Different kind of Masters

ASSOCIATED PRESS Bernhard Langer, at 56 years old, tied for eighth place.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Bernhard Langer, at 56 years old, tied for eighth place.
Posted: April 15, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. - At about 5 p.m. yesterday, leaders Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth stood on the ninth green.

About 75 yards away, Bernhard Langer, the standard-bearer for the AARP delegation, was explaining why a record six 50-somethings not only made the Masters cut but half of them spent yesterday in contention.

On the ninth green, Watson made a birdie putt that completed a four-shot swing atop the leader board over two holes and had the Masters caretakers heading to his locker to get out the green jacket he won 2 years before.

You can hear a big cheer from one end of these grounds to the other, but that crucial moment passed largely without notice. Langer continued his explanation.

Had Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson made that putt, Langer would have stopped and the ground would have shaken to Aiken.

After 2 decades of established stars drawing monstrous roars at the PGA Tour's kickoff garden party, Augusta National spent a placid 4 days hosting a quaint little golf tournament. Watson won with an 8-under total, the tournament essentially finished when he knocked his tee shot tight onto the 16th green, the last half-hour a race to beat traffic.

Despite the repeat winner, this Masters was about the inevitability of change. Bubba himself said he has no designs on being king of this manicured jungle. Meanwhile, both of golf's top predators are defanged at the moment and might be permanently declawed.

So, every player believes he has a better chance to win every tournament, especially every major.

"Not having Tiger here, and a lot of the bigger names not making the cut, gave a lot of the young guys a chance to shine," said Jim Furyk, who finished 14th.

The last time neither Tiger nor Phil played on Masters weekend, Spieth was 9 months old. Jonas Blixt was 9. Both rookies, they tied for second at 5-under.

Somebody had to.

Between them, Tiger and Phil won 11 of the previous 40 majors. They also finished in the top five in 28 of those 40 majors.

They won four of the last 10 Masters . . . and, perhaps more significant, one of them finished in the top eight in each of the last 20 Masters.

Without them, television ratings flagged between 25 and 35 percent, depending on the report. Little wonder: The event was overshadowed by continued marginalization of golf's mannequin, and, inextricably, the crumbling of golf's Superman.

At best, Mickelson, 43, was rusty; he missed the 4-over cut thanks to five lousy wedge shots. At worst, he was still hurt. His back and oblique had forced him to withdraw twice already this season.

Woods was absent, bedridden following back surgery that might spell the end of his dominance at 38.

They have won 121 events on the PGA Tour between them and put on a lot of hard miles in the last 20 years.

Without this generation's Jack and Arnie, this 78th Masters became a Romper Room, with grandparents supervising; a Tournament for the Aged, where, somehow, experience mattered so much, and, not at all.

A record 24 Masters rookies began the tournament, the best chance for a rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller did so in 1979, which, really, is the only time it happened. That group included Spieth, a 20-year-old golf genius ranked 13th in the world, top among the rookies, and the freshest breath of air the game has had in years.

On the other end of the retirement plan, Langer, the oldest and fittest of the six over-50s, finished tied for eighth, 3-under yesterday and even for the tournament. Miguel Angel Jimenez, freshly 50 and the youngest of the oldsters, finished fourth, 1-under yesterday, 4-under for the week. Fred Couples, 54, faded to 20th.

Langer insisted that and flexibility put the half-dozen oldsters in the mix, but between Couples' back and Jimenez' belly, that can only be part of the explanation.

The fact is, with the technology available - hybrids that spin like 9-irons, balls that fly forever and stop on a dime, drivers with hot faces and slingshot shafts - any pro who contends on the over-50 tour should be competitive at a familiar place like the National, even if, comparatively, Champions Tour golfers usually play from the gold tees and putt on shag carpet.

"Yes, technology helps," Jimenez said with his gravelly Spanish purr, lighted cigar in hand, "but if you don't know how to hit the ball, technology can do nothing."

Technology helps everyone, of course; and the rookies who don't have access to the ultra-exclusive golf club used it to prepare: They played the course on simulators and video games.

Everyone in contention yesterday had a compelling story: Jimmy Walker, breaking through now at 35; Kevin Stadler, whose dad won in 1982; Blixt, with his bid to be the first European since Jose Maria Olazabal won in 1999 and the first Swede ever; Jimenez, hoping to eclipse Jack Nicklaus, who won the Masters at 46 in 1986, and Julius Boros, who won the PGA Championship at 48 in 1968.

Any of those stories would have been amplified had Woods or Mickelson been here the past 2 days.

Without then, each of those stories is asterisked.

Well, maybe not Spieth's.

He has rocketed up the world rankings. Talented, passionate and brave, he is poised to be the sport's next superstar. Yesterday, after gutsy play gave him a two-stroke lead through seven holes, the National humbled him.

"I guess I got a little too aggressive," said Spieth, who fired at the flag at No. 12 and found the water, his fourth and final bogey of the day and his third in a five-hole stretch.

Blixt was more careful - he bogeyed just once - but when you're chasing at Augusta, to the fearless go the spoils. It's easier to be fearless when you know the course.

"I didn't get it close enough to score," said Blixt, who birdied twice.

Spieth birdied four times, too, but had all of those bogeys.

Watson had five birdies, two bogeys.

Phil and Tiger had no birdies, and Augusta National heard no roars.

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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