In order to understand how hard it is to close out a Masters, take a look at Corey Conners.
The 29-year-old Canadian had a marvellous run in Augusta this week. On Saturday, he had a hole-in-one and made all the highlight shows. Early Sunday afternoon, he was in with a puncher’s chance – five shots behind leader and eventual winner, Hideki Matsuyama.
As he prepared to start his final round, he got a nice, audio back-rub from lead CBS analyst Nick Faldo. In that moment, Conners was a man on the cusp. For all we knew, he was Mike Weir Part II. This was going to be another great national triumph.
A couple of hours later, Conners had vanished. He didn’t fade out of the broadcast. He was ejected at speed. One minute he was there, the next it was on to our 400th camera angle of Phil Mickelson.
What did Conners do to deserve this snub? He went bogey, bogey, double-bogey, bogey at the fifth through eighth holes.
When you do that at a Masters, you disappear (unless you are American, in which case you can be out there bashing balls with a croquet mallet and the TV crew will continue shining your shoes).
Now working in televisual anonymity, Conners was able to rescue his round. He finished in a tie for eighth. He’s put up back-to-back top 10s at the Masters. If this is what a bad day looks like, few have the luxury of having bad days so good.
The big story out of Sunday was of roads untaken. Matsuyama didn’t so much win in the final round, as he did hang on for the ride.
The victory makes him the first Japanese Masters champion in history. The weight of that accomplishment appeared to come bearing down on him as he maybe too casually stroked in a short putt to take it by a single stroke.
No tears. No jumping up and down. To judge by his reaction, Matsuyama had just finished fourth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (true name) and had a plane to catch.
Later in the Butler Cabin, the place where CBS’s Jim Nantz earns a cash bonus if he can make the winner cry, Matsuyama was just as sanguine.
How did he feel about making history?
“I’m really happy,” Matsuyama said. That’s it.
One suspects the more substantive sharing of emotions will happen when he returns to his own country. Whatever Weir is to Canada, Matsuyama becomes that and much more to a country that is sports-crazy in general, and golf-crazy in particular.
As often seems the case, there is a nice circularity to how it turned out in Augusta this year.
Matsuyama first caught international notice when, as a 19-year-old, he was low amateur at the 2011 Masters. That tournament is known for another reason – the unbearable collapse of Rory McIlroy.
Like Matsuyama, the Irishman went into that Sunday leading by four. It ended poorly.
For all that McIlroy has accomplished, that personal disaster is still the moment that leaps to mind when you hear his name. It’s always bad to choke. There is no more terrible place on Earth to choke than Augusta.
You could feel that pressure bearing down on Matsuyama at the first tee on Sunday. He hit his drive so far right, it looked as though he was aiming for the parking lot. For just a moment, right at the beginning, his lead was down to one stroke.
But then the pressure got to everyone else as well. Before Matsuyama started to come on, everyone else started to fall off.
And then they didn’t. Matsuyama’s lead was seven after 11. It was five a hole later. At the 15th, he found the water and it was now down to two. The comer was another young golfer who feels like he’s owed – Xander Schauffele, one of the poor saps who finished behind Tiger Woods at his triumphal Masters march two years ago.
Schauffele may have the most sympatico face in all of professional sports. You know the way some people just look nice? Schauffele looks nice.
You didn’t want Matsuyama to lose, exactly, but you kind of wanted Schauffele to win. He’d worked for it. Then the shot of the tournament happened, and not the good kind.
With Matsuyama on the ropes, Schauffele went first at the par-three 16th. It is a hard shot to get just right, and just as hard to get badly wrong. Guess what Schauffele did?
Exactly. After he’d put his opener in the water, it was over. Once again relieved of pressure, Matsuyama did just enough to win. Asked afterward what his most important shot of the day had been, he said, “My drive on the 18th.”
What was so special about that one? Nothing. He managed to get in on the fairway. On Sunday, that was enough.
This year Masters was the first true post-Woods major. He may be back in Augusta after seriously injuring himself in a one-car accident, but it won’t be as a serious competitor. The next time he makes major news at Augusta, it will be whenever he joins Jack Nicklaus on the ceremonial opening tee.
Woods (and maybe Mickelson in his prime) was the last of a breed. He didn’t think he had a chance. He knew he was going to win (even when he didn’t).
There is nobody left like that on the PGA Tour. They’ve spent years trying to create someone – Jordan Spieth came close for a while – but so far, no luck.
Instead, it’s a bunch of guys who think they can do it, but aren’t sure until that last drive down the middle on 18. On Sunday, it was Hideki Matsuyama’s (richly deserved) turn to come out on the right side of golf’s roulette wheel.
Depending on your perspective, that uncertainty either makes the greatest Sunday on the sports calendar a little more fun to watch, or just a little less.