On a wild day at Augusta, Schwartzel stays right on target

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Johann Rupert looked across the table and could tell his young South African countryman wasn't really listening. Maybe it was the caprices of youth, but more likely, it was the byproduct of pure awe.

Sharing the table with the pair was none other than six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, who began the casual lunch conversation talking about hunting, but ended up giving Charl Schwartzel a blow-by-blow account of how to play Augusta National.

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It took place in March of last year, just a few weeks before Schwartzel would play Augusta for the first time. Nicklaus painted such a painstakingly accurate portrait of the course that he outlined zones around every hole.

Red zones were to be avoided at all cost, orange zones were the safe places to miss, and green zones, Rupert said, "those were what you aimed for."

"I could see that he wasn't really paying attention," said Rupert, a hugely successful South African businessman who loves the game. "So I wrote as fast as I could and emailed it all to him."

Quick learner. A year later, Schwartzel found the best green zone of all -- that kelly sports coat the club gives to each of its tournament winners.

Tip-toeing through a day of almost indescribable chaos, when an incredible eight different players held a share of the lead, Schwartzel finally broke from the pack with birdies on the final four holes to swipe the 75th Masters title by two strokes in just his second appearance.

It was so mind-numbingly insane on the back nine, with so many prominent names flying around the leaderboard, including past champions Tiger Woods and Angel Cabrera, that the quiet 26-year-old was having trouble tracking the mayhem. He was hardly alone. It was a breathtaking day, inside and outside the ropes.

"Sometimes, you forget to breathe," he laughed.

From the point that he rifled a 6-iron over the back of the 15th green and scrambled to make the birdie that ignited his winning sprint, Schwartzel knew what he had to do -- pretty much what Nicklaus himself had done at Augusta 25 years ago when he torched the back nine to win at age 46.

"From then on, I knew it was now or never," he said.

On a day when there were cheers going off like bombs all around him, including a few of his own making, Schwartzel authored a near-flawless 66. His lone bogey came on a three-putt from about 90 feet on the fourth hole, which he followed with 10 straight pars before the birdie run began to finally bring some clarity to the jumbled proceedings.

"As always, it happens on the back nine on Sunday," said his caddie, Greg Hearman. "Just like you dreamed it."

Interesting choice of words, because the way the skinny kid started the early portion of the day, it was as though it had been scripted in la-la land. After missing the first green, he grabbed a 6-iron and holed a lengthy, rolling chip shot from 80 feet.

"I don't think I have ever heard a louder roar in my life," Schwartzel said.

Well, not for another 15 minutes.

After hitting a 4-iron layup off the tee on the short fourth hole, he grabbed a sand wedge and buried a shot for eagle from 114 yards, sending up a massive cheer on a day when there was plenty of aural competition.

He coasted for the next three hours as mayhem broke out all around him. Leaders took turns surging and falling, and he kept stringing together relatively easy, stress-free pars. For a guy in only his second Masters, it looked almost easy, and the birdie on the 15th lit the fuse.

"That sort of got me out of it," he said.

Interestingly, that gives South African players two of the past three major titles. Louis Oosthuizen, probably Schwartzel's best friend in the game, won the British Open last July and caused Schwartzel to look hard at himself in the mirror and ask, "why not me, too?"

"It was just such a big inspiration," said Schwartzel, who moved up 18 spots in the world ranking to a career-best No. 11. "We know where our level of golf is, and just to see him do it made it, in my mind, realize that it is possible, and just sort of maybe take it over the barrier of thinking that a major is too big for someone to win."

Schwartzel is a pretty serious game hunter who once drove hundreds of miles north with his wife to go on a wildlife safari in the Serengeti. Sunday he got a huge taste of what it's like to be both hunter and prey.

"I don't think I ever prayed so much in my life," he said.

Guess that's why they call it Amen Corner. Who's to say there wasn't some sort of divine intervention -- he became only the second player since 1990 to win at Augusta when not playing in the final twosome on Sunday.

Afterward, the polite and soft-spoken Schwartzel thanked a parade of influences in his life, including fellow Southern African stars Gary Player, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Nick Price. They all had a hand in shaping him, as did his father, George, who to this day is still his swing coach.

As for that other guy, the master of all Masters champs, who gave him that incredible template to success at Augusta some 13 months ago, Schwartzel had a darned good excuse for being flummoxed.

"I had never, ever seen Augusta," Schwartzel laughed. "He's taking me through how to play Augusta, and I have only seen it on TV."

Funny how things turn out sometimes. Given his own level of Masters mastery, another kid might ask Schwartzel to impart the same advice.


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