After defying the pre-tournament critics and providing a fascinating event dominated by the best players in the world, Bill Elliott applauds Augusta as the real winner of the 2006 Masters
Augusta National, revamped, organically sculpted, fussed over, stretched and tweaked more than a Shane Warne googly, was the real star of this latest Masters drama. Criticised by everyone from Jack Nicklaus down, the Augusta committee?s decision to add yardage, trees, bunkers and a couple of landmines was more than vindicated by the way this Major eventually played out. Somewhere on Sunday night Jack was writing a note to his old club and the first word down on the page was ?Sorry?.
The old Augusta, the one Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie dreamt up all those years ago, may now be largely lost. This is a pity but the other fact is that it now presents a challenge that has not been present since the mid 1980s.
Thanks to club and ball technology everybody has been able to clamber upon the shoulders of giants since then so that Augusta has at times been reduced to nothing more than a garden-centre playground for the power-hitters who now dominate the global game. Something had to happen and over the last 12 months it has. In spades. Or, more accurately, JCBs. The consensus is that this new layout is close to a shot harder than the track Tiger Woods won on a year ago. In many ways this is the first Masters of the 21st century and while many moaned, the real would-be champions just gritted their teeth and got on with it. No one, of course, got on with it better than Phil Mickelson. The Great Lollop came into this week in the form of his life and gradually pushed the pedal to the metal as the tournament wore on into the weekend and showtime. In the end it was easy or at least that?s how it looked. But until Fred Couples, still a golfer who can make even Ernie Els appear quite stressed, stumbled into a dark place with three putts from three feet on the 14th green, Mickelson was still being pushed hard. After that it was a walk in the park, a triumphant procession, the cheers for which cut into Tiger Woods like ice-daggers in a snow storm as he made his way towards home.
“The Augusta committee?s decision to add yardage, trees, bunkers and a couple of landmines was more than vindicated by the way this Major eventually played out.”
Except before the defending champ could exit he had to attend the presentation ceremony to place the 2006 Green Jacket on his great rival?s shoulders, just a year after Phil had to drape one on his. Of course Woods did this with grace but he clearly was burning inside. Not so much at Mickelson?s triumph but at his own failure. This was the Masters he was determined to win for his father, desperately sick back in California. In his mind the script had been written. The 2006 Masters had Hollywood written all over it. Then Mickelson sneaked in overnight and rewrote the ending. Instead of sick dads it was the usual sickly kiddies on the green moment as directed by Phil. It?s a routine that needs a new choreographer. Better still, throw it away. It was not, however, the only queasy moment.
While the Mickelsons were acting out their version of an episode from Little House On The Prairie, Woods was staring into a TV camera and admitting he had ?putted atrociously?. He said that ?as well as I hit the ball tee to green I struck it badly with my putter?. Then he added that on the greens he was ?a spaz?. Well, someone needs to write ?spastic? on a long piece of wood and beat Tiger over the head with it until he learns not to use it again in public. Or private for that matter.
It was a rare slip from a man whose public persona is now so finely honed that it is usually impossible to see the join. Overall, however, he was spot on. Woods is the best putter I have seen since Tom Watson in his prime. Lanny Wadkins, now an accomplished TV analyst, reckons he is the best the game has ever seen.
Not on this final day he wasn?t. Constantly misjudging either pace or direction he was one frustrated golfer as he approached the 13th green. His spirits lifted when his approach speared to within six feet of the hole. An eagle here would have got him back in the mix. Six feet? Eagle? A given, surely?
Woods? putt never threatened the hole and when he bent down to replace it for the one back he stayed down for at least a minute, his head bowed, god knows what words of self-abuse spilling quietly from his lips. It was the end for him this year and he knew it. His birdie at the last that slipped him into a tie for third was as irrelevant to him as a $20 bill that might be difficult to pick up.
Behind him Mickelson had moved into cruise mood and a leaderboard that had started out glowing with the names of almost every significant golfer in the world ranking list was suddenly just a glittering chorus line paying tribute of some kind to Mickelson?s Masters.
Before this final round unwound the smart talk suggested that if anyone was going to trip over their own ambition it was Mickelson who would commit the errors, his imagination and confidence in his own ability to bend a ball this way or that tempting him into at least a couple of shots that would have disaster written all over them.
Instead we witnessed a man in total control. He was helped hugely by the fact that his playing partner was Couples. Fred?s gracious manner and instinctive generosity wrapped itself all over his opponent and their instant acknowledgement of each other?s good play illuminated an already brightly lit scene.
Elsewhere there was much early cheer for the British fans with David Howell and Darren Clarke showing well. Howell?s third-round 76 crushed his ambition while Clarke fretted his way to a Sunday 77 and a blitz of self-disgust.
Good, old, dependable José-Maria Olazábal raised the European flag highest, his tie for third spot via a 66 sweet testimony to his improved driving and abiding talent. If only he had not bogeyed the short 16th and so posted an early clubhouse target that might have unsettled
even Mickelson, then who knows how Ollie might have fared?
As it is he is now secure for the Ryder Cup, which is good news for everyone, especially Ian Woosnam who left Augusta early and then seemed to reappear lightly disguised as Tim Clark.
The wee South African bears an uncanny resemblance to the older player although, to be fair, his stomach is not yet quite so impressively developed, and he displayed many of Woosie?s fighting qualities as he overcame lack of length to finish alone in second place.
So was it a great Masters? Not quite. It was very good but a lack of climactic drama demotes it underneath the truly memorable. No, the reason I?ll easily recall this Masters is because of the course and the way the changes altered the mindsets of everybody who competed.
“For Mickelson it was ultimately a walk in the park, a triumphant procession, the cheers for which cut into Tiger Woods like ice-daggers in a snow storm”
Gone, for now anyway, are the days of mindless, literally, whacking off the tee. Absent is the succession of soft, high wedges from a few yards that so many of these players have enjoyed in recent times. This Augusta set-up should survive at least the next several years by which time someone might have worked out how to prevent technology reducing the pro game to a series of biff-bash moments.
It was reassuring to witness real shotmaking, interesting to listen to Mickelson patiently explain why he had thrown an extra driver into his bag and fascinating to hear the silence over the first three days as punters tried to work out how much applause a six-foot putt for par deserved.
Usually, this place is peppered with grenades of noise from start to finish. It is the sound of Augusta and these sound bombs were back on Sunday as the galleries successfully adjusted their rating systems and the players went on the attack. It was good to see and hear.
When it was all over I slipped into a near-deserted clubhouse for a soothing glass of something white, cold and reassuringly expensive. I took advantage of the toilet while I was there and, for the first time, read the framed front page of the local newspaper, The Augusta Chronicle, that hangs on the wall.
It was dated Wednesday July 15, 1931 and the big story was Bobby Jones? announcement that he had bought a piece of land and was planning to build a golf course. ?Jones? Course Will Be Famous? rang the headline while the great man was quoted as saying: ?It is to be a course which the expert may study and play with everything exacted from the best of his game while the average player, indeed the plain duffer, may still enjoy it.?
Some people are so smart it is just annoying. Don?t you think?