Fans' noise brings smile to winner's ears

The Masters

April 12, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Like thunder, cheers erupted from the green ravines and humpback berms of Augusta National yesterday. The undulating noise rattled the pines, stirred the soul, elevated the adrenaline.

What's going on? Where's that coming from?

It was the final round of the Masters, all contenders were on the back nine. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, K.J. Choi, Davis Love, Freddy Couples, Bernhard Langer and even Sergio Garcia were scattering warning shots to each other, to the gallery, to the ghosts of great Masters past.

Five-under par, 4-, 3-.

All within striking distance.

For everyone who watched, for everyone who played, for everyone who heard it - except for Els - it was an unforgettable Masters for all the right reasons.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's editions, the name of a golfer who made a hole-in-one in the final round of the Masters was reported incorrectly in a column. The player was Kirk Triplett.

"When I was on 12, I heard that Ernie had just made eagle. I heard the roar. I didn't know what had happened, but I figured he had just made eagle," Mickelson said.

But the minute Mickelson thought he knew where he stood, the roar echoed from another place.

"It sure felt like it was something special. I could tell through the roars for the most part what was going on. And it was - it made for - an awesome experience," he said.

It sounds like a myth, that a man can hear applause and know exactly what it means.

Birdie applause.

Eagle cheers.

That electric shock from a gallery as it signals the rarest feat in golf this side of a double eagle: an ace.

If Mickelson will have an enduring memory of his first major tournament triumph burned into his mental hard drive from now until perpetuity, he'll also have the cranium-rattling audio from this Easter.

Mickelson's masterpiece Masters victory, stunning enough on its own, was made an instant classic because it was achieved in a cacophony of incredible golf.

Poor Els, left to decipher how a round that included two eagles and momentum from the seventh hole through the 15th could end with the crowd roaring for someone else.

But it figured to play out as it did yesterday, in one of the greatest Masters ever played, ranking with 1986, when Jack Nicklaus scored a final-round 65.

With an eagle-birdie-birdie en route to a course-record 30 for Masters winners on the back nine, Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket that memorable day.

Yesterday had the same feel. The back nine was played in a dizzying wallop of competitive one-upmanships.

Like heavyweight fighters, the leaders traded punches. At one point late in the day, nine players - nine - lit the board with red numbers as if this were the NASDAQ on a monstrous trading run.

Sell, buy, sell.

Birdie, eagle, ace.

Garcia, who started the day at 3-over and fell to 5-over on the sixth hole, streaked through holes 12 through 17 by registering a birdie, birdie, bogey, eagle, birdie, birdie, ending his Masters with a tournament-low 66. He left the course at 3-under, setting a dramatic tone for what would follow the next two hours with CBS cameras rolling for every upping of the ante.

The frenzy and the flurry made it hard to believe that this was the same beautiful beast of Augusta that had been reconfigured to be Tiger-proof. It was on a course made to play so long, so fast and so treacherous that it could never yield such an onslaught of shot-making and low scores.

But the noise coming from Amen Corner, from 14, 15 and the par-3 16 told a different story. Augusta was a course willing to give contenders chances to win this coveted tournament, not give it away. Those were the conditions that elevated Mickelson's stirring comeback to something beyond great, something thrilling.

It all built to the main bout between Els and Mickelson, but the undercard helped set the tone.

Padraig Harrington aced the par-3 16th, only the eighth time in Masters history that an ace had been recorded on that hole.

Next, over on the par-4 11th, Choi hit a 5-iron from 220 yards to the green, where it bounced twice and rolled into the cup.

It was an amazing shot. It was also meaningful, since it dropped Choi to 3-under (he had held the lead at 7-under on the second round) and put him into contention behind Els, Mickelson and Langer.

Then Larry Triplett aced the 16th, too, flopping on the grass in disbelief.

Then Els eagled the 13th, dropping to 7-under to take a three-stroke lead over Mickelson. But Mickelson stepped up on 12, heard the stir of the crowd but was not deterred. He birdied the hole to stay within two strokes, then birdied the 13th and 14th to pull even.

Els birdied the 15th, but it was Mickelson who, with that cup-twirling putt that finally fell in, was inspired to make this Masters his crowning glory. That turned it into a golfing gift to anyone, except Els, who watched, or listened.

"He made that birdie on 16. I heard that roar," Els said.

"And then, obviously, I could hear from the crowd's reaction, he hit it pretty close on 18, and then he made that great putt there. There's nothing you can do," Els said.

Nothing, except watch. Or listen. And remember.

Mickelson will. "The rest of my life," he said, grinning.

He's not alone.

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