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Close Calls
Jaime Diaz
April 20, 1998
After a fight to the finish, what was a heartbreaking defeat for one man was a moral victory for another
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April 20, 1998

Close Calls

After a fight to the finish, what was a heartbreaking defeat for one man was a moral victory for another

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At no other course is the line between success and failure as thin as it is at Augusta National during the Masters, and no one knows that better than Ken Venturi. So when Mark O'Meara birdied the last two holes on Sunday to defeat Fred Couples and David Duval by a stroke, the 66-year-old CBS golf analyst fell silent.

That had also been Venturi's reaction in 1960, the year he finished the final round in the lead, then sat down in front of a black-and-white TV and watched as Arnold Palmer became the only player besides O'Meara to make 3s on the 17th and 18th holes to win by a shot. Venturi was already well versed in Masters heartbreak. In 1956, as an amateur, he had shot an 80 on Sunday and lost by one to Jack Burke Jr., and in 1958 he was leading on the back nine when he was victimized by a hometown ruling that handed the tournament to Palmer.

Yet for a moment on Sunday, while Duval was transfixed by a color monitor showing O'Meara preparing to stroke the climactic putt, Venturi didn't make the connection. "I got totally lost in the action," he said. "I didn't relive what Arnold had done to me. When you're a professional golfer, you have to bury that stuff."

But is there a hole deep enough? This year six players—Couples, Duval, Paul Azinger, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson and David Toms—worked themselves into contention on Sunday only to come away with a crater full of what-ifs.

Couples, who like Duval finished at eight under, led from the opening round and was ahead by three strokes through eight holes but made a telling error at the 9th, spinning his sand-wedge approach shot back off the green and making a bogey 5. No one has ever won the Masters with a final-round bogey at 9, the gaffe mirroring the mistake that touched off the decline and fall of Greg Norman in '96. Couples's bogey made his double at the par-5 13th much more critical. "If you can't get it up the hill [at 9] from 105 yards, you shouldn't be out here—it killed me," said Couples.

Azinger's fifth-place finish, at six-under 282, was his best in 11 starts at Augusta. He will remember the birdie putt that hung on the lip at the 11th hole, the bogey at the par-3 12th and, most of all, his chip at the 17th that hit the flagstick but didn't drop. "I don't know how that ball came out. It was heartbreak hotel," said Azinger, who nonetheless was upbeat after his best finish in a major since undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer in his right shoulder, in 1993. "I'm going to take a lot out of this," he said, "and hopefully it will propel me to greater things."

Furyk, who finished alone in fourth at 281, two strokes behind O'Meara, had only one regret: the three-wood shot from 240 yards at 15 that landed on a downslope behind the green and bounded into the pond that fronts the 16th tee. "I would've had to kill a five-wood to get there, but maybe that was the play," he said. The resulting bogey put Furyk three shots off the pace, a deficit he couldn't overcome despite birdies on 16 and 17. If he had holed a 25-foot birdie putt at the 18th, Furyk would have moved into a tie with the leaders. "I'm not long enough to attack all the par-5s," said Furyk, who had never broken 293 in two previous starts at Augusta, "but when the winning score is around 280, I'm very comfortable here."

Mickelson sank like a stone on Sunday, falling all the way to 12th with a disappointing 74 after starting the day only two shots behind Couples. Mickelson will never forget the bogey he made at the short par-4 7th and his watery pull hook at the 12th, a shot that was impetuously aimed at the unforgiving far-right pin. Mickelson, who has 12 Tour victories but remains win-less in the majors, hid his wounds on Sunday evening. "I really thought today could be my day," he said, "but I feel like I've made some strides in this tournament."

Toms, a Masters rookie who tied for sixth with Jack Nicklaus, was the only loser who felt like a winner. He followed error-filled rounds of 75,72 and 72 with a closing 64—one off the course record shared by Norman and Nick Price—which included six birdies in a row and a record-tying (with Mark Calcavecchia) 29 on the back nine. "This is probably the highlight of my career," said Toms, whose only goal at the start of the day was to finish in the top 24, which would qualify him for next year's Masters. A 31-year-old Nike tour grad, Toms has won one regular Tour event, last year's Quad Cities Classic. His string of birdies started at the 12th hole. When he made number six by holing a 25-foot putt at the 17th, "It was like, whatever," he said.

Duval had his only bad round of the tournament on Saturday, a 74, but was able to put it behind him and match O'Meara on Sunday with a nearly flawless 67 His lone miscue came at the par-3 16th. He teed off there with a three-stroke lead while O'Meara and Couples were playing the 15th. Duval pushed his six-iron to the wrong side of the green and left himself a downhill 45-footer that broke 20 feet from right to left. He hit his first putt 10 feet past the hole and left the comebacker short. When Couples eagled 15, the three-shot cushion was gone. "I hit [the six-iron] good and just cut it a little bit," he said, "but that's the beauty of this course and this tournament. It's a very, very fine line that you walk."

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