By Jim Litke/The Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was easy to root for the guy who won.
Same for the guy who lost.
So while all may not be well at the Masters — more on that in a moment — at least it ended that way.
Australian Adam Scott beat Argentine Angel Cabrera with a 12-foot birdie putt on the second hole of a playoff as darkness descended and the rain that began in mid-afternoon continued to fall. They embraced warmly, patted each other’s backs, then walked off the 10th green that way. It was a scene across which the word “respect” was writ large.
“His chip on the first playoff hole was just beautiful, and unlucky not to go in,” Scott said. “That must have gone right over the edge of the hole. My heart was about to stop as I was standing at the side of the green thinking, ‘Is this it, really?’
“But you know, managed to skid one up there myself and knock it in. And then he hits a beautiful putt on 10, as well, and you know, those things can just as easily go in as go out,” he added. “But you know, I knew then that was really my chance, because it was getting too dark to play anymore. I had to finish it.”
Halfway around the world, back in mostly sunny Australia, a sports-mad nation celebrated the first victory by one of its own. Back here, meanwhile, other than the roar that accompanied both men’s birdies at the 18th to force the playoff, and another that heralded the end, there was a noticeable lack of fireworks.
The slippery, overcast conditions put a damper on the rapid-fire exchange of birdies that make Sunday afternoons at this singular place so exciting. Instead of clapping, most spectators had their hands wrapped around umbrellas. But there will be plenty of time to celebrate this win.
“It’s going to change quite a lot, his life,” said Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion. “He’s been looking for it, searching for it, this major title and he’s achieved it. His life is going to change really fast right now.”
Speaking of changes, there was one really important one at Augusta National this year — two women finally joined all the men parading around in green jackets — and a glaring need for several more. Transparency has never been the members’ strong suit and this year, it came back to bite them.
No less an expert than Jack Nicklaus popped into the interview room Tuesday — on the 50th anniversary of the first of his six wins here — and called current chairman Billy Payne the most forward-looking steward the club has ever had. And to an extent, that’s true. Payne, who shepherded the 1996 Atlanta Olympics from bid to closing ceremonies, quietly convinced the membership to add women to their ranks and expanded the tournament’s already formidable outreach to international players deeper into Asia.
Beginning in 2010, the winner of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship was guaranteed a spot in the Masters field. By reaching into the amateur ranks, Augusta officials were aiming at the emerging golf market in China, which has very few tour pro-caliber players at the moment, but plenty of promising youngsters. It paid off this time around, when 14-year-old sensation Guan Tianlang went wire-to-wire in the event and turned up here.
The kid can play, something Guan demonstrated by showing poise and making the cut. But like most teenagers, he often has a hard time making up his mind, and settling on which club to hit caused his threesome to slow down play. At the 17th hole Friday, after sufficient warnings, he was docked a stroke and barely made the cut.
It seemed like harsh treatment, especially for a kid, but the club fell back on the game’s strict, yet sometimes-confusing “rules-are-rules” policy. Yet that uproar was barely subsiding when Tiger Woods took what was eventually ruled an illegal drop at No. 15 later the same day.
There’s neither time nor space to recount the whole process here. What’s clear is that Woods behaved badly and the green jackets behaved worse, bending the rules and torturing the logic they were based on to let Woods off with a retroactive two-stroke penalty instead of being disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
They took the fall for Woods, golf’s biggest draw, but hardly for altruistic reasons. They were protecting the weekend ratings on CBS and their share of the take. And sure enough, CBS returned the favor by having host Jim Nantz essentially whitewash the whole thing in the opening few minutes of the telecast.
Asking a club where change arrives at a glacial pace to move fast would be too much. Besides, the green jackets wield too much power to be pushed around. So here’s an incremental change that’s cost-effective and will likely ensure the problems this year don’t pop up again.
The game’s three other major championships already employ a rules official to walk with each group. Had one been along with Guan, and even Woods, one of the most knowledgeable players in golf, the tournament probably would have been spared plenty of aggravation and a lot of wasted time.
While defending the decision on Woods, competition committee chairman Fred Ridley was asked whether the club would reconsider its policy and provide rules officials for each group.
“Well, that’s not something we talked about,” he began. “If there’s one thing about the Masters tournament, whether it’s whether or not we’re going to have chicken sandwiches next year or whatever, we look at everything. So we’ll be looking at this situation, what could we do in the future, is there any different processes we could employ?”
A word of advice, Fred: Bring back the chicken sandwiches, and then hand one on the first tee to the rules officials you ought to hire to walk the course with every group.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.