2003 Masters Report
This was my 20th year covering the Masters and it was indeed one of the most memorable for events both on and off the course. It was a week marked by expectations of a Tiger three-peat, a Hootie-Martha showdown, downpours and muddy conditions, a unprecedented course closing, a first-round postponement, an Elvis impersonator, a fizzled protest, and oh yes, some inspired golf by a southpaw from Sarnia, Canada.
The rains and clouds moved in on the Sunday prior to the Masters and it didn't let up until Friday. Over two inches of rain fell on Monday, forcing club officials to close storied Augusta National to patrons. Those with Monday-only tickets were out of luck although they will be eligible for a make-good "rain check" next year. Tuesday was marginally better and players did manage to get in a practice round and determine how tough some of the lengthened holes were (notably nos. 5 and 18). Answer: plenty tough. (Some players were using 2-irons and even three-metals to reach the par-4 18th hole.) As expected, Tiger Woods was the odds-on favorite to don his fourth green jacket (and third in a row) especially given the wet conditions which should have played into the hands of the long drivers. But the soggy course also placed a premium on driving accuracy and that played a pivotal role in determining Sunday's outcome. More on that later.
Before play officially commenced, the matter of Augusta National's controversial private club and membership status was the center of attention. Club Chairman Hootie Johnson held his annual news conference on Wednesday and it was a SRO affair. Before answering the media's questions, Johnson read a prepared statement encapsulating the club's position on its membership policies. "We are a private clubŠJust because we host a golf tournament, because some of our members are well-known, should not cause us to be viewed differently," Johnson said. "I have stated that there may come a time when we include women as members to our club, and that remains trueŠwe have no timetable and our membership is very comfortable with our present status." In short, Johnson remained firm and resolute in the face of political pressure applied to him and the club by activist Martha Burk and certain members of the media. Generally agreeable with a good sense of humor, Johnson did reveal his combative side when badgered by one golf writer who expressed his displeasure to Johnson stating at the beginning that he would "have nothing further to add about our membership or related issues." This one golf writer challenged Johnson for not taking any questions (although he did previously) on the matter. So Johnson replied, "Well, what is your question?"
Flustered, the golf writer clutched and failed to come up with one, instead merely repeating that there were "lots of questions." With a stern stare that could make even a Raymond Floyd blink, Johnson retorted, "I told you if you have a question, I'll answer it. But don't lecture to me."
Comic relief arrived when one scribe asked, "Is there any consideration to lift, clean and place for the tournament?" Laughter broke out and Hootie cracked, "Well, now we know why we are here." As one Tour player later quipped. "There will be a woman member here before they play lift, clean and place!" Augusta National GC is traditional and defers to USGA-type tournament tenets and as such the ball will be forever played as it lies.
Before moving on to golf, let me report that the protest planned by Martha Burk on Saturday was a bust. No more than 20 supporters got off a bus at the site set aside for the protest a short distance from the club. Over 200 media were there and as were over 100 police officers. There was even an Elvis impersonator and anti-Martha Burk protesters with sandwich board chauvinistic signage. It was a circus and a sideshow and did little to advance Burk's cause. My guess is that if Burk lets this protest die down and instead refocuses her group's time and energy on more pressing issues, Augusta National in due time will invite a woman member into the club. My prediction for membership is Hall of Fame golfer Nancy Lopez who has been supportive of the club's position.
Okay, back to golf. Thursday's round was postponed until Friday due to saturated course conditions. When play finally commenced, players were wearing woolen stocking caps and all the Gore-Tex they could muster. Meanwhile, patrons coped with some of the muddiest terrain since the Battle of the Bulge. Darren Clarke fired a brilliant six-under par 66 and held the first round lead by three shots over Sergio Garcia and amateur Ricky Barnes (who only clipped playing partner Tiger by a mere seven strokes‹so much for intimidation.) Canada's Mike Weir was a shot back at 70. Most of the field didn't finish the hoped-for 36 holes on Friday so second round play resumed on Saturday morning.
All in all, Friday and Saturday were two of the most grueling days of golf for those making the cut. Notably Ernie Els improved 13 shots between round one and two to the utter delight of those picking him in their Masters pool. But Weir stood atop the 36-hole leader board with a 6-under par total with accurate driving, pinpoint iron play and deft putting. For awhile it looked like the 5' 9'' 155 pound lefty was going to run away with the Masters. Then the third round began. The big story was how Tiger came back into the picture with a sensational 66, after having made the cut by a single shot earlier in the day. The consensus in the media room was that Tiger was poised to win it all the next day. Jeff Maggert, long regarded as a straight driver and shotmaker, was the unlikely 54-hole leader after fashioning rounds of 72-73-66. Weir was three shots back after his 70-68-75. Even gallery favorite Phil Mickelson was in the hunt at one-under par.
The final round on Sunday was played under beautiful, sunny and warm conditions. Inside the ropes, Augusta National looked and played wonderfully. As always, the course's primary defense against red numbers were its ever-quick greens. But due to all the rain the second cut had grown longer and placed a premium on getting one's tee ball into the fairway; hence Maggert, Weir and Mattiace rose to the top. Maggert suffered a tough break on the third hole when his second shot caught the lip of the bunker, bounced back and hit him, thus incurring a two-shot penalty and leading to a triple bogey. Later in the round, he feel victim to the 12th hole and carded a quintuple bogey. If not for those two holes, Maggert may well have ended up with the green jacket.
The round of the day, however, was left to Len Mattiace who was competing in only his second Masters and first since 1988 when as a "college stud" amateur he stayed in the Crow's Nest. On Sunday, Mattiace was in the zone with all parts of his game in synch. He made a 50-foot birdie putt on the 10th, canned an eagle on 13, holed birdie at 15, and holed birdie at 16 to go to 8-under and a seemingly safe 3-shot lead over Weir. But then Mattiace had to face the drive of a lifetime--the long, narrow chute of the treacherous 18th hole. He missed it right and had to pitch out and try to make a one-putt par. He didn't and his bogey ultimately opened the door for the gutsy and relentless Weir.
Keeping track of the leader board, Weir knew he had to make birdie at the 13th hole and so went for the green from a bad angle. He ended up left of the green but made a superb up and down for birdie to keep him within reach of Mattiace. On 15, he was forced to lay up and again got up and down with a skillful sand wedge and short putt for birdie. When Mattiace bogied the final hole, all Weir had to do was to par in to tie or to make one birdie to win it. The only makeable short putt he missed was on 16 after a wonderful iron shot. On 18, his second shot came up 25 feet short and after watching Maggert's first putt, Weir left his putt a nerve-wracking five feet short. Sticking to his rock-solid routine, Weir drained the putt to send the 67th Masters to a playoff. In a way, the playoff was anticlimactic after Mattiace's second shot went awry, leaving him with a tough second and third play to save par. In fact, it seemed a shame to have a major championship decided by one hole where the victor claims the crown with a bogey. But that's the breaks and somebody has to win. Mattiace accepted his crushing loss with poignant and heartfelt class.
Weir was the winner for a variety of reasons. First, he avoided the big numbers on holes that can spell doom. Seldom do Masters champions recover from doubles or triples. Secondly, he putted superbly all week. According to one early statistical sheet, Weir had only 104 putts for the tournament, the lowest 72-hole total for a champion in the past ten years. (To put it in perspective, in 2001 and 2002, Tiger had 121 and 115 putts respectively.) Finally, Weir hit lots of fairways--75% for the week--which set up his strong iron play.
After his second round, Weir was asked how he was scoring so well on a supposedly "bomber's course." Weir replied: "I'm not a bomber, for sure. I have to make my wedge game work for me and rely on my putting and chipping and course management skills." So once again someone like Weir, surely an early favorite now for Player of the Year with two Tour wins and a major, reveals that the game is still all about getting it in the hole. No one did it more efficiently than Mike Weir who rededicated himself to the game after a disappointing 2002 season.
"I felt like I let them (Canadians) down last year. I was motivated to do well this year," said Weir, who grew up in Sarnia and used to hit balls in a net in the basement during the winters. "Hopefully, some young kids back in Canada will be inspired to here someday wearing a green jacket one day."
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