Monday, April 13, 2009

Cool Cabrera exacts Argentinean revenge

Argentina has hardly been a breeding ground for golfing greatness. The South American nation, known for its beauty and its vibrant and colourful culture, has been characterised in a sporting context by its exploits in the beautiful game. It has twice won the football World Cup, twice finished runner-up, as well as hosting the 1978 event. They boast a stable of global stars from Maradona to Messi who are idolised worldwide.

In more recent times their tennis exploits have become more and more noticeable on a global scale. They have finished runner-up in two of the last three Davis Cup’s, and lay claim to three grand slam champions in men’s and women’s tennis.

But now they have a US Masters champion, and the source of their sole green jacket is the unlikely character from Cordoba, Angel Cabrera.

It is not the first major golfing triumph by an Argentine. Two years before Cabrera was born, Roberto De Vincenzo became South America’s first golfing hero by winning the 1967 British Open. A year later his career was defined by the simplest of oversights that had the most ghastly of consequences. In signing an incorrect scorecard De Vincenzo was denied a place in a Masters Play-off, a place he had earned, and subsequently gifted Bob Goalby the green jacket.

Thirty-nine years later, in June 2007, De Vincenzo watched on anxiously as Cabrera chain-smoked his way around Oakmont, on his way to a superb US Open triumph and his country’s second major golf title. Cabrera, the antithesis of the modern golfer, played beautifully to stave off the world’s best and possibly greatest, Tiger Woods, and a former US Open champion Jim Furyk, on that June Sunday two years ago. It prompted De Vincenzo to give his countryman a gift. A small photo frame, encasing a picture of a green jacket was the tangible evidence, but it was the seed of thought that was planted in Cabrera’s mind which was of far greater value.

Cabrera arrived this week almost without anyone noticing. The build-up had been dominated by the returns of Tiger Woods to major action, and Augusta National’s nearly man, Greg Norman, who was flying the flag for the seniors. The announcement of Gary Players’ retirement from the Masters drew some attention. But given the man who had won the past two-majors, Padraig Harrington, was barely mentioned in the pre-tournament rambles it was no surprise that the Argentine slipped under the radar.

He remained there through the opening two rounds. Day one headlines espoused the exploits of golf’s pensioners, four of whom had broken par on a day where birdies were bountiful and more sub-par rounds were recorded than any other in the history of the Masters. Chad Campbell also claimed some limelight, falling two par’s shy of a course-record equalling 63. His five consecutive birdies to begin the day was a record in itself. Tiger Woods also sparked interest by butchering several chances to break 70 for the first-time on a Thursday. Instead he finished with 70, a first-round score he had posted on three previous occasions, each being the first step towards eventual triumph. Cabrera, El Paco as he is known, the Duck as it is translated, waddled around quietly for a four-under 68.

On Friday the Argentine slipped around again in 68, virtually unnoticed to all and sundry. Kenny Perry’s 67 meant he shared the half-way lead with Campbell. The 48-year-old continued the theme of older players dominating the headlines. Norman missed the cut by a shot, fellow senior and his 1987 tormentor Larry Mize made the cut along with 1988 champion Sandy Lyle, while standing ovations reverberated around the Augusta Pines for retiring champions Gary Player and Fuzzy Zoeller. At the opposite end of their careers Anthony Kim and Sergio Garcia had burnt around in 65 and 67 respectively in more than conspicuous fashion.

Cabrera made his move on moving day. The sun set on Saturday’s scoreboard with the Argentine’s name at the top. A sublime 69 made him the only man in the field with three rounds in the sixties. He was joined at the top on the 11-under par score of 205 by the Kentucky native Perry, a shot ahead of 2003 US Open champion Furyk, and two in-front of Campbell.

The final pairing for the final day was a throwback to the old days. Two men so similar in nature and context yet so different in character and touring philosophy. Both have home-built swings, both have families more mature and settled than not. But while Cabrera is a globe-trotting professional who has plied his trade all over the world, it seems Perry has barely left Kentucky, having married his child-hood sweetheart, and remained living in his home-town of Franklin, populated by 8000.

While Perry had been an ultra-consistent player for many years - his one chance in major golf slipping through his fingers on his home course in the 1996 USPGA at Valhalla - Cabrera has been an enigmatic champion who had claimed his only real opportunity in unique and unbelievable circumstances at Oakmont.

Ironically, as this duel would take place for the title, along with Campbell and Furyk, the game’s two giants, Woods, and Phil Mickelson, would duke out a side-show, an hour in-front of the final group and seven shots behind them.

By half-way through the final day, however, the side-show had all but become the main show. One-time nearly man, Mickelson, now twice a Masters champion, equalled the perennial nearly man Norman’s front nine record with blistering 30 that saw him turn at 10-under par. Even a watery double bogey on the treacherous 12th did not dampen his influence on proceedings as he had dragged his playing partner and career long lure, Woods, along with him.

Perry and Cabrera had contrasting front sides. Perry had registered nine straight pars while Cabrera lost a trade between birdies and bogeys. Neither had progressed from their overnight tally while Campbell and Furyk had struggled to avoid losing touch playing a group in-front.

And while Perry and Cabrera missed birdie putts at the difficult 11th that potentially could have kick started their day, Mickelson and Woods had ignited the crowd at 15. Both had bombed drives down the hill leaving mid-iron second’s to the risk/reward par five that had decided many a Masters down the years. Woods made a flawless swing to stop it 15 feet under the hole, sending a roar all the way back to the 12th. Mickelson, in typical fashion, said “anything you can do I can do better” stiffing a seven-iron to four feet, leaving an eagle putt to tie the lead and send shivers down the spine of every player behind them.

But roars fell to groans as both missed their chances. Woods struck a good putt that defied gravity, which confused Mickelson into butchering his. But birdies left Mickelson and Woods one and two back respectively.

Those distances stretched to two and three strokes when Perry holed a brilliant birdie putt from the back edge at 12 after Campbell had steadied his day with a two at the same hole.

But the heavyweights ahead had not given up just yet. Woods made a clinical birdie at 16 after a sublime tee shot and a perfect putt from six feet to join Mickelson at 10-under just two back.

Perry three putted for par at 13, while his playing partner birdied as things tightened at the top. But Woods made two horrible bogey’s at 17 and 18 that shocked all who witnessed them, and Mickelson missed another golden chance for birdie at 17 before clanging five at 18, and the world’s number 1 and 2, despite shooting 68 and 67 respectively had provided nothing more than what all had expected, a side-show.

The tournament was still undecided as the final group reached the 16th tee. Campbell had joined the mix at 12-under, but Perry with a birdie at 15 was one ahead. He put one arm in the jacket with a tee shot at 16 that could have and perhaps should have decided this Masters. With his self confessed “pick it up, drop it inside, and flip it over” swing he drew an eight-iron to three inches and walked to the 17th tee with a two shot cushion. A nervous chip at the 17th green cost a bogey and the margin was one.

Perry then drove into the left trap at 18, as Cabrera drove dead centre. Campbell unaware of the gas wafting his way from back down the fairway had a putt which in hindsight could have won it in regulation. His miss meant he posted 12-under in the clubhouse, two ahead of Shingo Katayama’s 10-under, and three beyond Mickelson.

Cabrera blocked his approach to the front right edge leaving a chip reminiscent of Chris DiMarco’s in 2005, as Perry stood over a seven-iron needing a Sandy Lyle type strike to all but seal victory. He again “flipped it over” short and left, leaving a treacherous chip, which he struck 12-feet past.

Cabrera chipped to four-feet and marked. Perry had a par putt for victory. It was a putt he later confessed he’d seen “100 times on television”. It was a putt similar to one’s holed by Mark O’Meara, Vijay Singh and Woods all to seal Masters in the past decade. Perry nervously poked at it and missed. Cabrera, without any nerve-settling nicotine in his system bravely rolled his putt in and the three way play-off that followed would be the first since 1987.

Campbell, coldest of the three began proceedings on 18 once more. He split the middle with his drive. Perry put his failures in regulation behind him with a perfect drive, but Cabrera, the only major champion in the trio, blocked his drive into the trees.

Redemption for De Vincenzo seemed long gone when Cabrera struck a tree with his second, but all was not lost. Perry caught his eight-iron fat and missed low and right, and then Campbell made a fatal error finding the right trap with his second. Cabrera gave himself a chance with a wedge to six-feet.

Perry made a near perfect chip to tap in for par first. Campbell splashed four feet by. Cabrera, once again with nerves of steel jailed his par putt to applause from Perry. Campbell missed and the play-off continued on the 10th with just two.

But after two good drives Perry again faltered. Like the crest-fallen Len Mattice in 2003, Perry hooked his approach into dead territory left. The best he could muster was five. Cabrera two-putted for a par-four and the Argentine was a two-time major champion celebrating to the chanting of a small group of fans in the crowd.

No doubt it was redemption of sorts for De Vincenzo’s mistake of 1968, but Cabrera also breaks the mould by exiting a group of one-hit wonders and joining an elite group of duel major champions which includes the great Greg Norman.

It is a special win for the globe-trotting man from Cordoba. He is breaking the mould of Argentinean sportsmen, putting Argentine golf on the map. He is breaking the mould of the modern golfer. Young, single, fit athletes, who live and die by shot routines and swing mechanics, were all beaten by a man who only just recently gave up smoking, shuns psychology, and sometimes forgoes a practice swing. But most importantly for a second time he’s breaking his own mould. One of his former caddies previously revealed in blunt terms that he soiled himself in the big moments. For the second time in two years he held his nerve to win a major, this time the most prized possession in all of golf. The possession De Vincenzo had urged him to win. An Argentinean now owns a green jacket.

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