AUGUSTA, Ga. - Len Mattiace came to a certain place at a certain time yesterday that few of his ilk ever face.
The Masters is made for legends. You know the names. The great ones. They've all won here on the old orchard that Bobby Jones turned into America's most famous golf course.
Len Mattiace is far from a legend, although he played like one for 17 holes on a pressure-packed Sunday at Augusta National.
He began the day at even par. He walked off the 17th green at 8 under.
Mattiace was a par away from the all-time fairy tale. Fifteen years between Masters appearances and he was this close to a lifetime of Aprils amid the Georgia pines. That's what you win at the Masters. That and a green jacket. That and a slice of golfing immortality.
For 17 holes, the funniest thing happened during the final round. Len Mattiace went out and played like Tiger Woods. And, a smart aleck might suggest, Woods went out and played as you might have expected Mattiace to play.
One is a three-time Masters champion who was in pursuit of an unprecedented third straight Augusta title. The other is, well, a journeyman who went his first seven years on the PGA Tour without a win before capturing two events last summer.
But it was the journeyman who came to the 18th hole with the Masters in his grasp. Hadn't hit a bad ball all day. Every bounce, every break had gone his way. He was in the zone.
And then he faced the chute.
The finishing hole at Augusta is 465 yards long. The tee shot has to be threaded through a sentry of pines, the ropes stretched inward, thick with spectators. Then it's uphill to a very difficult green.
Even the greats have been known to walk to this tee with a mouthful of cotton, unable to spit a drop.
Mattiace stood there, looked at a scoreboard for the first time all day and immediately flared his drive to the right and into the woods.
It wasn't pretty from there. He bogeyed the hole, opening the door for Mike Weir to tie him by the end of regulation. Mattiace then hooked his approach shot on the first playoff hole, No. 10, chipped poorly, putted poorly and let Weir turn a bogey into victory.
And then Len Mattiace stepped up to the microphones and cried like a baby.
Not for the lost opportunity.
Just for the opportunity.
“I love the game,” he said. “I've loved it since I was 8 years old and I've dreamed of a day like this. I'm just so happy to pull off a round like I did today. I don't know where it came from. I just stayed so strong. To be here after such a long time and to play this way is a wonderful thing.”
Sound like the loser? That's because he didn't feel like one. He just didn't win and, yes, sometimes there's a difference.
Mattiace first came to Augusta in 1988, back in the days that the Masters field included the amateurs from the previous year's Walker Cup team. He was 20 years old, slept in the crow's nest atop the storied clubhouse and sneaked down at night, when the place was empty, to inhale the tradition that is on display, to grab an extra bowl of peach cobbler a la mode.
“I can tell you every shot I hit, what bed I slept in, what I ate every night,” Mattiace said. “It was such a privilege.
“No, I didn't think it would take 15 years to get back. I was a junior in college then and being the stud I thought I was, an All-American, I figured I'd zip right into the pros, win something right away, be a top-30 money-winner, and be able to come here year after year.”
But there are dreams and there is reality. Sometimes they don't mix. Sometimes those bumps in the road are more like boulders. And Mattiace never quit trying to scale them.
“I've always tried to get better and better, to reach new levels,” he said.
He reached a new one yesterday with a game that “was on all cylinders. I hit the ball consistently well. I hit a great shot for an eagle, chipped in for a birdie. I executed shots, made putts, never lost my focus. It was one of my greatest rounds ever, certainly my best in a major championship.”
Mattiace was in position to grab headlines at last year's Players Championship, coming to the famed No. 17 island green at Sawgrass just one shot off the lead. But his tee shot flew the green and splashed. From the drop area he found a bunker. From the bunker he skulled a shot that skittered across the green back into the pond. When all was said and done, he had scored an 8.
Mattiace walked away a loser that day.
But not yesterday. He played the round of his life. He just didn't win.
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