Throughout my week at the Masters, I’ve run into just about anything you could expect to see surrounding a major golf championship. From the lighthearted interactions between players and patrons during the practice rounds, to the nervous scrambling to keep hope afloat in the early rounds, to the looks of wonderment on the faces of patrons seeing the course for the first time, there was no shortage of emotion or entertainment.
But my total immersion into the most famous tournament in golf may have hit its peak a few miles off the property of Augusta National Sunday morning.
Sitting at a Waffle House while enjoying some breakfast, it quickly became clear that the majority of my fellow diners were headed to the final round. And as I began to take note of the conversations bouncing from table to table, I realized that I was experiencing a first in my long line of sports experiences –a golf tailgate.
The restaurant wasn’t so much a breakfast stop as it was a staging area for the day to come. There were plenty of people saying that it would finally be Rory McIlroy’s time. Two of the teenagers there were hoping for Rickie Fowler make a charge. Ironically, Patrick Reed – who led nearby Augusta State to a pair of national titles and who claimed the green jacket for 2018 – was one of the few leaders without vocal support at our breakfast club.
The coffee and camaraderie had Sunday off to a light start, but the tension and gravity of the day was palpable as soon as I stepped onto the property. The press building had been buzzing with conversation throughout the week. Everything was still buzzing Sunday, yet the volume decreased as the day wore on, with many heading out to the course, while others were dialed in on the television monitors showing the leaders getting their rounds started.
About 500 yards from the back of the press building sits the driving range. The scene of players joking around and patrons seeking autographs earlier in the week, the range had dwindled to just a handful of players who were all locked in as they prepared for what they hoped would be a life-changing round of golf.
Once on the course, it was six hours of energy and adrenaline for players and patrons alike.
With Reed holding a seemingly commanding lead over all but a few heading into the final 18 holes, it seemed like there might be less drama than usual. But if Augusta National has proven anything since the first Masters in 1934, it’s that Sunday will never be “just another day” on the course.
Jordan Spieth began the day nine strokes back of Reed and teed off an hour ahead of the final group. Two birdies to start the day still didn’t make him appear to be a factor, but the birdies just kept coming.
He was five under for the round and 10 under for the tournament at the turn and got one of the first huge Sunday roars of the day when he jarred in a 25-footer for birdie on No. 12. Those cheers had hardly finished bouncing off the loblolly pines when Spieth flushed his second shot on No. 13 to within 15 feet for a look at eagle.
Spieth made birdie there, and – with Reed and Rory McIlroy scrambling for pars over the first nine – the tournament was suddenly up for grabs.
The next two hours was a nonstop tidal wave of roar after roar. Spieth continued to charge while Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm also got within striking distance of the top of the leaderboard. That action was taking place on the lowest levels of the course. Patrons with a front row view began to hear roars cascading down the hill from near the clubhouse – not from great shots at No. 18, but from the thousands already gathered around the final green who were reacting to each birdie put up on the scoreboard.
When the week began, there was talk that this could be one of the best Masters ever. With so many of the world’s top players hitting their prime and with all of them playing well in recent weeks, there seemed to be a great chance for fireworks.
Reed’s great play over the first three days threatened to turn Sunday into a victory lap, but Spieth and Fowler wouldn’t allow it. Spieth – arguably the top player struggling most this season – nearly made history as he closed with a 64. If not for an errant tee shot on his 72nd hole, he may have secured his second green jacket.
Fowler never tied for the lead like Spieth managed, but still made sure that nothing was settled until the final putt of the day. Fowler clawed to within a shot of Reed with a birdie on No. 18, forcing the soon-to-be Masters champ to put together one more solid hole.
Reed proved himself a worthy champion, hitting the 18th fairway and green in regulation before two-putting for the win.
The finish was textbook.
The latest Sunday at Augusta was anything but. There’s a reason why it’s a tradition unlike any other.