AUGUSTA, Georgia, (Reuters) – The 78th Masters began as one of the most wide open in decades, but it will not go down as a classic after a surprisingly lacklustre finish on Sunday when Bubba Watson clinched his second green jacket.
The roars for which the year’s first major is famous never materialised on the back nine, mainly due to a scarcity of birdies and eagles, and Watson ultimately eased to victory by three shots.
Instead the only real fireworks during the final round occurred before the turn as 20-year-old American Jordan Spieth made his scintillating early run, four birdies and a bogey briefly putting him two ahead before he faded.
With the notorious Augusta National layout running just about as fast and firm as it can after five days of unrelenting sunshine, danger lurked at every corner and damage limitation was a priority on Sunday rather than birdie hunting.
Of the top 13 players by the time the tournament was over, 50-year-old Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez was the only one who covered the back nine under par, testimony to the tricky scoring conditions.
Watson, however, had no complaints about the relative ease of his second Masters victory after the gripping playoff drama of his breakthrough win at Augusta National two years ago.
“No, I feel a lot better,” smiled the 35-year-old from Florida. “The shot out of the woods (in 2012) made me famous, but this one was a lot better for me and my nerves, my family, probably on (caddie) Teddy (Scott).”
Scott was also on Watson’s bag when the American left-hander edged out South African Louis Oosthuizen to win the 2012 Masters, emerging triumphant on the second extra hole after hitting a miraculous hook shot from pine straw.
In the trees off the tee, Watson had an avenue to the green and struck a superb high draw with a gap wedge from 155 yards, the ball curving 40 yards from left to right before it settled on the green 10 feet from the pin.
On Sunday, however, the only daring shot produced by Watson came late on the back nine when the tournament was all but over.
Three strokes in front of the chasing pack, the American hit his tee shot at the par-five 15th well left and ended up being blocked by a few pine trees.
Instead of laying up safely in front of the pond guarding the green, he punched a low six-iron through the pines and over the water, his ball just clearing the false front of the green and going over the back.
“It’s ‘Bubba golf,’” Watson’s caddie said. “Freak show. I can’t describe it any other way. Every single day that I play golf with him or watch him play golf I just go, ‘How do you do that?’
“And I asked him on 18, after he hit the tee shot, ‘Are you from Mars or something? Because I don’t believe that you can hit these shots that you hit.’”
On Sunday morning, a heavy whiff of excitement was in the air with an array of dramatic storylines possible by the day’s end and nine players separated by just three shots going into the final round.
Spieth, at 20, was aiming to eclipse Tiger Woods by becoming the youngest player to win the Masters while 50-somethings Jimenez, Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer were vying to become the oldest champion at Augusta National.
Watson, co-leader with Spieth after Saturday’s third round, had a second green jacket in his sights and the upper reaches of the leaderboard were also dominated by Masters debutants such as Jonas Blixt and Jimmy Walker, plus former major winners like Justin Rose and defending champion Adam Scott.
OPENING THE DOOR
For the first time since 1994, neither four-times champion Woods nor three-times winner Phil Mickelson was in the tournament over the weekend, opening the door a little wider for other challengers.
Woods had withdrawn from the Masters earlier this month after having surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his back and Mickelson, among the pre-tournament favourites, missed the cut at Augusta National for the first time since 1997.
However, the absence of the game’s two biggest drawcards, who have been perennial contenders at the Masters, also led to a noticeable drop-off in electricity and anticipated excitement during the final round.
For many, the 78th Masters will be remembered more for Spieth’s brilliant title bid over the front nine on Sunday than for Watson’s second major victory.
Spieth has long been touted as one of the game’s most exciting young talents, having twice won the U.S. Junior Amateur before becoming at 19 the youngest player to claim a PGA Tour title since 1931 with his victory at last year’s John Deere Classic.
Remarkably composed and blessed with abundant talent, Spieth has risen rapidly up through the ranks. He was named PGA Rookie of the Year in 2013 and for much of the front nine on Sunday looked likely to land his first major before his challenge effectively ended with bogeys at the eighth and ninth.
Asked whether his duel with Watson had a match-play feel to it, Spieth replied: “It did late on the front nine and early in the back nine.
“Then after 12, Bubba was pretty far ahead and I had dropped back. I was looking to make a couple of birdies and maybe put some pressure on him but I didn’t … that made it a little easier for him.”
Based on his swift progress so far at the highest level of the game, Spieth already has the look of a perennial major contender for years to come. (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes.