Might-have-beens at the Masters


AUGUSTA — Sunday’s final round at the Masters provided the suspense and signature elements we have come to expect and appreciate. Seasoned Masters fans enjoyed another chapter in the book of classic finishes, rewarding a competitor who once broke down in tears, exclaiming that he would never win a major.

On occasion, the Masters has crowned a previous near-miss champion but has left many at the altar. As far back as 1941, Craig Wood, who finished runner-up in the first two Masters tournaments, finally won the championship. Gay Brewer was in the hunt for a few years, finishing in a tie with Jack Nicklaus and Tommy Jacobs in 1966 with Nicklaus winning in an 18 hole playoff. Brewer, who had come close, got his Green Jacket in 1967.

Here in Augusta, Ga., where plantations once confirmed that wealth was in cotton and the hardscrabble life of Tobacco Road choked the life out of the have-nots, we find the two best players, Sunday, were of European ancestry dueling for the Masters title. That has happened previously — back in 1991 when Ian Woosnam won the tournament by one stroke over Jose Maria Olazabal.

This foreign flavor is entrenched more than ever. The last 10 Masters reflect how much the European tour has advanced. Six of the last ten Masters champions have had foreign addresses: Sergio Garcia, Danny Willett, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman. Since 2005, when Tiger Woods defeated Chris DeMarco on the first extra playoff hole with a birdie, a member of the European Tour has won the Masters or finished runner-up.

With any championship, there will be those who have runner-up attached to their name and never get another chance: major championships, Super Bowls, World Series, Indy 500’s and Wimbledon’s among many. That “might have been” category at Augusta includes players like Lloyd Mangrum, Ken Venturi, Greg Norman, Davis Love, Ernie Els and Tom Weiskopf — all of whom finished in second position at least twice.

As sad as it was for Roberto DeVincenzo whose scorecard error kept him from playing off for the championship in 1968, a gut wrenching heartbreak came Len Mattiace’s way in 2003 — a lamentable example of fate giving a competitor the back of its hand. Mattiace had, at best, modest success on the PGA Tour.

In the final round on Sunday, April 13, Mattiace came to the final hole needing a four to win the Masters. Par would have enabled him to finish with 64 and upgrade his wardrobe with a Green Jacket. He had made eagle at No. 13 and had not posted a bogey all day.

He finally made bogey at No. 18 which brought about a playoff with Canadian Mike Weir who made a seven-foot putt to force a playoff. It ended swiftly and sadly for Mattaice. His ball (second shot) ended up behind a tree and it took him four strokes to finish the hole, allowing Weir to win the Masters with a bogey.

When Tom Weiskopf came on the scene, tour veterans marveled at his raw talent. He was long off the tee with deft scoring abilities with the irons and putter. The golf world expected big things from him. His career was not spectacular, but it certainly was not too shabby. Everybody thought that he should have won a bushel of majors, but the only one came at Troon in the British Open in 1973.

At the Masters, he played some of his best golf, but finished in second place four times: 1969, 1972, 1974 and 1975. In 1975, Jack Nicklaus was the leader in the clubhouse with a score of 276 for the tournament. Weiskopf and his playing partner, Johnny Miller, came to the final hole with birdie opportunities to force a playoff. Both of them missed, and Nicklaus became the winner without a playoff.

In the locker room afterwards, Weiskopf was distraught. He knew he had played well enough to win but had come up one stroke short. “What hurts,” he said, “you just don’t know how many opportunities you will have to win the Masters.” He paused to compose himself, knowing that he may have had his last opportunity to win at Augusta. That turned out to be true.

Now, Justin Rose, rests in the runner-up position — but with time to claim a Green Jacket. If he studies Masters history, he will be reminded, some make good on that second chance. Some, however, don’t.

[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]