Commentary

What spells success at the Masters?

Some players come and win; others leave not understanding why they lost

Updated: April 9, 2012, 7:06 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The two security details brought their protectees face-to-face in the narrow alley behind the Augusta National clubhouse. Louis Oosthuizen stood with his caddie next to his bag, a few feet outside the grill room door. Bubba Watson rode past in a cart. The two men looked at each other, but neither spoke. Oosthuizen climbed into the trailing cart, and the convoy sped past the members' cabins to the 18th tee. Louis stared at Bubba's back. They would face each other in the sudden death playoff about to begin, but whatever they confronted inside was theirs alone. Both men sat quietly with their clubs.

An official told them they couldn't knock in a few putts; chairs covered the practice green, where in less than an hour one of them would be declared the 2012 Masters champion. The golfers passed the catering and floral trucks, setting up for a party to honor the champion. Men with brooms swept away a thin patina of dust and pollen. Watson's mother waited on the course. Oosthuizen's family piled into a den off the grill room to watch. The golfers rushed to the tee, and soon after they passed, a man hurried to Butler Cabin with four green jackets, tags marking the size hanging off the sleeves. There was a green jacket sized to fit both Oosthuizen and Watson. One of those jackets would go back into a closet.


Hours earlier, Tiger Woods changed his shoes in the parking lot, like someone who'd finished a round at the muni. He'd been the favorite to win the tournament, and when his last putt dropped, completing the worst Masters of his professional career, he did a sort of mock roar. Like everyone, he knew what was missing. He didn't wait around, heading through the clubhouse and straight to the car.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesTiger Woods struggled again Sunday, closing out a dismal, tantrum-filled 2012 Masters.

His PR guy and his caddie worked to fit his clubs in his travel bag, bending the stuffed tiger driver cover. They jammed in a handful of umbrellas as Tiger checked his phone. He hugged his caddie, then his agent, climbing into his car by himself, rolling down the window to tell them goodbye.

"See you guys," he said. "Thank you."

As he left, everyone in Team Tiger -- his coach, his agent, his caddie, his PR guy and even Tiger himself -- turned over the same question in their heads: Why?

He thought he was going to win. His game finally seemed complete. Tiger Woods, with his access to his own experience and the best coaches and former champions, has at his disposal every conceivable piece of knowledge about the game, and even he doesn't know why he can't win. That's the truth that simmers beneath the surface of a Sunday like the one that just finished in Augusta. We can know everything about golf, about the exact angle of his swing plane, the force of the club head, the physiology of pressure, but we don't know why some people perform and others don't, and how that seems to change from day to day, year to year. Luck matters: Phil Mickelson got a bad bounce off a railing; Oosthuizen's double eagle rolled for 28 yards before dropping in the cup. Nerves matter: Peter Hanson shanked a shot on the par-3 12th. He could hit that shot a thousand times on an empty course and never do that again. But at the core of the game, and at the black hole in the endless analysis of it, lies an almost complete lack of understanding of how to be your best when it matters most.

Even the players don't know. Before he finally broke through at the 1923 U.S. Open, Bobby Jones threw away major after major; he was Phil decades before Phil. At his lowest moment, Jones wondered if he had what it took to be a champion. He saw the beauty of his swing, and the power off the tee and touch on the green, but he looked inside to see if he lacked something elemental. What if these other guys had something that he didn't have?

Sergio Garcia confronted the same demons this week. Once he'd been a 19-year-old phenom full of potential and joy. He ran up hills after shots. On Saturday, with a thin beard and sunken cheeks, he walked off the course looking like that potential had ruined something inside of him.

"I had my chances and opportunities and I wasted them," he told reporters. "I have no more options. I wasted my options."

The next day, when asked if he meant what he'd said, he seemed empty. Yes, he'd meant every word.

"I can't sit here and lie like a lot of these guys do," he said.

He has made $40 million. He's 32 years old. And when someone asked what was missing from his game, he smiled and said, "Everything." Like Bobby Jones before him, he senses that he lacks something other golfers have, and not only does he not know how to get it, he can't even tell you what "it" is.

Woods' dilemma might be more painful. He knows what it feels like to be dominant, to have something that others lack, and even he drove out of a parking lot in a black Mercedes SUV, alone at last, no closer to the answer than when he arrived.


The gap between those who win tournaments like the Masters and those who watch is never more apparent than when sitting with the family of a golfer. About 20 minutes before Oosthuizen lost the playoff and had his green jacket taken from Butler Cabin back to the closet where it awaits the next person his size, his wife, Nel-Mare, bounced their baby girl. The bouncing picked up speed and intensity when Louis stood over his first shot. His dad sat behind her, quiet, wearing a replica of his son's hat. His mom sat on the couch. She couldn't watch. The wife of last year's champion, fellow South African Charl Schwartzel, held the Oosthuizen's older child. Nel-Mare reached for a bottle of milk and held it out for her father-in-law, Piet Oosthuizen, to open. The golfers tied and moved to the second playoff hole.

Bubba Watson managed to hit a shot out of a stand of pines, rolling it onto the green. Nel-Mare whispered something under her breath and fed the baby. Now her husband needed to make a putt to keep the tournament alive. A groan erupted in the next room, where the televisions' feed was a few seconds ahead. Still, his family believed, and when Piet saw the ball miss, he let out an "Oh!" before quickly covering his mouth, embarrassed.

The energy in the room faded, like it had been unplugged. The people who know Oosthuizen best in the world waited on him to do his interviews and pack his gear. Do they know why he came up short? Is the man handling this intense pressure on the television in front of them their son and husband, or is he a stranger? Nel-Mare said, finally, "It was a good week." Everyone slipped away until just the family remained. The temperature dropped outside. The baby got patted by mom and had its mouth wiped by grandma. They made plans for later that night.

A columnist started writing out loud, telling a colleague that Watson's win was "a symbol of the change." He skipped straight past the how and moved to "what it means," which happens, of course, because nobody can articulate the how. Not fans, not former players, not reporters, not even the wives and mothers of champions. Not the golfers. Even the greatest can't tell you exactly why they're great.

Bubba Watson sobbed in his mother's arms. Louis Oosthuizen complimented his opponent, while his wife held his daughter and watched him on a TV. Tiger Woods left a parking lot. Sergio Garcia walked off a course to a bank of cameras. All four possess deep wells of golf knowledge, and they can tell everything about their games, except why they win, and why they don't.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.