IT WAS perhaps fitting that a Masters which stretched the limits of sporting incredulity was won by an American eccentric who conjured an outrageous major-winning birdie. Bubba Watson denied Louis Oosthuizen on a day which featured the South African record the fourth albatross in the 83-year history of Augusta's magnificent event.
Watson was in the trees on the second extra hole - the 10th - and needing a miracle. But with that self-taught swing which creates barely imaginable movement he produced an incredible hook which finished within 12ft. Oosthuizen could not get up and down and so the drama ended in glory for the 33-year-old from Florida. Bubba blubbed. He had every right to cry.
It says so much about the frenetic nature of this feast that by the time Watson had tapped in the miracle of four hours before was a distant memory. It was the Masters which had everything - including a play-off. When Watson and Oosthuizen walked back to the 18th it was a chance for Augusta to take a breath. Blimey, it was needed. This cathedral of the pines had just witnessed one of the game's greatest shots and one of the most gripping back nines.
Oosthuizen's four-iron had sent him clear, but Watson hauled him back with four birdies in a row from the 13th. After Oosthuizen had made a nerveless five-footer to send it into extra time the big-hitting Watson stood tallest, proving that you don't have to be mad to keep your cool in the most pressurised of atmospheres - but it certainly helps.
At 10-under there were two shots back to Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Peter Hanson in a tie for third. A few more would have left the National counting up the "if onlys".
It had to go some to rival the drama of last year. It eclipsed those remarkable scenes. This was a white-knuckled ride with so many candidates hanging on to the rollercoaster. Turning for home there were eight players within four shots. They included Westwood and Ian Poulter for England and Padraig Harrington for Ireland. The trio played a full part, Westwood in particular displaying outrageous form with wood and iron. His 68 left him two shots short and when one considers the missed putts this was yet another major that got away. It must have been hard to take.
This was Westwood's seventh top three in his last 15 majors, a remarkable run. Except he wants the magical Sunday. He doesn't need to be told that he led the green-in-regulation statistics or that he took 98 putts in his first three rounds. The realisation was written all over his face. It has to be his day soon.
His ball-striking on the back nine was peerless. The wood on to the 15th green was perfectly struck to 10 feet, but somehow the ball managed to rest an inch on the opposite side of the hole. No matter, he marched to the 16th and put it 14 feet. The putt dribbled wide. The 17th he put he to 10 feet, the putt dribbled wide. On the 18th, he holed a nine-footer. At eight-under he went to prepare for a possible play-off. But deep down he knew.
Westwood is 39 in a fortnight and will be a big factor at the US Open in San Francisco. Only a fool would predict otherwise. Poulter is another who will head to the Olympic Club with conviction. Little over a month ago he had pneumonia. He shrugged off the fatigue to finish seventh, his best here.
An albatross at Augusta is only just less commonplace than a female member. Never mind giving this Masters a spark, Oosthuizen threw paraffin and so many boxes of matches on the 76th conclusion of the season's first major. Somewhere up above, Gene Sarazen allowed himself a little chuckle.
Of course, it was the great American who produced "the shot heard across the world", by holing his second at the par-five 15th. Nobody had ever, in 89 years, conjured a two on the 575-yarder. Oosthuizen defied the record books.
Starting the day two behind the Hanson, the 2010 Open champion stood over his 253-yard four-iron approach thinking of making the putting surface. The observer could tell he liked it straight away. And so it hopped on to the green. Crikey, this was going to be close. Very close. It was destined to drop, rolling up and into the hole with perfect weight. Cue bedlam.
Oosthuizen raised his arms, before performing "a high 10" with his caddie, Wynard Stander, which missed. He threw the ball into the crowd, the lucky recipient being a New Zealander called Wayne Mitchell. The rumour was the greenjackets "acquired" the ball from the gentleman, who had apparently been offered $20,000 by an auction house.
In one shot Oosthuizen had gone from being two behind to one ahead. With Hanson bogeying the first, Oosthuizen was three ahead, although by the eighth, Watson and Kuchar had closed to within two. Wasn't it golf's great entertainer, Mickelson, charged with introducing the electricity?
The left-hander did that; but it was negative rather than positive. Mickelson sliced the ball off the grandstand into the trees on the fourth, took two right-handed swings in the cabbage, then chunked a flop-shot into a bunker off a tight lie, then almost holed his bunker. The triple-bogey six dropped him to five-under, four behind Oosthuizen. But no Masters champion has ever posted a triple, never mind two and the three-time champion could only drag his way back to a level 72.
So it was another left-hander who launched the assault which felled Oosthuizen. His father died last year, which accounts for the tears. After a three-putt on the 12th, Watson went into attack mode. It came off, courtesy of that quartet of birdies and, of course, that piece of supreme skill in the play-off.
Oosthuizen - who made so many gutsy par saves - had achieved immortality. A crystal bowl is on the way to his residence in West Palm Beach - and a plaque will be on its way to that spot on the second fairway. What a start for Oosthuizen, what a start to a major.
The Masters hadn't seen an albatross - or "a double eagle" as they call it over - in 19 years since Jeff Maggert at the 13th. Oosthuizen has provided emphatic proof that his seven-shot win at St Andrews was anything but a fluke. And whatever the result of the play-off, Oosthuizen at least had a moment to toast. If only Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy could have said the same.
Woods was lifeless in a 74 which ensured his worst finish at The Masters in 15 years as a professional, at a place which was supposed his theatre. There was a nice moment when he gave a mock fist-pump and a roar when birdieing the 18th. Don't believe his wry smile. Deep down he was in agony.
So much for The Tiger and Rory Show. It was supposed to be the main act, but it did not even qualify as a warm-up. They finished together on five over, tied for 41st. In the event, golf didn't require a battle between the generations to thrill the heart. The Masters requires nothing else but the magic of Augusta.
Bubba blubbed. And everyone with a sporting soul acknowledged why.
SELECTED FINAL ROUND SCORES (US unless stated, par 72)
278 B Watson 69 71 70 68, L Oosthuizen (SA) 68 72 6969. (Watson wins sudden death play-off)
280 L Westwood (GB) 67 73 72 68, M Kuchar 71 70 70 69, P Hanson (Swe) 68 74 65 73, P Mickelson 74 68 66 72.
283 I Poulter (GB) 72 72 70 69.
284 J Rose (GB) 72 72 72 68, A Scott (Aus) 75 70 73 66, P Harrington (Ire) 71 73 68 72.
285 J Furyk 70 73 72 70.
286 K Na 71 75 72 68, G McDowell (GB) 75 72 71 68, S Garcia (Sp) 72 68 75 71.
289 J Dufner 69 70 75 75, A Hansen (Den) 76 72 73 68, P Lawrie (GB) 69 72 72 76.
290 V Singh (Fiji) 70 72 76 72, R Fowler 74 74 72 70.
291 A Cabrera (Arg) 71 78 71 71, L Donald (GB) 75 73 75 68.
292 B Haas 72 74 76 70, Sang-moon Bae (S Kor) 75 71 69 77, T Bjorn (Den) 73 76 74 69
293 A Baddeley (Aus) 71 71 77 74, R McIlroy (GB) 71 69 77 76, T Woods 72 75 72 74.
294 M Kaymer (Ger) 72 75 75 72, K Chappell 71 76 71 76, W Simpson 72 74 70 78.
295 S Stricker 71 77 72 75, R Fisher (GB) 71 77 73 74, P Cantlay 71 78 74 72.
298 M Angel Jimenez (Sp) 69 72 76 81.
299 M Laird (GB) 76 72 74 77, Y E Yang (S Kor) 73 70 75 81, E Molinari (It) 75 74 76 74.
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