Standing in the 15th fairway for the better part of 10 minutes on Thursday afternoon, nobody would have blinked if defending Masters champion Sergio Garcia had requested to exchange his green jacket for a straightjacket.
It’s a day later, and Garcia made it through Friday’s second round without matching or surpassing his Masters record of the 13 shots he took on a single hole Thursday at No. 15. And while he didn’t make the weekend cut, he will have to hang around until Sunday evening to put the green jacket on the new Masters champion. But for me, Garcia’s feat of golf infamy was so stunning, it’s taken a full day to really sink in.
Every weekend warrior has experienced a meltdown on the course. In my case, a meltdown isn’t even unique enough to be worth noting. But for five increasingly tormenting – and equally wet – approach shots on Friday, Garcia had to live out any golfer’s worst nightmare in front of thousands of fans… on live television broadcast… while serving as the tournament’s defending champion.
He carded a 13 on the hole after going 4-under on No. 15 and doing no worse than par during his four rounds last year.
Augusta annually tames even the best golfers in the world, but it’s not often that you see such an accomplished player look so ordinary. Then again, none of those five water balls looked like bad shots, showing just how brutal the course can be if not played properly.
Veterans of the Masters talk about getting around the course as if they’re giving you advice on what to see in their hometown. To have the most enjoyable day, there certain places to go in a certain order. And there are also some places where you don’t want to waste your time.
For as wide open and inviting as the greens at Augusta may appear, experienced pros know that danger doesn’t always come in the form of trees or bunkers. Just as the Masters is usually won by the player who can read the subtle breaks of the greens, the tournament is often lost by those who land their approaches in the wrong spots.
All five of Garcia’s waterbound shots landed on the green from about 150 yards away. A few of them rolled within feet of the hole before falling prey to a false front in the green that rolled all five balls off the front before careening down a slope and into the pond. To Garcia’s credit, he kept making solid contact and didn’t appear to let his mind wander, but by the time his sixth approach attempt settled - and even that one had some tense moments before stopping - his tournament championship defense was effectively over.
Ironically, it may have been Garcia’s talent that cost him so many strokes. A hack golfer could have easily chunked it into the pond, but - after trying to learn from his mistake - might have hit more club to ensure that he would get past the water. Similarly, a higher-handicap golfer could have missed long or to the right where a bunker may have helped to keep the ball dry.
Instead, Garcia knew exactly what he wanted to do an had the talent to pull it off. He lofted high shots with spin, clearing the water by 20 or more yards each time. But just a bit too much backspin repeatedly made the difference. Just a little less spin could have produced a world-class shot rather than the nightmarish deja vu of ball after ball taking the slope of the green on a fateful journey to the bottom of the pond.
That’s the difference between a professional course and whatever we’re playing on each weekend. More specifically, that’s the difference between the greens at Augusta and those at other championship level courses.
Many of us have played tough courses, but rarely does the situation arise where we’re wary of putting a ball right off of a green or where the ‘smart’ approach is to take a line pointed 90 degrees away from a hole. It’s honestly amazing that these meltdowns on the PGA tour don’t occur with greater frequency.
It takes meticulous planning and near-perfect shot making to stay in contention in any professional tournament.
But to do it at Augusta, you have to be a master.