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

AUGUSTA, Ga. — So here is what the 1991 Masters came down to: the final hole, the final round, 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, already his second bunker of this hole. Tom Watson, playing behind, had just watched his tee shot 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 get him to his ball.

Hey, fellas. The hole’s over here.

Ah, well. Augusta pressure. It belongs to the second weekend of April the way hangovers belong to Jan. 1. As each player pulled a club out of his bag, I was reminded of this screaming voice, which you heard 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!”

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 now; Olazabal, the Spanish kid, only 25 and already a powerhouse, loaded with talent, ranked No. 2 player in the world. And Woosnam, 33, or “Wee Woosy” as they call him over in Wales, the former boxer, former bartender, former night-prowler, yet small enough to fit in a stocking — and also No. 1 in the rankings. Little man. Big numbers.

CBS must have been loving this. Finally, a finish that almost lived up to all that stupid guitar music the network was playing all weekend. First 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, he had just lost the tournament. This, despite a brilliant short game that consistently saved him from his drives, many of which seemed headed for the nearest shopping mall. “I was trying to put some spin on the ball,” he would later say of that chip. “I did not hit it all.”

He putted close to the hole, but not in it. Bogey. Ten under. He walked off to watch his fate in front of a TV set.

Who 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 put on a show that made golf watchers swoon with nostalgia, to Round 3, where, paired with Woosnam, who wanted what Watson had plenty of — a major championship — he gave no quarter, finished just one stroke behind, ready to strike. And now this: final round. Final hole. Dead even. Golf lovers everywhere were pulling for Watson, and that included the fans on this course, who roared when he walked past only as loudly as say, the Israelites roared when Moses came down from the mountain. Occasionally, as if doing Watson a favor, a Masters fan would holler insults at Woosnam.

“At one point, a fan yelled, ‘This isn’t a links course, this is Augusta,’ ” Watson would later recall. “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 the golfing great Don January, who, whenever he took abuse from the crowd, would turn around, tip his cap, and say, “Thank you very much.” Woosnam blasted a drive down the 14th fairway, turned to the crowd, tipped his cap and said, “Thank you very much.” Watson just smiled.

So Watson is that kind of guy, a gentleman, yet a competitor. And if he could only recapture a major, just one more time — he hadn’t won one since the British in 1983 — he could overcome this curse that had somehow left his putter stiff and short. He lined up his shot from the pines. A three- iron. The ball rose — and landed in the bunker. The bunker?

“AHHWNNNNN,” the crowd moaned.

Who the man now?

And here was Woosnam, in the middle of several thousand people, trying to get them to move. He yelled. He directed traffic. His shot was about seven miles from the hole, but actually, of the three, it was in the best position.
“I was trying to hit it as hard as I could,” he would later say. And for Woosnam, who packs a mean wallop, for a guy the size of Dudley Moore, that’s hitting it a ton. True, he probably would have preferred if it landed on grass instead of on people’s heads. But you take what you get.

Now the ball lay down a hill, below the bunker that protected the green. Not that tough of a shot — except that he couldn’t see where it was going. At one point, Woosnam began jumping up and down, like a kid trying to see the parade.

Finally, he lined up the shot, as best he could, and fired away. The ball reached the fringe of the green and stopped dead. Hmmm. So he was not exactly home free, either.

Watson came up the hill — cue the applause, level deafening please — stepped into the sand trap, chipped out, nearly landed in the hole on the fly
(and wouldn’t that have just about killed half the sports fans in America?) and rolled past by 30 feet. All Woosnam had to do now was stay close. He putted off the fringe to within six feet of the hole. The story was now clear. Watson would have to come up with a miracle putt — the weakest part of his game — or kiss another chance good-bye. He stepped up behind the ball, leaned over, gave it a hard tap. . . .

By now, of course, you know the finish. Surely you heard the groan. The putt rolled too long, past the hole. Watson died another death. And now all that remained was for Woosnam to knock it home. “That’s not such an easy putt,” Olazabal would later say. “There’s a lot of pressure.”

But it is worth noting that Woosnam enjoys 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 movie — 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 sat, “Come on. Let’s have a go.” Woosnam knocked him unconscious.

So 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 would accept the green jacket from another Brit, Nick Faldo, the defending champion.

“Cheers,” Woosnam said.

“Cheers,” Faldo said.

Are we still in Georgia?

We are. Only Augusta National could give us a day like this. Only Augusta could bite so many golfers in the butt, and silently smile when they came back and attacked. More than anything, that was the theme of this 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, nine under, to Olazabal, who overcome a seven on the sixth hole Friday, and Watson, who came back from a plop in Rae’s Creek on 12 Sunday, double bogey (which he followed with an eagle) and finally to Woosnam, who held steadiest of all, dropped two strokes, made them up, and actually won this tournament with a par round.

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

“To win another,” he said.

“Were you bothered by the crowd’s comments?”

“Well, it’s part of it here. They were yelling, ‘This is Augusta, this is Amen Corner.’ I just blocked them out.”

When Faldo handed him the green jacket, he leaned down, jokingly, to appear the same size as Woosnam for the pictures. Someone should have told Faldo that wasn’t necessary. 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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