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Published: Monday, 4/11/2011

75th Masters may have been among best

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- You just wanted to go wrap your arms around him and give him a hug, didn't you?

You wanted to do for Rory McIlroy what Nick Faldo did for Greg Norman after his collapse in 1996.

At the end, though, of what simply had to be the craziest Sunday in Masters history, it was Charl Schwartzel who was embraced by the masses at Augusta National Golf Club.

He earned it. Arnold Palmer once finished birdie-birdie to win here. Twenty-five years ago, in what is called the greatest Masters, Jack Nicklaus played the last four holes in four-under, although there was an eagle mixed in. Schwartzel, a South African, produced the same assault on par with an astounding birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie finish.

At the opposite end of the round, he chipped in for birdie at No. 1 out of a trampled-down, rock-hard patch from where bogey seemed a far more reasonable result. And two holes later he holed his approach shot -- a sand wedge from 114 yards -- for eagle.

So, basically, it was his day. And it came 50 years to the day that his legendary countryman, Gary Player, become the first international player to win the Masters.

Sunday, there were eight foreign-born players among the top 10 on the final leaderboard as the sun set on the National. Make of that what you'd like.

Seven golfers had the lead, or a share of it, at one point or another during the fourth round.

"There [are] so many roars, especially on the back nine," Schwartzel said. "It echoes through those trees. Every single hole you'd walk down someone had done something, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking at the leaderboards. But sometimes I would look and it wouldn't register. I did know going up 15 that Adam Scott had made a couple birdies. From there on, I knew it was now or never; [I had] to start hitting some good shots and converting them."

Mission accomplished.

McIlroy started the day with a four-shot lead, but 26 minutes into his round, and 36 minutes into Schwartzel's, the two were even. That started a remarkable day of golf with hairpin turns of events on seemingly every hole.

"It's the most exciting tournament I've ever played in," said Jason Day, who tied for second. "You're out there in the middle of the fairway and there are roars around you from every direction and you don't know what's going on. It must have been awesome on TV. I can't wait to watch it."

If you left the TV for more than 30 seconds, you probably missed something, although most were surely glued to their sets when Tiger Woods made his move.

It started with an eagle at No. 8 that shook the needles on the pines. When he drilled a 20-footer to save par at No. 9, and this was at 3:45 p.m., the name at the top of the scoreboards all around the grounds was "Woods, T." with a red number 10 next to it. But there were some excruciating misses on the greens on the back nine, including a killer, three-foot par putt that lipped out and stalled his drive at No. 12, and an eagle putt of a similar length that did the same at No. 15 and made his birdie feel almost empty.

In the end, Woods ran out of putts and then ran out of holes. But give him credit. Nobody really expected him to be a factor. As usual, he persevered and found a way into it.

Adam Scott and Day played together, and either could have become the first Australian to break through at Augusta. They had a best-ball 62, and Scott was at 12-under and led by himself with two holes to play after a marvelous approach for birdie at the par-3 16th hole.

"Obviously, I can't control Charl, and when you birdie the last four holes at the Masters and you're around the lead, that usually wins," Scott said.

And that pretty much sums up the 75th Masters, except for one thing.

There is the matter of Rory McIlroy.

After his four-shot lead melted, the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland got back to the sole lead with a birdie at No. 7. But when he turned to the back nine, he came apart at the seams, and it was truly painful to watch.

He hooked two shots into trouble and then chipped a shot that caught a limb en route to a triple bogey at No. 10. He followed a great drive and a good second shot with a three-putt at the 11th hole. And after a solid tee shot to the middle of the 12th green, he four-putted.

"I just unraveled," he said after carding an 80 for his final round. "I knew it was going to be very tough for me out there today, and it was. I felt good that I hung in well for the first nine holes, then I just sort of lost my speed on the greens, lost my line, lost everything. I couldn't recover. It's going to be hard to take for a few days, but I'll get over it."

After he drove left into Rae's Creek on No. 13, he draped his hands over the grip of his driver and buried his head in his arms. Surely, the kid needed a hug.

"I realized that was it," he said. "I didn't have a chance. After that, I couldn't birdie in."

Schwartzel, on the other hand, pretty much did.

And that was your 2011 Masters, just maybe the wildest of all 75 of them.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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