Augusta, Georgia - Charl Schwartzel of South Africa closed with four straight birdies on Sunday to win the Masters over a pair of Australians in one of the most dramatic finishes ever at Augusta National.
Schwartzel's final putt from 20 feet curled into the side of the cup for a 6-under 66, the best closing round at the Masters in 22 years. The 26-year-old finished at 14-under 274, two strokes ahead of Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day.
“Just an exciting day,” said Schwartzel, who also became the first Masters champion in its 75-year history to finish with four straight birdies. “So many roars, and that atmosphere out there was just incredible. A phenomenal day.”
Scott shot a 67 and Day finished with two straight birdies for a 68, leaving the Aussies in second place at 276. It was bitter disappointment for themselves and their country: the Masters is the only major an Australian has never won.
Tiger Woods was in a group at 278, failing to capitalise after making four birdies and an eagle to shoot a 31 on the front side. He missed short putts at both the 12th and 15th holes, limping to the finish with a 36 on the back nine.
“It could have been,” he said. “I hit it good all day.”
Rory McIlroy, who entered the day with a four-stroke lead, meanwhile, suffered a stunning collapse.
Still leading by one shot as he headed to the back nine, the Northern Irishman hit a tee shot next to the cabins left of the 10th fairway and twice hit a tree to make triple bogey. He three-putted from 7 feet for bogey on the 11th, four-putted from about 12 feet on the next hole and then buried his head into his forearm as the loss settled in.
McIlroy shot 80, the highest final round by the 54-hole leader since Ken Venturi in 1956. Not since Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open had someone wasted at least a four-shot lead going into the last round of the major.
“It's never nice to be leading a tournament and do what I did today,” McIlroy said.
“I just hit a poor tee shot on 10 and unravelled from there,” he added. “I'll have plenty more chances, I know that. It's just very disappointing what happened today.”
Schwartzel becomes the fourth straight first-time major champion, following Martin Kaymer of Germany (PGA Championship), fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen (British Open) and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland (US Open). His victory comes on the 50th anniversary of Gary Player becoming the first international player to win the Masters.
“I am absolutely delighted for Charl and South Africa. Congratulations and very well done to him. That is how you finish like a champion!” Player said on Twitter.
Eight players had at least a share of the lead at some point during the back nine on Sunday. The steady hand came from Schwartzel, whose only bogey was on the fourth hole as this Masters was just getting started.
Schwartzel got up-and-down from behind the 15th green for birdie to briefly take a share of the lead before Scott made a two-footer ahead of him on the par-3 16th.
Schwartzel answered with a 15-foot birdie of his own on the 16th to catch Scott again. Then came the pivotal 17th, where Schwartzel made a 10-foot birdie to take the outright lead for the first time all day.
Schwartzel will now move to No 11 in the world, making him the No 1 player in South Africa. He becomes the sixth South African to win a major.
“It's been such a short time to think about what can happen. It's a dream for me,” Schwartzel said. “It's obviously the highlight of my golf career, by a long way. I always thought if there was one I would win, it would be this one.”
In so many respects, the afternoon looked like 1986 when Jack Nicklaus charged through the back nine to win his sixth green jacket over a top field. There were twice as many possibilities at this Masters, though, with Woods, former Masters champion Angel Cabrera, Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald, KJ Choi and Bo Van Pelt all in contention toward the end.
Schwartzel played well from the start, chipping in from some 75 feet across the green for birdie on the opening hole, then holing out from the fairway on No 3 for eagle. Just like that, McIlroy's four-shot lead was gone.
The cheers were impossible for McIlroy to ignore. From the second green, where he was scrambling to make par, McIlroy could hear the noise ahead of him for Schwartzel's eagles. Moments later, another roar came from the seventh green, where Woods tapped in a close putt for another birdie.
The loudest reaction from the gallery was on the par-5 eighth, when Woods knocked in an eagle putt to reach 10 under and take a share of the lead. His momentum wouldn't last long, however.
Woods missed a 3-foot par putt on the 12th, failed to birdie the par-5 13th with a 7-iron for his second shot. Then, after twirling his 7-iron with a shot so pure it settled 4 feet away on the par-5 15th, he missed the 4-foot eagle putt.
Woods closed with a 67, his best final round ever here. But his 36 on the back nine wasn't good enough to win.
“I got off to a nice start there and posted 31,” he said. “And then on the back nine, could have capitalised some more.”
Woods finished equal fourth at the Masters for the second straight year, joined by Ogilvy, who ran off five straight birdies on the back nine, and Donald, who was in contention until hitting into a stream on the 12th for double bogey.
Scott, who switched to a long putter in February, took the lead for the first time with a short birdie on the 14th and had the look of a winner with his tee shot to tap-in range on the 16th, and a par save from the bunker on the 17th.
But he missed a 25-foot birdie putt on the final hole.
“It's just disappointing that I didn't win when I held the lead with a few holes to go,” the 30-year-old said. “I'm usually a pretty good closer. I didn't do a bad job today, but Charl was better. It was an incredible finish. I'm proud of the way I played, but I'm disappointed that I didn't get it done when I was right there at the end.”
The 23-year-old Day closed strongly with consecutive birdies that allowed him to join Scott at 12-under.
“I couldn't do any more than what I just did today,” Day said. “Charl played even better golf.” - Sapa-AP