Golf relishes its tales of sportsmanship and cherishes moments of major drama. Rarely, however, do the two collide.
The epic head-to-head final-round showdown between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 British Open at Turnberry has long been the sport’s gold standard for combining great golf with great sportsmanship.
“This is what it’s all about,” Watson famously said to Nicklaus as the pair stood tied on the 16th tee, 10 clear of the rest of the field.
“You bet it is,” Nicklaus responded.
That famous Duel in the Sun might have to share the podium with last April’s Duel in the Rain.
The final holes of regulation and playoff between Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera at the 2013 Masters Tournament were a rare confluence of brilliance and respect under the most intense pressure. The last pair standing as the rain and darkness fell down upon Augusta National elevated their performance and set a lasting example for how the game should be played.
“I think what we saw that week is guys who couldn’t play harder trying to beat each other acknowledge that you can still play with sportsmanship,” said Phil Scott, Adam’s father.
Above all the great shots and clutch putts that propelled Scott and Cabrera into a thrilling battle for the green jacket, the moment of the Masters came in the middle of the second playoff hole.
The often gruff-looking Cabrera had already hit his approach shot to the 10th green to 15 feet below the pin to set up a birdie opportunity when Scott delivered a matching 6-iron that settled hole high 12 feet right of the flag. As the two walked down opposite sides of the fairway, Cabrera turned and held a thumbs-up to acknowledge Scott’s shot. The Aussie returned the gesture.
“The sportsmanship is to be expected from a guy like him,” Scott said of Cabrera. “He’s all class. It came across really great when he gave me the thumbs-up and I did it back to him. The atmosphere was so loud at that point that saying something, you wouldn’t be able to hear what they said anyway. So it was down to hand signals. But still, to make a gesture at that moment shows what a classy guy he is.”
SCOTT AND CABRERA were paired with Sergio Garcia in the first two rounds, and it was obvious that the 2009 champion would need to be reckoned with.
“I think he wanted it bad,” Scott said of Cabrera. “I had this thought back to Friday. I was playing with Angel the first two days, and he ripped one over the trees on 13 on Friday and got on a nice little run around the turn, and he couldn’t have had more than a 9-iron to the green. I just thought I saw a little flicker in his eye and he could feel it this week and really wanted it.
“There’s no doubt you could see that at the end – a guy who wants it bad but he was loving every moment of it. That’s a guy you really have to beat because he’s going for broke and he has nothing to lose. He’s got a green jacket already. He’s got a U.S. Open. So the level of golf was outstanding. The shots that were played were brilliant.”
On Sunday afternoon, they were playing in consecutive groups at the back of the field, and as the holes ran out Cabrera was literally chasing Scott’s lead once Australian Jason Day faltered with two bogeys down the stretch.
Scott birdied No. 15 after a brilliant 4-iron reached the green to get to 8-under par. Cabrera answered with a birdie on No. 16 to tie.
Cabrera scorched the lip of the cup for a birdie chance on No. 17 and went to the 18th tee all square.
It was from his spot in the center of the 18th fairway, 163 yards away, that Cabrera stood under his umbrella and watched Scott sink his 28-foot birdie putt that sparked a raucous celebration on the green. But the two-time major winner didn’t wilt in the moment.
With the hardest rain of the day pelting down, Cabrera delivered a dart of a 9-iron that checked up less than 3 feet from the pin.
He flashed a smile and fist-bumped his son, Angelito, who was carrying the bag.
“There really wasn’t much conversation,” Cabrera said of his deliberations in the fairway. “I saw Scott make his 3, and I said, ‘OK, we’ve got to make 3.’ That’s about all that was said.”
A few minutes later, he calmly drained the putt to force the playoff.
If there was any fear that Australia was destined to have another green jacket stolen away, it didn’t register for long with Scott.
“I felt like I’d done everything I could to win and he was going to make that putt, so I think I was instantly gutted,” Scott said. “But I thought, you know, you don’t get handed majors. You’ve got to earn it. Now it’s down to me and him in a sudden-death playoff. My odds are 50/50, so I may as well go for it. Again, it was an excitement thing. If you’re not excited about that, then you’re not doing the right thing. That’s really what I want.”
“I was in the scorer’s room with Scotty when (Cabrera) hit that shot, and his reaction showed me that he was ready to go another hole,” fellow Aussie Marc Leishman said. “He thought he’d won it on the 18th, but when I saw his reaction it was like, ‘All right, we’re going another hole.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh no.’ He was ready to go.”
THE SHOWDOWN resumed head-to-head in sudden death. More often than not, Masters playoffs have been anticlimactic as the tension mounts. Five of the previous nine sudden-death playoffs in the Masters were won with a par or bogey. Another was extended by a missed 30-inch putt by Scott Hoch.
This one was different.
“The golf was amazing, and because Angel played so good it made it look even better,” Scott said. “The golf over the last three or four holes and the playoff was first class. That doesn’t always happen under that kind of pressure, but it just did that day.”
Both striped perfect drives down the narrow 18th fairway. Between clubs, both hit approaches that sucked back off the front of the green within 8 feet of each other. Cabrera hit a chip that once again peeked into the hole before slipping a foot past.
“I was standing on the edge of the green, and it really did have that look where it could go in,” Scott said. “A massive sense of relief went through me as it just slipped by the edge of the hole. I basically thought I got given a life there and don’t be a hero and try to hole it yourself now. It’s not the time.”
Scott skidded his chip to 3 feet and made the knee-knocker to send the playoff to the downhill 10th hole.
Once again both players found the fairway, Scott with a driver and Cabrera with a 3-iron stinger that traveled almost as far. They hit matching 6-irons so purely under the circumstances that it needed to be acknowledged with the mutual thumbs-up.
“OMG, both players thumbs up … so classy. Now I want both to win,” tweeted tennis legend Chris Evert, echoing the trending sentiment from golf fans.
Cabrera said his gesture was no big deal.
“Golf is a sport and not a war,” he said. “Whoever I play with, if he hits a good shot, I tell him good shot.”
Cabrera putted first and threatened the cup, with the big right-to-left breaker holding its line less than a ball above the hole. He tapped in and left the damp and darkened floor to Scott to either win it or bring them back Monday to finish.
“Angel hit an unbelievable putt again that looked like it could go in, and I thought this is my time, this is the moment,” Scott said. “I don’t think we were going to play another hole that night. I think we were going to go home and sleep and it would have been no sleep there. It was then or never in my mind.”
Facing the putt of his life, Scott leaned on faith in his caddie, Steve Williams. The New Zealander won 13 majors with Tiger Woods and had patrolled Augusta with the likes of Greg Norman and Ray Floyd before that. So Scott called on him for the read.
“It was pretty dark down there, and my eyesight at that point really wasn’t the best,” Scott said. “I said I think it’s a cup to the right at good speed, and he said it’s two cups to the right at good speed. He’s been going there 30-something years so I didn’t have much grounds to argue with him. I figured he must have seen the putt a little bit. Again, it’s one of those situations where you just have to will the ball into the hole and show how much you want it. Managed to put a good stroke on it, and in it went.”
THE BIRDIE EVOKED a second unbridled celebration from Scott, who delivered victory not just for himself but also for his country, which had endured so many Masters heartbreaks.
In that moment, yet another gesture of sportsmanship broke through.
Cabrera let Scott enjoy the moment before clutching him in a warm embrace and whispering something to his Presidents Cup teammate. Despite his personal disappointment, his manner illustrated a measure of pride in his opponent.
“That I was happy for him; that I know that he deserved it, and that he was going to eventually win it like he did right now,” Cabrera said. “It was just a matter of time. … He’s a great person, a great player.”
Scott appreciated the friendly remarks.
“I think it was very genuine,” he said. “He must have been gutted. I couldn’t imagine how I would have felt if I’d lost down there on the 10th green. He said he was so happy for me.”
Said Scott’s father: “Whatever Angel felt at that moment, he’s got some class to have done what he did. I’m sure he was proud of how he played, and maybe there was enough there that he needs to think, ‘I didn’t lose this thing.’”
Cabrera’s only disappointment was not winning and not with his effort.
“I hit them like I wanted, but I went away with empty hands,” he said.
Before the Masters, a Tiger Woods commercial debuted with the message that “winning takes care of everything.” That was not the message Scott and Cabrera delivered with their mutual skill and grace under pressure.
“Perhaps one of the great things that we will always remember is that bit of sportsmanship that made people realize that you can play as hard as you want and try to beat the other guy up and you can actually still be nice,” Phil Scott said. “Maybe there’s been too much emphasis on winning is everything. Of course everyone wants to win, but it’s how you win. That’s an old-fashioned adage that’s perhaps forgotten a bit.”