Angel and the Demons

April 16th, 2009 sendarama Posted in golf No Comments »

"El Pato" flourishes his fist pump form.

At the convergence of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships, Major League Baseball, the Hockey playoffs, and the NBA, through a fortnight of surprisingly undramatic finishes, untimely deaths (Nick Adenhart, Harry Kalas, and Mark Fidrych) and sun-drenched Opening Days, the image which lingers is the fist-pump of Angel Cabrera when he knows that his crucial putt will indeed find its way to the center of the cup.

Angel had an opportunity to display the pump several times on the way to his most unlikely Masters win. Many golfers employ a similar tactic to indicate their pleasure with a putt’s outcome, but Angel lets loose the earliest, well before the ball reaches its destination.

Cabrera is not your typical Masters Champion. After he won the U.S. Open in 2007, an even more unexpected victory than the one Sunday, he said “There are some players that have psychologists, some have sportologists, I smoke.” At 6′ and pushing 220, he is decidedly overweight. In his native Argentina , he is known as “El Pato” for his close resemblance to a duck when he waddles, or walks down the fairway.

But what he lacks in style, Cabrera more than makes up for in nerve. Both in the Open two years ago, when he came from behind to beat Tiger Woods by one stroke, and in the Masters on Sunday, when he seemed impervious to the pressures which dogged his playing partner Kenny Perry, the man seems unfazed by the circus around him. In the Masters, he nailed critical putts on four of the last five holes; and on the first play-off hole, saved par after driving into the trees and knocking wood on his second shot.

Does Cabrera’s calm come from the cigarettes or from his early start at gamesmanship? Growing up in Cordoba, Argentina, Angel quit school in the sixth grade to become a full time caddie at the Cordoba Country Club. At sixteen, he moved in with his girl friend, ten years his senior. He honed his golf game playing against other caddies for money. To paraphrase the great Moe Green, Cabrera earned his bones when other Tour members were dating cheerleaders.

What was so incredible about Cabrera’s victory Sunday is that he emerged as a potential winner only in the waning moments. For the first fourteen holes of the final round, the pairing of Woods and Phil Michelson attracted all the crowds and most of the television attention. All of Tiger’s and Phil’s swings were shown live; but many of Cabrera’s and Perry’s swings were shown on tape, though they were atop the leader board. As anyone who saw the Tiger-Phil shootout knows, the decision by TV brass was understandable.

The crowd concurred. Spectators flooded Phil and Tiger and virtually ignored the last twosomes. It was if Ali-Frazier was the prelim, and Holmes-Spinks the main event. But when Phil and Tiger went to fade, Cabrera, Perry, and Chad Campbell were the last men standing. And then Angel became the last man standing.

Was Cabrera’s win as much mental as physical? Despite his picture perfect powerful swing, Angel found himself trailing Perry by two strokes with two to go. Perry had not suffered a bogey through sixteen holes. Then he imploded, inexplicably, unaccountably, except for the explanation offered by Perry himself. “It just seems like when I get down to these deals, I can’t seem to execute. Great players make it happen, and your average players don’t.” Perry all but admitted that he had succumbed to his inner demon.

Cabrera would be the last to call himself a “great player.” His only two wins on the regular PGA tour have been his two majors. But if I see his name on the leader board of a major entering the final round, Tiger Woods or no Tiger Woods, I’m putting my money on the man who slays the demons.

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