No one expected this. On a windy Sunday chockfull of storylines, from Kenny Perry's bid to become the oldest major champion at 48, to Tiger and Phil Mickelson (who will be called Lefty from here on out) playing their way back in to contention, Argentina's Angel Cabrera hung tough to win the Masters Tournament at Augusta National. That's right, a squat chain-smoker nicknamed "The Duck" for how he waddles gingerly down fairways came away with the W.
Perhaps they should have. According to ESPN, "Since the 2007 US Open, only one other player has won as many majors [two] as Tiger Woods." That distinction belongs to The Duck. Sunday at Augusta was certainly strange, and it only makes sense that someone as kooky as Angel should have won it. The co-leaders for much of the day, Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, played as if it were hitting practice. There was no emotion. There were no crowds, and there certainly were no birdies.
Their ho-hum play turned out to be a good thing: it allowed the focus to fall squarely on Lefty and Tiger's shoulders. They did not disappoint. Lefty shot a blistering 30 (six under par) on the front nine to tie for second place. Tiger was being Tiger, making eagle on the 8th before a fit of brilliance on the back nine where he shot three birdies in four holes. Both of them, though, had far too much ground to make up, and it soon became clear that they would not be wearing the green jacket Augusta champions are famous for.
As for Cabrera, he looked to be out of it from the get-go. He was hooking shots, missing putts and generally stinking up the sun-dappled surroundings. He came to the 13th hole two over for the day, looking sun-drunk and glum. For some inexplicable reason, Cabrera then went on a tear. After the tournament he told reporters, "I felt that when Tiger and Phil were making birdies and were making a move, I had to make a move myself in order to be the winner." Did he ever. He birdied three of the last six holes--including an 18 foot put on the 16th that looked like God had struck it--and even when he was two behind Kenny Perry with two holes to go, he never appeared defeated, his shoulders upright, with a mallard-like strut to his step. Lucky for him, Perry frittered away the tournament. He bogeyed the last two holes to plummet into a three man playoff.
Even then, Cabrera looked like the odd man out. He blasted his tee shot on the first playoff hole into the trees, and were it not for his miraculous second shot, which hit a tree and plopped squarely in the fairway, he certainly would have been done. He would go on to save par in dramatic fashion and on the second playoff hole he made no mistakes. Each shot was well struck, and he calmly sank his par put to send Kenny Perry packing.
Certainly no one predicted a win for Angel, but as the day grew longer and the leaderboard became more and more crowded, he must have liked his chances. Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, great players that they are, had never won a major, let alone been so close to winning one. Cabrera had. In his own words, he described how important it was to have won a previous major: "What I learned is that I can win; I can win big tournaments."
At the 2007 US Open, Cabrera held off Tiger Woods on one of the most challenging golf courses ever to win his first PGA tournament. When he wasn't going for broke with his driver, he was smoking a cigarette nonchalantly, as if a million dollars and golf immortality weren't on the line. Even stranger, though, was his strategy, which consisted of nothing. He went for broke on nearly every hole, taking his driver out and punishing the ball like it had hurt his mother. Other players had the prudence to use short irons to avoid the jungle-like rough. Then again, other players didn't win the tournament.
In his post-US Open interview, Angel explained his chimney-like behavior. "Well, there are some players that have psychologists, sportologists; I smoke." He also indicated that the breakthrough would lead to his having more of a winning presence on the PGA tour week in, week out. But that never happened. Angel himself admitted later, "I think the US Open got me by surprise."
The Masters win certainly showcased an evolution in his game. Gone was the ubiquitous driver; Angel relied as much on iron play as he did long drives. And when the wind picked up, he handled the difficult conditions masterfully, steering the ball into the fairway on nearly every hole. Subtle was not a word used to describe the Argentine's game two years ago. But now it seems right to call his newfound chipping skills and his great knack for improvisation just that: subtle.
Cabrera knows how big this championship is for him. Few people understand the difficulty of winning on the Tour better than he, courtesy of a year-long slump where he failed to finish in the top five of any tournament. He has no reservations about what his goals are now that he's won another major. "I'm going for the third major and I'm not going to stop until I win at least five."
Though he's already made history (he is the first man from Argentina to win the Masters), he realizes where his victory fits in the Argentine sports landscape: "Soccer has always been the biggest sport in my country. I won the Masters, but that's not going to change what soccer really means."
While he might not be willing to underscore the importance of such a win for his country, there's no doubt that Angel Cabrera--and his already Hall of Fame-worthy career--has inspired countless Argentines to take up the sport. He enjoyed a rockstar's welcome on Tuesday in his hometown of Villa Allende, prompting him to say bashfully, "Green suits me."
Angel might have only won two PGA tournaments, but what a duo to win, The Masters and the US Open. He says he has finally kicked his smoking habit. But don't be alarmed if the next time you see golf on the tube, and a fat man gone bald is taking a puff between swings--you have come to the right channel. When he finishes the cigarette, he will get back to work: crushing the ball and the competition.
MIGUEL MORALES B'10 is the real lefty.