by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

AUGUSTA, Ga. — So here is what the 1991 Masters came down to: final round, final hole, three of the biggest names in golf tied for the lead — and all three totally disgusted with themselves. Jose-Maria Olazabal was scowling in the sand, his second bunker in two shots. Tom Watson, playing behind, had just watched his drive sail into the pine needles off the 18th fairway. And Ian Woosnam, all 5-feet-4 1/2 inches, had followed Watson with a blast into the crowd, so far left of the fairway, he needed a traffic cop to get him to his ball.

Hey, guys? The hole’s over here.

Ah, well. Augusta pressure. It belongs to the second Sunday in April the way hangovers belong to Jan. 1. As Watson, Woosnam and Olazabal each pulled a club from his bag, you could almost hear this screaming voice, present all during this tournament whenever a big name teed off. “YOU THE MAN!” it yelled.
“YOU THE MAN!” I swear, the same guy must have run to every tee. “YOU THE MAN, TOM!” “YOU THE MAN, JOSE!” “YOU THE MAN, IAN!”

And now, we would find out who really was.

You couldn’t have asked for a more interesting mix. Watson, the sentimental favorite, the 41-year-old former champion who has been fighting to regain his putting touch for years; Olazabal, the Spanish kid, only 25 and already a powerhouse, loaded with talent, ranked No. 2 in the world. And Woosnam, 33, or “Wee Woosie” as they call him over in Wales, former boxer, former bartender, yet small enough to fit in a stocking — and No. 1 in the rankings. Little man. Big numbers.

CBS must have been loving this: a finish that almost lived up to that stupid guitar music the network played all weekend. Roll tape. Make history. First to Olazabal. He chipped out of the sand, and the moment his club made contact, his face sank. “Damn!” he yelled, or at least the Spanish equivalent. The ball hit the green, 15 feet from the hole, then rolled back down, as he knew it would. He was left with a 35-foot putt, and for all intents and purposes, that chip had just lost him the tournament — ironic, because all weekend, his brilliant short game had saved him from his drives, many of which seemed headed for New Jersey. “I was trying to put some spin on the ball,” he said of that chip.

No go. He putted close to the hole, tapped in for bogey. Ten under par. He walked off to watch his fate in front of a TV set.

Who’s the man now? Watson up. What a story he had been! From the first round, where he shot a terrific 68, to the second round, where, paired with Jack Nicklaus, he made golf watchers swoon with nostalgia, to Round 3, where, paired with the hungry Woosnam, who wanted what Watson had plenty of — a major championship
— he gave no quarter, finished one stroke behind, ready to strike. And now this: final round. Final hole. Dead even. Golf lovers everywhere were pulling for Watson, particularly Americans — and that, naturally, meant the mob of fans who, when Watson walked past, roared like the end zone section at a Georgia football game. No one hollered, “HOW ‘BOUT THEM DAWGS!” But things weren’t always hospitable when it came to Watson’s playing partner, the Welsh-born Woosnam.

“At one point, on the 14th tee, a fan yelled, ‘This isn’t a links course, this is Augusta!’ ” Watson recalled. “That upset Ian a little bit. But I just told him a story that I figured would help, and he got his composure back.”

The story was of golfing great Don January, who, whenever he took abuse, would turn around, tip his cap, and say, “Thank you very much.” And when Woosnam blasted his drive down the 14th fairway, he did indeed turn to the heckler, tip his cap, and say, “Thank you very much.” Watson just smiled.

He is that kind of guy, Watson, a gentleman, yet a competitor. Now, if he could only recapture a major, just one more time — he hadn’t won one since the British Open in 1983 — he could overcome this curse that had somehow left his putter stiff and short. He already had bounced back from one disaster: a double bogey on the infamous 12th hole, where he landed in Rae’s Creek. He responded with two eagles in the next three holes. Surely the golf gods were with him now. Augusta held its breath. He lined up his shot from the pines. A three-iron. Whack! The ball rose — and landed in the bunker. The bunker?

“AHHWWWWWW!” the crowd moaned.

Who’s the man now? And here was Woosnam, lost among several thousand people, trying to clear a shot. He yelled. He directed traffic. His ball was downhill from the hole, but actually, compared with Watson and Olazabal, he had made the best shot.
“I was trying to hit it as hard as I could,” he said later. And Woosnam packs a mean wallop, for a guy the size of Dudley Moore.

One problem: He couldn’t see where it was going. At one point, Woosnam began jumping, trying to gaze over the crowd, like a kid trying to see the parade. Forget it. He lined up the shot as best he could and fired away. The ball reached the fringe and stopped dead. Watson chipped out of the bunker, his ball nearly landed in the hole on the fly (and wouldn’t that have just about given heart attacks to half the sports fans in America?) and rolled 30 feet past. Woosnam now just had to play it safe. He putted off the fringe to within six feet of the hole. One shot left for Watson. One monster putt. Oh, if only he hadn’t bogeyed the first hole Sunday. Oh, if only he hadn’t landed in that creek. Oh, if only —

No time for that. Line up and shoot. Watson stepped beside the ball, leaned over, gave it a hard tap. . . . By now, of course, you know the finish. Surely you heard the groan all the way in Michigan. The putt rolled too long, past the hole. Watson died another death. (He would miss the next putt, too, double bogey, tie for third place.) And all that remained was for Woosnam to knock it home. In the clubhouse, Olazabal held one last breath of hope: “That’s not such an easy putt. There’s a lot of pressure.”

But Woosnam seems to enjoy a tight grip. Here is a guy, the son of a Welsh farmer, who boxed his way through adolescence, despite being small enough to sneak into the movies — in your pocket. Once, in summer camp, he outpunched all the other kids. So a counselor got in the ring with him, on his knees, and said, “Come on. Let’s have a go.”

Woosnam knocked him unconscious.

I don’t think a little pressure is going to rattle him.

And it didn’t. He tapped that final putt, and accented its drop into the cup with a fist that could have knocked out his counselor all over again. Done! His first major championship. The final hurdle to superstar status. Later he accepted the green jacket from another Brit, Nick Faldo, the defending champion, marking the sixth time in the last nine years that a foreigner has won the Masters.

“Cheers,” Woosnam said.

“Cheers,” Faldo said.

Whoa. Are we still in Georgia? We are. Forget the flag waving. Only Augusta National could give us a day like this. Only Augusta could bite so many golfers in the butt, and smile when they came back and attacked. More than anything, that was the theme of this Masters weekend: from Jack Nicklaus, who overcame a quadruple bogey on the 12th hole to remain in contention, to Lanny Wadkins, who four-putted the ninth hole Friday with a stupid backhanded stab that missed, yet was right there at the end, to Olazabal, who overcame a seven on the sixth hole Friday, to Watson, who came back from that plop in Rae’s Creek on 12, and finally to Woosnam, who held steadiest of all, dropped two strokes, made them up, and actually won with a par round.

Olazabal: “A disappointment, but I learned something about myself.”

Watson: “A great disappointment. . . . One of these days I’ll be back.”

Woosnam: “I’m just glad the day is over with. It felt like 10 hours out there.”

“What’s your goal now that you’ve won a major?” someone asked.

“To win another.”

Hey. If it can be this dramatic, hurry back. When Faldo handed Woosie the green jacket, he leaned down, jokingly, to appear the same size for the pictures. Young Nick should have known better. The Masters champion can stand as tall — or as short — as he wants to.

After all, he’s the man.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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