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The Throwback

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer:  This article was written 2 years ago.  It was submitted for print for a basketball magazine but unfortunately they did not like it.  It’s been stuck in my hard drive and I thought I may as well post it.  So, it is a dated article and much has happened since then (Drive for Five).  But I still want to share this.  Enjoy.

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(Picture by Alyson Yap)

Taking the ball up the right side of the court, Kirk Long spied two Tamaraws between him and the basket, during the first quarter of game 1 of the recently concluded UAAP Season 73 Finals.  Without missing a beat he attacks one defenders, pivots in mid dribble, slides by the second defender, explodes towards the basket and lays in the twinner off the glass.  As the crowd goes wild he runs back on defense without expression, takes up his position ready to defend the next play.  On one hand he just displayed the pizzazz and glamour of modern basketball, marked by the amazing, in search for the highlight.  On the other, he embodied his true self as he casts aside the fact that two points had been spectacularly scored and that there is defense to be addressed.  Here lies Kirk Long the basketball player, capable of playing the modern game but defined by the fundamentals like discipline, dedication and attention to the game.  This has been the hallmark of his basketball playing career.

Kirk Long has been in the Philippines since he was 3 years old.  He arrived with his family in 1991 and grew up watching his dad play basketball amongst the common folk in far flung provinces and barangay courts while spreading the word of God.  In his mind the guy who has inspired Kirk the most not just in basketball but also his life is his dad, Jeff Long.  A former high school and basketball player, Jeff spent a huge part of his life going around the different corners of the Philippines and Asia spreading the good news while playing the game that he loved.  In Kirk’s eyes, he sees his dad as one who has “always been a good reminder for me to play for the right reasons”.  One of the things Jeff told his son which is deeply embedded in Kirk is “to never take the game for granted.“

By the time he was 7 years old Kirk would be put into the game to bring up the ball as the time wound down. By 13 he was actually already playing with grown-ups in these plaza sorties.  Defenders would attack him while he brought up the ball and he eventually learned how to break presses and on court pressures even at such a young age.  He also soon earned his reputation as a gym rat.  Spending Fridays and Saturdays in the Faith Academy gym, while his dad did his school duties, he would play basketball, volleyball, football or any other game he could get into.  As he developed his basketball game though, this took priority and soon he spent what he says are hundreds of hours working on each and every aspect of his game.

After going back to Kansas for a year, taking care of his ailing grandmother, the Long family came back in time for Kirk to join Faith Academy’s basketball team as a sophomore.  Standing all of 5’11 and weighing a mere 140 pounds, Kirk quickly made an impression.  Starring in the Far East Tournament in Japan, Kirk led the Faith Academy Vanguards in the championship game hitting clutch baskets and being a tough on ball defender on D.  Leading his team to an overtime victory, he was then voted as the Tournament MVP, the first of 3 in succession.  In his Junior and Senior years he again led the Vanguards to successful stints but not only in Japan but also in Hong Kong during the Thanksgiving weekend tournament, where he faced many players who eventually ended up playing NCAA Division I basketball in the United States.  In 2009, perhaps as the ultimate tribute to Kirk’s illustrious high school basketball career, he was named one of the top 5 players on Faith Academy over the past 25 years, joining eventual Division I Basketball player Joe Saunders and Dan Landry who became a US Olympian for Volleyball.  When asked what about his character was best developed by his high school career, he says it was over-coming adversity.  Being the focus of every team’s defensive schemes he did not allow himself to be distracted from his goal of winning.  Teams would punish him physically and yet he prevailed, he overcame.  Little did he know that he would need to draw from this character trait again as he moved on to the next phase of his basketball life.

While Kirk considers moving to Ateneo as a great next step in his basketball career, he immediately faced many adjustments on and off the court.  From dominating the offense jacking up shots with abandon, while logging 38 minutes a game, he was thrust into a system where he played 10 minutes if he was lucky and he only had a few shot opportunities available to him.  He had to learn to be a more efficient scorer where every possession is highly valued, where shots were taken only when it is most optimal to do so.  The biggest change though was in the defensive end.  Kirk confesses that in high school, defense for him was an after-thought.  His coach Toby Landers preached defense to him but it just did not take.  He still thought of himself as primarily a scorer.  In Ateneo, defense is preached 100% all the time.  He realized early on that everyone in college had solid offensive games and he could not allow them to beat him.  Being the gym rat he is, he dedicated himself to be a solid defender.  Last season, Kirk earned the reputation as an effective perimeter defender, or dare we say a defensive stalwart.  He says that he takes pride in putting the shackles on guys like RR Garcia, Paul Lee and even Jayvee Casio back in the day.

Aside from being a stopper, Kirk too is slowly being known as a big game guy.  From hitting a clutch 3 point game winner over pro-bound Jervy Cruz early on in his career, to leading a decisive charge of Ateneo over La Salle last season, Kirk can be relied on to be a steady presence on court.  He owes his ability to be clutch to the fact that he spends so much time in the gym working on different game situations.  Take for example, the shot over Jervy Cruz.  He says that before that game, he had been working for hours on taking a three after one hard dribble.  When faced with that situation he knew what he had to do, that he can do it and this allowed him to execute the shot to perfection.  In his view, games are won “not just by teams who want it more but by teams who also practice more.”

In preparation though for season 74, Kirk says he wants to be more reliable offensively.   He explains, “Looking at the last 4 years I just want to be more consistent in offense.  I want to make sure my team can rely on me.  I just need to be someone who the team can count on whether to take the shot or to set up others.  I play a lot of minutes due to my defense so the more offense I can bring to the game would greatly benefit the team.”  Season 74 may yet see a further evolution of Kirk Long’s game, where his effectiveness cannot be denied on both sides of the court.  He knows that he can succeed in meeting these challenges because of how seriously he takes the game.  He says, “I don’t really smile on court.  I want to come out with the attitude that every game is important to me.  Basketball deserves my respect and I have to give my all in every instance that I play; not just for the crowd and the attention but to give back to the game in the right way.”

In spite of his many on-court successes, Kirk still sees himself as a shy guy, who would rather not be the center of attention.  He says, “I don’t usually go out and meet people easily.  Not natural.  I am more like my mom than my dad (who had to be outgoing if he wanted to be an effective missionary).  I can go out of my comfort zone but that is not easy for me.”  When asked if this natural shyness will be in the way as he takes on more responsibilities in next year’s Ateneo Blue Eagles team, Kirk says that leadership may be expressed in different forms.  He prefers to lead by example such as by pushing himself in practices more, by listening to his coaches and by dedicating himself in each and every practice, and by diligently preparing for games.  But if required he confesses, “I may not be the most vocal out there but when needed I can get up and say the things that need to be said.”  He knows that each and every guy in the team can be a leader.  He says though that with what he has gone through in his UAAP career he has much to offer as far as leadership is concerned.  With him as the team’s senior, the Ateneo Blue Eagles Season 74 Basketball Team will be in good hands.

What does life hold for Kirk Long after basketball?  Given a choice he would like to still be involved in basketball one way or another after he hangs up his college laces.  He wants to have a venue to give back to the game that has given him so much.  He avers that he “want(s) to stay in the Philippine basketball scene whether as a player, as a trainer, as a coach even in the grade school level.  I’ve had great relationships with coaches who have taught me about life on and off the court.  I want to give back to kids in the same way I was given.  I want to have an impact on kids’ lives.  I want them to play basketball the way it should be played through fundamentals.  I want to influence those kids’ lives on how they threat friends and understand what life is about.”  He claims that teaching is in his blood from his parents and from other relatives and that it would not be far-fetched for him to follow in their footsteps.  He has even taken up teaching internships at the Ateneo High School as part of his training.

He realizes though that his playing career may not extend to the professional level, given present eligibility rules in the Philippine Basketball Association.  He shares, “It would be a dream to play for a professional league like the PBA.  I would be honored to do it.  Lots of my idols have gone to the PBA.  If given the opportunity to do it I would work hard and do it and that would be my way of giving back to the game.  But if not I would still be thankful for the experience of playing in the college level and in the provinces.  Maybe I would just go back to promote basketball in the provinces,” much the same way his dad did in his basketball sorties.  Taking up communication courses, he also considers getting into media as an alternative, perhaps in radio or as a sports show commentator.  When reminded that he may be the second coming of Alex Compton then, he says, “Alex Compton is a great guy that has accomplished things I could aspire to do as well.  I’d love to follow in his footsteps.”  Could we see Kirk behind the microphone soon?

In the end though, Kirk simply aspires to be known as a guy “who gave his all in each and every possession regardless who the opponent is.  I want to be known as one who gave his heart, intensity and energy in every game; a player who comes in to work every game every night.”  Above all though, he says he simply want to, “honor God in everything I do I have to give that glory to God because everything comes from Him.  I want to share that with those in my life; that I let God come in and make a difference in my life.”

In the court and outside it, Kirk is indeed Mr. Fundamental.  He is a man who lives by a code of dedication, hard work and excellence.  In an era of the Decision, smarmy hall of fame speeches, self aggrandizing promotion, Kirk is in the antithesis, the guy to plays for the love of the game, for the success of the team, for the purity of the pursuit of perfection, and above all for the glorification of the Lord.  Kirk Long is the true embodiment of Magis.

It has been said that in sports writing, the smaller the ball the better the prose.  I am not sure that this is true considering that I have hardly read anything of interest in the sport of table tennis.  Nonetheless, golf has been a great repository of sports literature due perhaps to the fact that every tournament, every win is marked by something quite different.  The story lines are just so rich and varied that many a tome can never be confused for a duplicate.

 

During the Tiger years, the story is domination.  For the Mickelson wins it is redemption.  For Rory, the excitement of the future.  For Darren Clarke though, his story just makes one feel good.  Seeing him win and reading a lot of the accounts, one gets that fuzzy feeling inside reserved often only for stories about babies, children, dogs even.  It is that part of the heart where you just feel a deep happiness inside, where a tear forms in your eyes and you are just glad that the universe is in order.  Seldom is this realm reserved for golf where competition is fierce and victory is the ultimate.  Darren Clarke’s win the Open Championship in Royal St. George left me with a cuddly feeling much unlike any other major championship result.

 

I do remember one time though when I felt like this in another golfing event.  That was back in 2006.  The Ryder Cup was being played in the K Club in Ireland, led by the original wee iceman, Ian Woosnam.  While Europe won in commanding fashion, the story line that really struck me was how Darren Clarke, who had just buried his lovely wife, a victim of breast cancer, no earlier than a month before, steeled himself to contribute three crucial points to the cause.  Many would have forgiven him if he was less than stellar or even mediocre for that matter.  His image, walking by his lonesome in the parade of participants, where each one had a significant other hanging from his arm, brought instant tears into my eyes, especially knowing his circumstances just a few weeks prior.  Even more, when he won his singles match and mightily, but unsuccessfully held back tears, as the crowds of his native land embraced him through their cheers. Europe won that day, but everyone only remembers that event as the one as Darren Clarke’s triumph.

 

Golf, especially links golf is a fickle game.  Just when Tiger made it appear that golf is predictable, we’ve had 6 straight first time winners.  Just when the youth movement has appeared to take a hold of the game, a 42 year old man takes the Claret Jug.  Clearly, Darren appears to be in the twilight of his career.  Dropping to 111 in the World Golf Ranking, with no win in the last three years save for a win in a minor tournament last May, Darren was not even considered a possibility entering this week.  It seems he’d fit in more in a picture of the local pub than in the winner’s circle.    Sure Northern Ireland produced 2 major champions in the last 5 majors.  Sure those two champions (McDowell and McIlroy) viewed Darren as their idol growing up.  But Darren has not been a major contender in 10 years, has not even played the last three majors and it seems time and opportunities have raced past him, not that it appeared to bother him.  At the ripe old age of 42, Darren was an afterthought.  Surely Darren Clarke’s chances have passed and he could not be considered as a threat to win this one, in spite having a one shot lead entering the last round.  Sure surprises happen but nothing in Darren’s recent career seem to indicate that he can pull this out.  But in the end Darren himself  saw first hand the fickleness of the game during his last round.  Where his contenders fell into pot bunkers, missed putts from a few feet away, had their balls blown away out of bounds, his shots always seemed to be magically protected.  Twice his ball jumped over bunkers onto waiting greens.  Countless times he had to save par from lengthy distances to keep the momentum going, just as other players crept ever closer.  Just as quickly as Phil rolled in an eagle to tie him at the top, he too rolls in an eagle to just ahead by two.  While the weather and golfing chances of everyone around him rose and fell, Darren remained calm (at least seemingly).  It seemed like he was just taking a stroll on a sunday, cig in his fingers, sun on his face, smile plastered on his mug.  He faced dangers but they never seemed to faze them.  He played along, like many of us in our sunday rounds, just happy to be on the course.  In the end,   the so-called golf gods appeared to have found favor with Darren and he found victory, a victory for the ages.  This win was not achieved by our preset golfing deity, they of the laser focus and the 300 yard drives, but by a golfing buddy, the one we’ll have a pint with in the 19th hole.

 

Say what you will about his career, Darren was always beloved.  Not only for the memory of his loss in 2006 and his triumph in the K Club, but more because of the fact that he was a man we could all relate to.  He was the bloke we drank beer and smoked cigars with.  He was one to share ribald jokes with, slapping backs in the midst of side splitting laughter.  He was not of the flat bellied set but more like the local pro at the muni.  He is relatable, reachable one of us.  Seeing him lift the jug, seemingly in representation of all of us duffers.  He was declared the champion golfer of the year.  Nay, he is our champion golfer of the year… the one who gave us that nice fuzzy feeling inside.

Rory

The Mac train has reached its first station.

Rory McIlroy, he of the curly hair and boyish demeanor, just won his first, of what is projected to be many, golf major championships, the 2011 US Open. After the debacle of Augusta, where an 80 on the final round cost him the green jacket, after leading by 4 strokes entering the final round, many debated whether the young lad from Northern Ireland has fallen into an abysss from which he cannot be expected to recover. But lo and behold, not only did he win the tournament, he decimated the field steaming home like a runaway locomotive.

Leading all four rounds, Rory built on his lead over the first three rounds, creating records along the way. After a flawless 65, 6-under, first round, he backed up his play with a 66 in the second for a phenomenal 11-under score in the US Open, where par is sacred. Of even greater significance is the fact that he double bogeyed the 18th for his first over par score over the first two rounds. By reaching 13 under he breached the winning score of Tiger Woods in Pebble Beach, where he lapped the field. In fact 13 under has never been reached in the history of the US Open, ever!

Between the second and third, speculation was rife that the lad would fold under the pressure and collapse. History unfortunately was against him. After a phenomenal 63 in last year’s British Open, he skied to an 80 in the second round. In spite of two great rounds after, the talk was he was lacked the killer instinct to close the deal. Thihs view was confirmed in the Master’s earlier this year, where he slept a 4 stroke lead enetering the final round, only to shoot another 80 to drop from 1st to 15th when all was said and done. So, a 6 stroke lead over Korean Y.E. Yang, a former PGA Champion, the man known to stare down Tiger, and out gun him in the final round of a major, can be easily overcome.

But Rory, with knowledge gathered from his previous performances, has matured. After a little shaky start in the thihrd, he settled down and shot a remarkable 68 ending the day at 14 under, a never before heard of score and more importantly, an 8 shot lead entering the fourth.

In spite of this, people still doubted. Prognosticators said that with the softened condition of Congressional, someone could still post a ridiculous number and another 80 may still pull the youngster back to earth. But Rory remained unbowed.With a birdie on 16th, Rory reached the stratosphere at 17 under par. A three putt bogey on 17, his first for the championship, and a great par on 18 gave him a 16 under total 268, numbers so low, they were unthinkable. In the end he won by 8 over Fil-Australian Jason Day leaving no doubt that we are witnessing the start of an era.

Other notes: At 22 years and 46 days, Rory, becomes the second youngest major champion in the modern era, next only to Tiger, who was 21 when he won the 97 Masters. Rory is the youngest US Open champion, beating the old record of Jack Nicklaus… Nirthern Ireland has produced the last two US Open champions, after Greame McDowell won last year… The first thing Rory told his dad, after getting off the greaan was “happy father’s day”… Jason Day just came in second in his second straight major and third straight top tens in majors. He has just shown that he is part of the mix as the next generation of stars… Rory shot all four rounds in the 60s onky the second time its been done … Robert Garrigus, a qualifier, shot all four rounds under par, being the fifth man to do it, ending up at 6 under in a tie for third, with Yang, and Lee Westwood amongst others.

Seve

Having started to only have an appreciation for golf in the mid to late nineties, I unfortunately never experienced the mystic that surrounded the Spanish Swashbuckler, Severiano Ballesteros. By that time, though still young in age, he was winding down a career that saw him win 50 times in the European Tour, 5 times in majors (3 British and 2 Masters) and revitalized the interest for the Ryder Cup not only in continental Europe but the world. I read about his exploits and saw the film clips but he was not personally relevant for me in my love and understanding of golf. It was therefore a great surprise to me when good friend Jimbo Reverente, wanted to name his first child Severiano. Why? Who was this guy anyway?

And then came, the Ryder Cup in Valderama, Spain in 1997.

At the time, the Ryder Cup had been reborn and the biennial meet started being a closely fought affair between the two continents. Europe was in the midst of a transition though. While they have done well in previous cups, their team was a combination of players in the last legs of their careers and new players still trying to make names for themselves. Europe still had Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Bernard Langer, Colin Montgomerie, and Jose Maria Olazabal. But they were long toothed. Their teammates on the other hand were still unknown entities in the world of golf and were considered as young and not yet in their prime. Lee Westwood was the young guy playing with Faldo. They also had other rookies like Per Ulrich Johansson, Thomas Byorn, Ignacio Garrido and Darren Clarke. Really the only guys in their prime would have been Jasper Parnevik and Constantinople Rocca, hardly names to be scared of.

The US on the other hand had stars littering their line up, led by then new Masters Champion Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Tom Lehman, Scott Hoch, Lee Jansen, Mark O’Meara, Brad Faxon, Justin Leonard and Jeff Maggert. Clearly, the powers in golf were safely tucked in the US.

But this is the Ryder Cup and the US was in a severe slump. They had not won the cup since 1993 and were itching to get the cup back. Led by the ultimate grinder Tom Kite, the US team had all the tools to grab the cup back and fly the same stateside.

Europe though was captained by the inimitable Severiano Ballesteros. This edition of the cup was historical for the sole reason that it was the first one held in continental Europe. Seve of course was honored to be the first non-British captain and he made sure to bring the event to his homeland.

Frankly, the honor of captaincy given to him was well deserved. On his broad shoulder grew the European Tour to what it is today. In the height of his career, he could have ventured into the US and plied his trade there. But he felt the need to grow the game in Europe and chose to remain in the fledgling tour in the hopes of creating a home for the growth of future stars in the continent. His sacrifice and vision led to the development of the new generation of European stars who so dominated the golfing world in the 80’s and early 90’s that arguments were raised that the best golf in the world was played in that tour. In the Ryder Cup, where his star truly shined, he led his side through such a dominant stretch that the event evolved from being an afterthought and junket for US players to a competitive boiler room event. With Olazabal, he formed the famed Spanish Armada that lost only twice in 15 matches. The rise therefore of both the European tour and the Ryder Cup can be attributed to Seve.

Many say he is the Arnold Palmer of European golf. That is true in many senses as like Arnie, he made golf popular, reachable for the masses and relevant in the sporting landscape. Also like Arnie, he conducted himself with the regal demeanor of a king, while playing the game with reckless abandon and swashbuckling flair. Both too had a charisma that was innate and exuded from their very pores. But he too was a unique figure in the game. He was ruthless on course but was loved by all. He was aloof yet admired. He viewed his competitors as enemies he wanted to crush but was respected by his peers. He is Seve.

His infectious energy was in hyper drive throughout the 32nd edition of the Ryder Cup in 1997. He led his troops to an unlikely 10 1/2 to 5 1/2 lead after two days whizzing around on his golf cart encouraging his boys to play beyond themselves. He then held his men together in the face of a serious US rally on the final day, as the Americans won 8 of the 12 singles matches. In the end though, with a conceded 15 foot putt of Montgomerie to Hoch, to halve the match, Europe won the event and retained the cup. Seve claimed what seemed inevitably his, a Ryder Cup he captained to victory. A cup he can call his own.

After watching the whole thing live, I finally understood who Seve was He will be remembered by most for his jaw dropping shots from near impossible situations. He will be hailed as the carpark champion, the youngest Masters champion (at the time), the imaginative shotmaker who could blast a ball cleanly from a green side bunker to stop on a dime while using a 3 iron. For me, he will be that captain, that leader in the 1997 Ryder Cup, solidifying his place as the true leader of European golf. He was a leader, a champion, a symbol, an idol.

Goodbye Seve. We had you for only 54 years, but those were 54 years well spent. You will be missed. Let us all stand in attention and waive the Spanish Swashbuckler goodbye.

Today April 12 marks the opening round of the 2011 Philippine Amateur Golf Championship at the demanding Langer Course of the Riviera Golf Club.  80 top male amateurs and 40 top female amateurs not only from the Philippines but from our neighboring countries as well (Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia), including defending champions Clyde Mondilla and Irina Gabasa respectively, will compete for the distinction of being the Philippine Amateur Champion.  This edition of the Philippine Amateur though is significant for two reasons:  the first is this will be the first time the Philippine Amateur will be conducted as a stroke play event and second that the Philippine Amateur will now be afforded world ranking points by the R&A.

Much has been written about the change in format of the Philippine Amateur championship from a match play event into a stroke play event.  Many decried the change in format as an insult to the long and honored tradition of the Philippine Amateur and of match play as the deciding factor as to who is truly the king amateur golfer of the year.  They cited the fact that the two most famous amateur championships in the world, the US Men’s Amateur and the British Amateur as well as other prominent amateur championships in the world uses match play.  If it ain’t broke why fix it they ask.

In response the National Golf Association of the Philippines responded that the change in format is meant to prepare our amateurs for the format of play of all other amateur championships in the region citing that the Philippine Amateur is the last match play event in Southeast Asia.  In fact event the Asian Amateur Championship (whose champion gets an automatic invite to the Masters in Augusta Georgia) is also conducted in a stroke play format.  NGAP Board member member Jun Arceo further explained that with the change of format to stroke play the NGAP is able to attract the participation of the top amateurs of our neighbors.  The problem with match play is that one unfortunate day for a participant may mean that his play is prematurely cut short.  in stroke play these top amateurs will have a chance to make up for any bad round thus making their participation more attractive.  Why, one may ask is their (foreigners) participation so important since this is a Philippine Amateur anyway?  Well, as explained by Arceo, their participation allows the the Philippine Amateur to be afforded R&A Official ranking points.  This means that the participants, both foreign and local, will be given the chance to earn those much needed ranking points, which in turn will entrench them into the consciousness of the world governing amateur bodies.  The change of format is then meant to open up the world to our players.   This is the most significant and important point lost in the heated discussion of the change in format.

If the change in format is therefore meant to give our players more opportunities in the world stage then let us support this change rather than reject it.  This will allow our players to not only be big fishes in our small pond but to be fighting fishes in a much bigger pond.  Also, world rankings may open up doors for them in major colleges and universities all over the world, thus allowing them to even broaden their growth and education.  Presently, only 3 Filipinos are in the top 1000 of the world amateur golf rankings:  Jobim Carlos (284), Judson Eustaquio (781) and Marcel Puyat (820).  Defending Amateur Champion Clyde Mondilla is the 5th ranked Filipino at 1460.  (Source: http://www.randa.org/en/WAGR/Ranking/Mens%20Ranking.aspx?sort=this&direction=asc&page=1&country=PHI&countryname=Philippines&region)  Hopefully , with a good showing in this event, their rankings will rise.   So let us embrace change where change is good.  This is good.

In any event plans are afoot for the conduct of a match play Philippine Amateur in Wack Wack sometime in the future though this will be reserved only for Filipinos.

At the end of 4 rounds we will crown a new Philippine Amateur champion.  He will bear the distinction of being our amateur champion for a year and join the ranks of Frankie Minoza, Artemio Murakami, Juvic Pagunsan, Angelo Que and alike.  But just as important, he will be the  first Philippine Amateur Champion to gain world ranking points.  In the long run that may prove quite distinctive and significant.

Master’s Recap

With 4 holes to go, the Master’s was a wide open race.  Adam Scott was up by a mere stroke (-11) over Charl Schwartzel and Jason Day.  At 15, Schwartzel hit his 2nd shot over the green and was facing a delicate downhill chip.  Masterfully, he wills his ball just slightly past the hole and made the comebacker for a birdie and a tie for the lead.

Scott however would not give up with a birdie on 16 to regain the lead at 12 under on the shot par 3 16.  Not wanting to be left behind, Schwartzel himself made a magnificent birdie rolling in a putt that was headed nowhere but the bottom of the cup tying up the veteran Aussie.

At 17, Scott was struggling with a wayward tee shot into a fairway bunker way left and behind the trees.  After much consideration he played into the greenside bunker.  From there he blasted to within some 7 to 8 feet from where he putted n for par.  Talk about gutting it out.  In the meantime, playing partner Jason Day, he with the Filipino mother and Australian dad, got tired of just watching the fireworks around him and decided to get into the action.  Facing a daunting putt from quite some distance back, he stroked his putt straight and true and with his birdie he got back into contention just one back with one hole to go.

Schwartzel, playing in the group behind, hit his tee shot into the rough right of the fairway and was facing a difficult shot into a green with a pin position at the right side.  He knew he had to stick it close just to make sure he would not be left behind by the charging Aussies.  He had played brilliantly up to this point and did not want to waste his chance.  Playing 4 back at the start of play at 8 under, he immediately made his presence felt with a birdie on 1 and a hole out from the fairway for an eagle on 3.  He got a bit derailed with a bogey on 4 and then turned quite, until his birdie on 15.  After his lead tying birdie on 16, he did not want to again make a bogey, that would surely pull him out of the race.  So with a sureness in his swing, he hit his ball into the green and found himself around 10 feet away for the birdie.  With one putt to take the lead in the Master’s with one hole to go, Schwartzel, steadied himself and rolled the putt in and stood at 13 under.

In the meantime, Scott played his approach to 18 to within 25 feet while Day, after a brilliant tee shot, was  mere 5 to 7 feet away. Scott’s putt was never really high enough to threaten the hole and ended up with a par for a total of 12 under.  Day, with a chance to tie his playing partner and perhaps not yet knowing what Schwartzel had done the hole before, willed his putt into the hole and pumped his fist, also ending up at 12 under.  He and Scott left the green hoping for at least a chance at a playoff for the green jacket.

Schwartzel though was lying in ideal position in the middle of the fairway of the historic 18. With the pin in its traditional Sunday position, bottom left just behind the bunkers, he knew that the best play was to play the ball just right of the pin and slightly past, allowing the ball to roll back and funnel in close to the hole.  Play that shot he did and was left some 15 feet for the birdie.  Knowing that the green jacket is within his grasp, Schwartzel strolled up the green to the warm applause of the patrons.  Standing over his ball, he knew that two putts would win the Master’s.  But why tale two when you can do it in one?  To the roar of an appreciative crowd, Schwartzel crushed the hopes of the Aussie duo by rolling in his final birdie of the day, finishing at 14 under, two strokes clear of the tied second placers.  Australia still does not have a Master’s champion.  South Africa now has three (Gary Player and Trevor Immelman).

But while many in South Africa would remember Schwartzel’s winning moment the world will remember this Master’s for the collapse of a young phenom.  What was supposed to be a coronation turned into a wake for the last grouping in the Master’s.

Entering the final round with a 4 stroke lead at 12 under, Rory McIlroy, was in full command of his game and writers all over the world were already proclaiming him as the new face in golf.  He had a little hiccup with a bogey at 1 and 5 but birdied 7 to stay at 11 under at the turn, still leading the field.  Then came the dreaded 10th hole. Many say the Master’s really start in the back 9 of Sunday.  This is when kins are made and jesters are exposed.  Traditionally viewed as the toughest hole in Augusta, the 10th this year was the site of a comedy of errors not often seen in this level of competition.  Standing on a 1 stroke lead, McIlroy, leader in driving distance for the week, made a mighty whack at the ball and pulled his tee shot way left and into the cabins.  Pundits say they do not recall anyone ever playing from that area and even McIlroy was wondering whether he was out of bounds.  He then played his second over the fairway, then again over the fairway to behind some scoreboards.  All told, McIlroy left the 10th green with a whopping 7, triple bogey and found himself 2 shot back of the leaders.  Reeling perhaps from the disastrous start of his back 9, he then played bogey-double bogey on his next two holes to end his Master’s campaign.  This was Rory’s Master’s to lose and lose it he did.  After another bogey at the par 5 15th, he ended up at 4 under tied for 15th, comforted only by the fact that he has an automatic invite to next’s year edition with the chance to regain some pride.  Question is, will this tragedy break him or will it make him.  History will soon tell.

This Master’s though should be remembered for a lot of positives.  For one the low amateur, and the only amateur to make the cut is Hideki Matsuyama, 19, from Japan, who got in by winning the Asian Amateur Championship. This validated the decision of the Master’s committee to allow an automatic invite to the Amateur Champion of Asia and served as notice to the world that Asian golf is here to stay.  In receiving his recognition at Butler’s Cabin, Matsuyama expressed pride in his achievement but more importantly wished that his game brought some level of comfort for the people of Japan, still reeling from the devastating earthquake and tsunami.  His play and that of Ryo Ishikawa (the Smiling Prince), who ended up tied for 20th at leas put some smiles into the faces of the Japanese people.

This Master’s is also where the young guns started to show their teeth.  While McIlroy collapsed, he heralded the coming of the likes of Charl Schwartzel (26), Jason Day(23), Rickie Fowler(22) and Alvaro Quiros(28) as serious contenders for major prizes.  For us Filipino Day’s performance should serve as inspiration that we Filipinos can play even in the highest more rarified evels of competition.

But most especially, this Master’s should be remembered as the site for the emergence of a new champion.  Charl Schwartzel while not yet a household name has always been a contender.  While he has not won in the PGA Tour since he joined in 2007, he has 6 European Tour wins including 1 this year at the Joburg Open in Johannesburg, South Africa and is 5th in the Eurpoean money list before the Master’s.  With this win, his first on the US Tour, perhaps 26 year old Charl will now emerge as a consistent contender and play to his true level.

And so we say goodbye to Augusta Georgia for yet another year.  The Master’s has again proven to be the site of a magnificent tournament, filled with drama and crowing a worthy champion.  Congratulations Charl Schwartzel.  You truly deserved it.

Masters 2011

This is the week of the Masters, “a tradition like no other”, as CBS’s Jim Nantz would say.  For the first time in 12 years Tiger Woods is not the odds on favorite to bring home the green jacket.  Phil Mickelson holds that distinction having won 4 of the last 7 stagings of this event, including last year, and winner last week of the Shell Houston Open.  So who do I think will win this year’s edition?  In no particular order my top 5 are:

 

1.  Phil Mickelson – Can’t really argue here.  The guy just came off an impressive win, putting together 2 fine rounds to win in Houston.  The defending Master’s champion showed last year how much he owns the course.  He played with reckless abandon and was rewarded in the end.  His 6 iron from behind the trees in 15 is still the stuff of legends and will forever be part of Master’s lore.  My problem with Phil is that while he won last week, his season before last week was quite pedestrian.  Will we get the champion golfer or the guy who has been complaining about his arthritis.

 

2.  Martin Kaymer – Ok so he has never made the cut in the Master’s.  Ok so he has not won since he became number 1.  Ok  so he has not really contended since the Accenture Match Play.  But the guy is the number 1 player in the world for a reason.  He is steady, composed, long, and accurate.  He has the game for the Master’s and definitely the temperament.  His win in the PGA Championship showed that he can handle the pressure of a Sunday major.  Can he do so, while the cheers are murmuring amongst the trees and azaleas in Augusta?  I think so.

 

3.  Bubbba Watson – It is no secret that long hitters do well in Augusta and Bubba definitely fits the bill.  His game has improved by leaps and bounds and has even given him a win this year while contending in others.  His heartbreak in the PGA only steeled and prepared him for pressure in a Sunday back 9.  More importantly, his short game is pretty good and with the undulating greens in the Masters, that can only serve him well.

 

4.  Lee Westwood – This guy is due.  Has contended in Augusta ending up second last year.  He has contended in the other majors as well just  failing to get over the hump.  This former world number  1 has the game to breakthrough but has to contend with a rather bulky putter lately.  Nonetheless, he has the poise and ability to win.  The golfing gods will do well to reward this gifted golfer.  It’s about time.

 

5.  Matt Kuchar – After his impressive debut in Augusta in 1998, he has kinda fallen off the map.  But last year saw the reemergence of Matt Kuchar, winning once, topping the money, winning the Nelson and Vardon trophies as well.  this year he already has 6 top 10s in 8 events and is 3rd in scoring.  Statistically, he is in a good position to win his first major.  It would indeed be a great story for this Georgia native to win in his hometown.

 

Honorable mentions include Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Nick Watney, and sentimental favorite Ernie Els.  For the asians we can only look towards KJ Choi and Ryo Ishikawa.  I hope the latter does well if only for his pledge to Japanese relief efforts.

 

So those are the players to watch out for.  Who will win?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Let’s enjoy this tradition which unfolds tonight.