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The Dullest Masters

This year, that is. 1991 was the game to remember.

By 4.18.08

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That was the dullest Masters since Chip Beck threw in the towel to Bernhard Langer on the fifteenth fairway in 1997. And the more so since Saturday's finish seemed so promising.

Here was the leaderboard at the close of play Saturday:

Trevor Immelman -11
Brandt Snedeker -9
Steve Flesch -8
Paul Casey -7
Tiger Woods -5
Stuart Cink -4
Phil Mickelson -2

Great stuff. The scoreboard brimmed with new talent and with worthy veterans, with only a single former Masters champ in the top six. Mickelson, at two under, was a distant threat. It made you remember some of the great three- and four-way races of the past: Woosnam-Watkins-Watson in 91. Couples, Duval, Furyk and O'Meara in 98.

Plus, the two top finishers Saturday shaped up as the most intriguing final pair match in years. Trevor Immelman, 27, son of a South African golf official, looks like he was born wearing slacks. Tennessean Brandt Snedeker, 28, has a mischievous grin like the guy who's got the firecrackers stashed in his back pocket.

Immelman, Snedeker, and, in the group ahead, balding mensch Steve Flesch hit fantastic approaches to eighteen on Saturday and finished with birdies on that very difficult hole.

Then came Sunday and everybody fell to pieces. My young friend Matt Linde, who's in a golf academy in Florida and playing mini-tour events, says it was just the bad weather. Yes, it was in the sixties, with wind. I don't think that's the whole story.

I think that dreary parade of front- and back-nine 39s and 40s was made inevitable when the Lords of the Masters Tiger-proofed their course, bit by bit from about 2000 onward. What should be a journey around a grove-spotted meadow now has turned into a torturous slog through a brutally long series of pinched corridors.

As Tiger said early in the week, "You don't shoot low scores around here anymore." The Masters used to be a lot more fun.

IN 1991, ON FRIDAY, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson came to the twelfth tee. Watson, leading the tournament, took his quick, athletic swing and hit what Steve Melnyk called "a gorgeous shot" about four feet directly over the flag. Nicklaus hit a slight push that bounced on the bank in front of the green and rolled back into Ray's Creek.

"You dumb son of a bitch," Nicklaus muttered, barely audibly.

From the marked drop area, Nicklaus took his third shot. "The unthinkable has happened," Melnyk said. "Jack tried to get too cute with it." The ball spun back into the creek once again.

When Nicklaus finally finished the hole, he had made quadruple bogey, a seven. Watson, put off his stride by the long wait, missed his short putt.

Jose Maria Olazabal had already quadruple bogied the par three sixth. These two remarkable quads set the tournament abuzz.

Nicklaus hit the par-five thirteenth in two ("the greatest long iron player ever; this is right up his alley," said Tom Weiskopf) and made a difficult two-putt birdie. Watson's eagle putt pulled up short. Nicklaus stiffed it on fourteen; Watson, a little outside, missed. Nicklaus made.

Both Nicklaus and Watson hit the par five fifteenth in two. Nicklaus hit the hole with his eagle putt, settled for birdie. Watson eagled.

Ahead of them by a couple of pairings, Olazabal had pulled his score back, too, so much so that when he birdied the fifteenth himself, if it hadn't been for his quad, he would have been leading the tournament.

"Golf is all about what might have been" said the plummy-voiced Oxbridgian Ben Wright.

THE GREAT NICKLAUS three-birdie run seemed to have come to an end at the sixteenth. The par three flag was placed front right on the crest of a steep knob, with the entire green falling away steeply to the left. Hit the ball anywhere except right on that tabletop, and it would roll away thirty-five feet to the lower left.

Nicklaus and Watson both hit close to the flag, but not close enough, and their golf balls rolled down the slope, ending up close together at the bottom of the hill. Now began once of the most remarkable sequences ever seen at the Masters, or at any other golf tournament.

Nicklaus first. He rapped his putt hard up the hill, and as it lost speed and turned hard to the right, almost in a buttonhook, Ben Wright began to murmur, "That's an awfully good putt, Jack" and then to shout "what a great putt!" as the ball fell in the hole.

Jack took an amazed bow and did his "thank you" wave to the Heavens. Now Watson. With a devilish expression on his face, he stroked his putt hard up the hill too, and it, too, made the buttonhook turn and fell in the hole. All of Augusta National seemed to erupt in the roar, and Watson and Nicklaus, smiling at each other, headed for the seventeenth hole.

Right behind them came Fred Couples and Mark McCumber. McCumber and Couples hit near-identical tee shots to Watson and Nicklaus. ("Go in the hole!" yelled one fan after McCumber hit. "Naw, it's gonna go in the same place they all go, no matter where you hit it," McCumber said.)

Couples too made the impossible putt. ("Like shelling peas," Ben Wright chuckled.) McCumber came within an inch of doing it, and the four-putt drama ended with a Falstaffian guffaw. McCumber's caddy fell over backwards into the right-hand bunker when his man's putt curled to a stop just past the hole.

This entire episode has been lost to broadcast history. A year or two later, Ben Wright was forced to resign in disgrace from CBS for his oafish comments to a female reporter. He has not been seen around big-time golf since.

IN 2008, Trevor Immelman won. On Sunday, I actually stopped watching the Masters at the sixteenth hole. Immelman is a nice and talented young man, and I'm happy for him.

In 1991, Tom Watson and Ian Woosnam dueled down the stretch, with the tournament remaining undecided until the eighteenth hole. But I have written enough about 1991. I will note only that John Feinstein covered part of that Nicklaus-Watson pairing on Friday, when the two players walked up eighteen to a great ovation. It's in his book A Good Walk Spoiled.

And he got it all wrong. Ask me about it some time, and I'll tell you what really happened.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.