected? The South African was just getting warmed up. He drilled his tee shot at No. 3 into the middle of the fairway, then holed out with a wedge from 114 yards for eagle.
It didn’t even compare to the finish Sunday.
Schwartzel became the first champion in Masters history to close with four straight birdies, the capper to a final round like no other at Augusta National.
Tiger Woods charged. Rory McIlroy collapsed. And just about everyone else seemed to have a chance to win on the back nine.
“There’s so many roars that go on around Augusta,” Schwartzel said. “It echoes through those trees. There’s always a roar. Every single hole you walk down, someone has done something.”
Especially on this day.
At one point or another, eight different players had at least a share of the lead. The list included Woods, making a fist-pumping, swaggering charge up the board. And Adam Scott, deftly carving up the greens with that long putter of his. And Jason Day, a Masters rookie who played like he owns the place. And Geoff Ogilvy, ripping off five birdies in a row on the back side. And Luke Donald, hitting the flag stick with a shot off one leg, then chipping in from the front of the green with his final swing.
The top six finishers each posted scores in the 60s on a steamy spring day.
The hottest one of all was a 26-year-old carrying on South Africa’s proud golf tradition, winning on the 50th anniversary of countryman Gary Player becoming the first international winner at the Masters.
“I am absolutely delighted for Charl and South Africa. Congratulations and very well done to him. That is how you finish like a champion!” Player said on Twitter.
One by one, all the challengers for the green jacket fell aside as Schwartzel birdied 15 … and 16 … and 17 … and, finally, 18—even though all he needed at that point was an easy little two-putt to win.
“You know, I always thought if there was one (major) that I would win, it would be this one,” Schwartzel said. “This is the sort of golf course that suits my eye.”
He was sure dialed in on those last four holes.
Schwartzel got up-and-down from behind the 15th green for birdie to briefly tie for the lead, only to have Scott stuff his tee shot within 2 feet up ahead on the par-3 16th. Schwartzel answered with a 15-foot birdie to catch Scott atop the leaderboard again.
Then came the pivotal 17th, where Scott hit into a pair of bunkers and had to work hard just to make par. Schwartzel came along next and was dead solid perfect with his first two shots, setting up a 10-footer for birdie. When it dropped, he had the lead all to himself for the first time all day.
He finished it off in style, curling a putt from 20 feet into the side of the cup for a 6-under 66, the best closing round at the Masters in 22 years. Schwartzel finished two strokes ahead of Scott and Day, a pair of Aussies who valiantly bid to be the first player from Down Under to win the green jacket.
Scott closed with a 67. Day shot 68. Neither score was good enough to beat Schwartzel’s 14-under 274.
“I couldn’t do any more than what I just did,” Day said. “Me and Adam played wonderful golf out there today, but Charl played even better.”
Schwartzel had played in only one previous Masters—he tied for 30th a year ago—but he got a very helpful tutorial from a guy who’s won more green jackets than anyone.
After finagling a lunch with six-time winner Jack Nicklaus at a charity function, he deftly broke the ice with one of their shared interests beyond the golf course.
“I’ve never met Jack. I was really excited,” Schwartzel recalled. “I knew he sort of liked hunting a little bit. That’s the way I got the conversation going, just by talking about hunting.”
Of course, the talk soon turned to Augusta National.
And, boy, did the Golden Bear open up.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be just a vaguely quick little thing, and he actually took the time to take me through all 18 holes,” Schwartzel said. “The way he used to think around Augusta. The way he used to play it, which flags he used to attack.”
Schwartzel sure put those lessons to good use Sunday. It was the sort of finishing kick that Nicklaus turned in a quarter-century ago for the last of his Masters wins.
For a while, Woods was the one rekindling memories of ’86. Mired in the longest winless streak of his career and still tarnished by an embarrassing sex scandal, he ripped through the front nine with a 5-under 31 that erased his daunting seven-shot deficit coming into the round.
He made the turn with four birdies and an eagle on his card, the place in an uproar as they pondered the possibilities going to the decisive back nine.
Woods got through the 10th and the always-troublesome 11th with pars, setting himself to really attack the course through the heart of Amen Corner.
Instead, the course bit back.
After a long delay waiting to putt at the 12th, Woods missed a short one and took bogey. At the next hole, he wasted a perfect tee shot along the creek line and settled for par on a hole that played easier than any other all week.
The real backbreaker, though, came at the last of the par-5s. Woods gave himself a perfect look at the 15th with a tee shot to the top of the ridge, then jammed his approach within 5 feet of the cup for an eagle try that would’ve given him the outright lead.
The putt lipped out. He settled for birdie. And everyone sensed that Woods, playing several groups ahead of the other contenders, had squandered his final chance. He limped to the finish with three straight pars for a 67 that left him tied for fourth with Ogilvy and Donald, four shots behind the winner.
“I got off to a nice start there and posted 31,” Woods said. “And then on the back nine, I could have capitalized some more.”
At least he didn’t finish like McIlroy.
The seemingly unflappable 21-year-old from Northern Ireland was leading through each of the first three days, and went into the final round with a four-stroke edge on the field. Even after a shaky front nine, the youngster made the turn still one shot ahead.
Then he fell apart.
McIlroy yanked his tee shot at the 10th into the trees left of the fairway, the ball ricocheting to a spot between two of the club’s famous cabins. He pitched out through the fairway, knocked his next shot over by the scoreboard left of the green, hit another tree trying to get on and wound up with a triple-bogey 7.
Three-putts at the next two holes finished him off, though his misery lasted right to the end. He drove into a creek, missed two more short putts and signed for an 80—the worst final round by a 54-hole Masters leader since Ken Venturi in 1956.
“I just hit a poor tee shot on 10 and it unraveled from there,” McIlroy said. “I just sort of lost it … and I couldn’t get it back.”
Schwartzel had it all the way.
AFP PHOTO / Don Emmert
Paul Newberry, AP National Writer GolfGreedy.com