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Posted: April 12, 2011 6:13 p.m.

What a memorable 2011 Masters taught us

 

The Masters is gone for another year and I’m already sad. This year’s tournament may go down as the best one yet. If you missed it, shame on you. You missed something special. And after the dust settled from that amazing final round, we (and hopefully Rory McIlory) learned a lot. Here are five things to take out of the 2011 Masters.

5. Tiger Woods is back... almost

Woods dusted off his game for nine holes during Sunday’s final round of the Masters, and for about an hour, he looked like he was going to pull off the win after starting the day five shots off the lead. It was vintage Woods. He was shaping shots. His long iron into No. 8 which led to eagle is what we’ve come to know Woods for over his career. He also showed his game still needs some work. What used to be perhaps his greatest weapon, his putter, turned out to stall his run at a fifth green jacket. When he needed it most, on the back nine Sunday, Woods couldn’t score on the par 5s. When he called on his putter, it failed him. He missed short putts on No. 12 and 15 and missed an opportunity on 13 with a 7-iron in his hand for his second shot.

Still, Woods shot 66 Friday and 67 Sunday and looked much more like a 14-time major champion and the Tiger Woods everyone is accustomed to. Swing coach Sean Foley and Woods himself believe they are at the point with the swing change where Woods can play golf now. The technical/hard part is behind them and it’s now about hitting golf shots that have made Woods so good for so long. The putting will come with practice. With all the time Woods has spent on the new swing, the practice time for putting has suffered. That will change. Woods showed the world he’s close to being a contender every week once again. We'll see how good everyone is then.

4. Rory McIlroy is the man

Golf is such a cruel game. When McIlroy raced out to a first round lead with a 63 at the Old Course at St. Andrews in last year’s British Open, he looked like he was going to beat the field by 15 strokes. Everything changed when he shot an 80 in the second round. McIlroy bounced back to shoot in the 60s the next two rounds and managed to tie for third so everyone figured he’d learned from it. He may have. But it didn’t help him Sunday when he lost a four-stroke lead and finished 10 shots back.

While last year’s Open stung, McIlroy’s final round meltdown Sunday at Augusta may be one of those moments in a person’s career they never recover from. Fortunately, he’s 21 and can beat 95 percent of the world using just a 7-iron. He has the game to be a major champion many times over and he will be. He’ll rise from the ashes an even better golfer.

Barely an hour after he laid a path of self destruction from No. 10 to the scoring shed, a physically messy and emotionally smoked McIlroy took the worst day of his life like a champion. He answered every interviewer’s question and his honesty and gratitude in defeat should make us all question our own morality. He may have lost the green jacket Sunday, but he gained millions of fans in doing so.

3. The youth movement has officially arrived, but...

Everywhere you look on the PGA Tour, the so-called crop of young guns is seemingly taking over professional golf. Jason Day. Rickie Fowler. Dustin Johnson. Nick Whatney. Rory McIlroy. All but Fowler have already won on Tour and there’s no dodging the inevitable. The group of young talent is overwhelming. But as we saw at Augusta on Sunday, like we saw in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship last year, youth isn’t always served.

McIlroy is just the latest talented young player to suffer a final-round meltdown at a major. Johnson’s meltdown at Pebble Beach last year was a horror show the likes of McIlroy’s chaotic final round Sunday. Whatney suffered a similar fate after chucking a final round lead at Whistling Straits in the season’s final major of 2010 into Lake Michigan. All three of these players will win major golf tournaments someday. They’re too good not to. But the three final-round debacles reminds us how tough it is to win a major on Sunday. It’s OK to get excited about the future of golf. Just remember, you have to lose before you can win.

2. The rest of the world has caught up with, passed and left the U.S. in the dust

Tiger Woods, for all the talk about his fall from grace and despite the whispers that he’s no longer feared on the golf course, was the highest American finisher Sunday (tied for fourth place). Of the top 10 finishers, seven hail from countries not called the United States. In other words, golf domination is coming from all over the world and less from here in the U.S.

Twenty years ago, seven of the top 10 finishers in the Masters were American. Ten years ago, that number dipped to six. Five years ago it was five. That is what’s called a pattern. One upon a time, even recently, most of the best players in the world were from the U.S. That’s not the case anymore. For the first time in 22, years, no American holds a major title. With Charl Schwartzl’s win Sunday, the past four majors have gone to South Africa, Germany (Martin Kaymer, 2010 PGA Champ), South Africa (Louis Oosthuizen, 2010 British Open) and Northern Ireland (Graeme McDowell, 2010 U.S. Open).

Woods may not be the player he was five years ago. Phil Mickelson’s best years may be behind him. Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk are solid but getting older. The landscape of professional golf has changed forever,

Who's going to take the reigns of American golf in the future? The afore-mentioned Fowler, Johnson and Whatney are poised to. But two of those guys already choked away majors last year. We’ll have to wait and see.

1. The Masters is the best sporting event in the world

If you had one chance to archive something to teach future generations, civilizations or alien life forms about golf, you’d package footage of the final round of this year’s Masters in a vault. Sunday’s final round was as gripping a sporting event I’ve watched in several years. The last event I can think of that compelled me like Sunday’s finish was the 2008 Wimbledon between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. No sporting event in the world is like the Masters. If God came down from the heavens to play golf, he’d roll his chariot up Magnolia Lane, grab a pimento cheese sandwich and head off to Tea Olive for five hours of bliss. The course has Amen Corner, for heavens sake. It’s the most beautiful place in the state of Georgia. And we haven’t even talked about playing it.

Tradition is a large part of what makes Augusta so special. But when it’s all set aside, playing Augusta is a challenge that never fails to gobble up the best players in the world. The greens are so tight — so hilly and fast that perhaps the best way to prepare for them is playing a worn-out Pirate’s Cove putt-putt course. The Masters is also the only major played on the same course. For that reason, old guys like Fred Couples always seem to have a chance. Experience matters.

Most of the time, you don’t play to miss greens. At Augusta, it’s a critical part of the game. When you see a final round like we saw Sunday, when eight players had a share of the lead at one point, and it took a four-birdie streak to win at golf’s greatest venues, it burns in your mind forever. The Masters is the one event that combines tradition, competition and beauty like nothing else known to man. It's the pinnacle of sports.

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