FALCONER: Was that the perfect Masters?
Was the 81st Masters at Augusta National the perfect major?
The biggest week of the year had every storyline imaginable heading in, a stacked leaderboard for four days, three hours of drama on Sunday afternoon and a result that left everyone satisfied.
By Sunday evening, had the 2017 Masters cemented itself as one of the most special major championships in recent memory?
Things got off to a dubious start as severe weather on Wednesday forced the cancellation of the hit and giggle Par 3 Contest, while the World Number One injured himself beyond repair after a tumble down some stairs.
Dustin Johnson’s withdrawal was easily the biggest disappointment of the last five days, with golf fans denied the chance to see the game’s best athlete hunt a fourth straight win on the world’s greatest stage.
Another absence, that of Arnold Palmer at Thursday’s morning’s ceremonial tee shot, was substantial.
But the empty chair draped with ‘The King’s’ green jacket, Chairman Billy Payne’s words and the tears from friends and foes Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will never be forgotten.
Things looked even more grim when Thursday’s brutal winds threatened to deny audiences the chance to see the world’s best tackle the world’s favourite course the way Alister MacKenzie intended.
But without the wild weather we wouldn’t have been treated to Charley Hoffman’s sublime 65, the American brilliantly negating strong gusts to card nine birdies in an astounding performance.
Hoffman’s opening effort was even considered by two-time Masters champion Nick Faldo as one of the best first rounds at Augusta he’d ever seen.
The numbers didn’t lie — Hoffman’s four-shot Thursday buffer was the biggest since 1955 and was 9.98 strokes better than the field average, his performance sitting comfortable in the same league as the pair of 59s recorded on the PGA Tour this season.
On Friday, the only thing more persistent than strong winds was the effort of some of golf’s all-time crowd favourites, including the ageless Fred Couples.
The 57-year-old plotted his way around Augusta like it was his own backyard en route to a throwback 2-under 70, the demonstration dragging Couples inside the top 10 and into calculations for what would have been one of sport’s great conquests.
Then one of the game’s great characters came to the party, Phil Mickelson smelling blood and possibly an historic fourth green jacket early in the tournament.
As if the locals didn’t have enough to cheer about, Rickie Fowler rocketed to the top of the standings with the round of the day (a 67) to nab his first ever lead at a major.
Would Fowler finally eliminate his name from the list of best players to never win a major?
By day’s end the weekend forecast was for blue skies and one of the tightest Masters in history, with four players sharing the halfway lead for the first time in 44 years.
Even the race for Low Amateur had an edge to it, after 25-year-old Stewart Hagestad became the first Mid-Amateur champ to take out the crown since 1988.
Australian golf fans were given a first look at gun 20-year-old Curtis Luck in a major and a last look at him before turning pro, the young West Australian making the weekend and taking it to Hagestad with rounds of 78–72–75–72.
Luck was a pleasure to watch as he manoeuvred his way around the course and his best at Augusta will be something to behold.
We even saw another amateur, Jeff Knox, after Augusta’s most mysterious man won a tee time with former World Number One Jason Day on Saturday morning.
An odd number of players made the weekend, so Augusta member, course record holder and envy of the golf world Knox was again called upon to be the tournament marker for the 10th time.
After pipping Rory McIlroy in 2014, the Northern Irishman labelled Knox “the best I’ve ever seen on Augusta’s greens”.
A bogey on the 2nd put Day behind early but four back nine birdies on the bounce helped the Australian save face — though there’s no shame in being toppled by Knox.
Meanwhile, the final chapter in the game’s most dramatic narrative over the last 12 months was hurtling towards its climax.
The Masters’ most talked-about man since that 2016 implosion, Jordan Spieth, had redemption on his mind and with eight birdies in a bogey-free 21-hole stretch beginning on Friday afternoon, it looked like the 23-year-old Texan had come to claim what was his.
There is no more gripping sports story than the athlete chasing redemption and despite a two-stroke deficit on Saturday night, Spieth was considered to be in the box seat heading into the final round.
The Texan pushed the issue early in what he described as a “bizarre” final round, believing a handful of bad breaks cost him a shot at a fourth straight top two finish.
“I lost five coin flips on my guess,” claimed Spieth. Certainly not the first hard-luck story to come out of Augusta National.
McIlroy’s quest for the career grand slam made up for the column inches lost by Johnson’s absence, an eventual T7 finish meaning the Northern Irishman will require a fourth attempt at joining that five-man club next year.
Interestingly, none of Woods, Nicklaus, Sarazen, Hogan or Player needed more than three tries to pick up that fourth major.
McIlroy’s charge was engrossing but unsuccessful, though recent form suggests he is close — the 27-year-old is the only player to have cracked the top 10 at Augusta in each of the last four years.
Like Spieth, it seems McIlroy will never experience an under the radar week at the year’s first major.
On Sunday, we were treated to a shootout and a wide open race all at once.
Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose traded comfortable buffers over the field as those trailing tried to at least give the duo a reason to glance at a leaderboard.
We saw former champions wind back the clock, none more credible than the six-birdie round of 2011 winner Charl Schwartzel and the brave run our own drought-breaker Adam Scott.
Though a second green jacket might not mean as much as the first, the only thing better than the Masters is the Masters with an Australian in the hunt.
Scott entered the final day three back of the leading duo but truth be told, the Queenslander’s charge ran out of steam after a series of shabby short putts on Saturday.
Like any good drama the 81st Masters also had its villains, with American Ryan Moore headlining the Anyone But Him category after an early birdie on Sunday took him within one of the lead.
Right on cue, there was a rules fiasco late in the peace when Garcia was alleged to have caused his ball to wriggle in the pine needles on 13.
The Spaniard was cleared of any wrongdoing by Augusta’s rules committee and all could breathe a sigh of relief — until Erin Hills, at least.
Nearby, man of the people Matt Kuchar gave the patrons on 16 something to cheer about with a hole-in-one, before giving out roughly two-dozen high-fives and his signed golf ball to the luckiest youngster in Georgia.
The theatre continued when Rose reached for his back after lashing a drive on 15, before Garcia piled on the pain with an eagle putt that will live with him forever.
Locked at 9-under after 69 holes, the Englishman then produced one of the great birdie-twos the iconic par-3 16th has ever seen.
The patrons and viewers at home watched on as the Masters transformed from stroke play to match play, all involved blessed to watch a head-to-head match-up that approached the realms of McIlroy/Reed at the Ryder Cup and Mickelson/Stenson for the Claret Jug.
The difference in the end was one fanned drive in the playoff and Garcia’s ability to spear his golf ball inside Rose’s on the 18th green for the second straight time, not a feat to be underestimated.
The 2017 Masters was the jewel in the crown for one of the modern game’s longest-serving stars and produced one of the tournament’s best losers in tandem.
Rose’s humility in defeat and genuine delight for lifelong friend Garcia will add to his legacy and that of this tournament.
If no one deserved to win this green jacket more than the Spaniard, no one deserves to win the next more than Rose.
The 81st Masters had everything — and to think it was all without Tiger.