The 81st Masters Tournament will get underway at the Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday. Much of the pre-event conversation (leaving aside the Tiger Woods will he, won’t he? – and he won’t!) has focused on whether Dustin Johnson, the current US Open champion, can win a fourth tournament in a row, or whether Rory McIlroy can complete a personal Grand Slam by winning a title that so excruciatingly eluded him in 2011. But trying to predict the outcome of any golf tournament can be a fool’s game. The truth is that probably 50 players in the field will have a reasonable belief this morning that they could become the champion by next Sunday evening.
Thirty years ago, the best two golfers in the world contested a playoff for the Masters. They were the then four-time major champion, and twice Masters winner, Seve Ballesteros, who had turned 30 on the first day of the tournament, and Greg Norman, who was the reigning Open champion. Spain vs Australia; dark vs blond. This was going to be dramatic. They had tied on 285, three under par, after a tough week on a hard-baked golf course, but they didn’t quite have the show to themselves. Their totals had been matched by a journeyman American tour pro who happened to be a native of Augusta. As they headed for the first playoff hole, the 10th, it would be fair to say that the third man – Larry Mize, not Harry Lime – was generally regarded as the bit-part actor in what would surely be a shoot-out between the best two players in the game. “He looked like a mâitre d’ who was going to show them to their table,” wrote Dan Jenkins.
All three hit good drives. After their approach shots, Ballesteros was 30 feet from the cup, Norman 15 feet away, Mize only 10. It looked like Ballesteros might need to make his putt in order to stay in the playoff. But it was dangerously quick and he knocked it three feet past. Norman and Mize both missed their chances; Ballesteros needed his putt to stay alive. He didn’t make it.
Mize recently told John Feinstein for Golf Digest: “I suppose I could have been thinking, ‘Oh God, I just missed a putt to win the Masters’. Instead, I thought, ‘OK, now I’ve only got to deal with one of them.’ At the next hole, he claimed the green jacket.
Both men again hit good drives – which meant Mize was about 25 yards behind Norman’s ball. His second shot, with a 5-iron, was a horrible push, perhaps 40 yards right of the hole. There’s water to the left so going there is a no-no but this error looked terminal. Norman hit an 8-iron to 40 feet and seemed set to win his second major championship. And then Mize chipped it in! Needles to say, Norman didn’t make his long putt for a matching birdie. Nor would he ever win the Masters (nor any major in America). In that recent interview, Mize said: “People sometimes apologise to me for asking me to talk about it. I say, ‘Are you kidding?’ There aren’t many things I enjoy more than talking about what happened that day.” I guess it’s fair to figure that Greg’s take would be different.
Anyhow, the two top-ranked players in the world right now are Messrs Johnson and McIlroy. One of them may well win this year’s Masters. But so might whoever may be the 2017 version of Larry Mize.
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