The Masters Chronicles XX: The Winner

   AUGUSTA, Ga. – They call Angel Cabrera “El Pato’’ – The Duck – for the distinctive waddle in his walk. But after all the crazy stuff that happened in Sunday’s final round of the Masters, we might amend that nickname to “El Pato Suerte’’ – The Lucky Duck.
    Locked in a three-way playoff with veterans Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell at Augusta National, the big and dogged Argentine – can we call him the “big dog,’’ too? — hit two trees on the first playoff hole and still saved par to help eliminate Campbell and hang with Perry.
    The second playoff hole was almost as bizarre, as the usually steady Perry self-destructed with his third bogey in four holes. Even though Perry had led for the majority of the afternoon, it was Cabrera who had reeled in his second major championship with a routine par.
   In the end, everything came up just ducky for Cabrera, who wiped away decades of frustration in his homeland dating back to the 1968 Masters when another pro from Argentina, Roberto de Vicenzo, was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard and denied a playoff with Bob Goalby.
    Adding to the final-round drama, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods both charged from deep in the pack to put the fear into Cabrera as he entered Augusta National’s notorious back nine. But just when it looked like Mickelson and Woods had the chance to make a little history, both flopped flat on their faces on the last two holes.
     “It’s the Masters. It’s a course you can do a lot of birdies and a lot of bogeys,’’ said the 39-year-old Cabrera in a “rough’’ translation through his interpreter. “A lot of magical things happen.’’
      That’s true, as the roars never stopped echoing through the tall Georgia pines on this sunny Easter Sunday. Cabrera, Perry and Campbell had ended up in a logjam at 12-under-par 276, and Cabrera, who like Perry posted a very modest 71, broke it in the most unlikely manner.
    A lot of people will say Cabrera was worthy of the green jacket, especially after already winning the 2007 U.S. Open. But the cold reality is that Perry, armed with a two-shot lead with two holes to play, gave it away with a skulled chip shot that led to a bogey at No. 17 followed by a poorly executed sand shot from the fairway bunker at No. 18.
     Strange as it might seem, Perry admitted as much in a confession rarely heard from a world-class professional. Then again, his humble nature and blunt honesty is why Perry, who earlier this season captured the FBR Open, is so popular among his peers.
     “Great players get it done,’’ he said of Cabrera. “This is his second major, and I’ve blown two (including the 1996 PGA Championship). But that’s the only two I’ve had chances of winning.
       “It just seems when I get down to these deals, I can’t seem to execute. . . . The big stars make it happen. That’s why they are where they are and we’re all down here.’’
       If that wasn’t enough self-degradation to fuel speculation of a choke, Perry added: “I skulled that chip shot on 17 (that led to the first of two bogeys to end his round). . . . I guess I’ve got a little firing mechanism in my right hand, I can’t seem to slow it down.’’
      Ironically, that’s just what led to the bogey at the second playoff hole (No. 10), a short “hot’’ chip that ran 20 feet past the cup and virtually handed Cabrera the win.
      “I had the tournament to win, and I lost it,’’ Perry added, his voice cracking. “It’s no use thinking about it. I can’t go there.’’
      Then adding to the weirdness of the day, Campbell almost said as much.
       “I kind of blew it myself,’’ noted the quiet Texan, who had an excellent chance to grab the playoff on the first hole (No. 18) but hit a fat approach shot into a greenside bunker and failed to get up and down when he missed from 6 feet.
       “I’ll take away a lot of positives, but obviously I’m a little upset right now.’’
      Give Cabrera credit, as he did what he had to do, and that was with Woods and Mickelson breathing down his neck early. Lefty launched a mighty offensive on the front nine, where he rolled in six birdies to get to 10-under, and Woods eventually got to that number, too, with a birdie at the 16th hole.
      “Phil was playing well, but still, I was just trying to post 11 (under), shoot 65, and give myself a chance,’’ said the four-time Masters champ, who might have did just that if not for bogeys on his last two holes that knocked him back to 8-under behind a 68.
       Woods said that something was wrong with his swing, which he called a “Band-Aid Swing.’’ But more to the point was Tiger’s putting, which came up woefully short on numerous occasions.
       Mickelson said he licked his chops when he saw where the pins were placed for the final round, and he looked like a lion through the first 11 holes. But a tee shot into the water at No. 12 cut his momentum with a double bogey, and short, 4-foot misses for eagle at No. 15 and birdie at No. 17 also took their toll.
     “I was trying to hit a 9-iron over the bunker (at the 12th), and I just yanked it, just quit on it, and the ball went dead right (into the water),’’ said two-time Masters champ, whose 67 left him at 9-under and alone in fourth place.
     “I enjoyed the chance to try to win a golf tournament, and I love the fact that I shot 30 (on the front) to give myself an opportunity to win. But give Angel credit, he did what he had to do, and that more than anything is how you win a Masters.’’
      Cabrera is the first South American to win the Masters, and the eighth player to prevail from a sudden-death playoff. It was the first three-way playoff since Larry Mize chipped in for birdie in 1987 to beat Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros.
      Whether his second major will be enough to vault Cabrera into rarified air remains to be seen. There certainly was a huge gap at the 73rd Masters, as the tournament within the tournament – Woods vs. Mickelson – dwarfed the guys in the lead.
     How else do you explain 20,000 fans following the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world every step of the way while about 200 tagged along with Cabrera and Perry until they finally reached the back nine?
     Call it the state of the game.