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Make the putt at 18 _ still no free game

April 12, 1997

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) _ The one putt Nick Faldo did make that was any good at all came at the final hole. Even so, he didn’t ask for a free game. That’s because he knows the rules: Defending champion or not, miniature golf course greens or not, no one plays the weekend at the Masters without making the cut.

There are no exceptions. Did they mention that on the highlight show last night? Or did they run out of airtime after listing the players whose exodus by private jet late Friday afternoon made tiny Daniels Field at the edge of Augusta resemble the Battle of Britain?

Besides Faldo, also departing were the winners of two of last year’s four major championships: Steve Jones, and Mark Brooks. And Greg Norman, who played the protagonist last year to Faldo’s antagonist. And Phil Mickelson, who won two weeks ago at Bay Hill. And Brad Faxon, who won last week.

All gone. All victims of greens so slick that one golfer likened putting on them to ``driving on ice,″ and another golfer prepared for by putting across the concrete floor of his garage.

Still, ask anybody whose departure was the most stunning of all.

``I am shellshocked,″ Faldo admitted.

But there was no denying the math.

Faldo was still calculating as late as the start of the back nine Friday. He had gone around the front in 41, but he was beginning a stretch of holes where he has played some of the finest shots in a career bursting with them. Faldo won two of his Masters in playoffs, one from Scott Hoch and another from Raymond Floyd, at the 11th. He won his third Masters last year by catching Norman at the 11th, passing him at No. 12, then backing up and running over him for good measure at No. 13.

He had reason for confidence. And so, in that maddeningly meticulous way he does such things, after striping his drive off the No. 10 tee, Faldo stood in the fairway and studied the top branches of the tall pines on either side trying to get a read on the wind.

Ten seconds, 20 seconds, a minute. Some meteorologists work faster. Ninety seconds, two minutes. The gallery chafed, playing partner Tom Watson rubbed his chin one more time, but Faldo just stood and stared. Then he settled over the ball, hit 7-iron to the right fringe, took three whacks with the putter and made another bogey.

He got slower. Nos. 11 and 12 passed without drama, but without another bogey, too. At the 485-yard, par-5 13th, he hit the driver thin and had no chance to reach the green in two. Instead, he hit his second shot short of a creek and left himself a pitch of about 90 yards. His third shot hit a mound on the green just right of the pin, bounced back toward him and rolled into the creek.

He went down alongside the creek and dropped another ball, surveyed the green again, took another set of wind and precipitation readings, and hit the shot another time. It did the same thing: hit the mound and rolled back into the creek. This time, Faldo did something really unusual. He dropped a ball and just hit it. Two putts later, he made 9.

``I am kind of flabbergasted,″ he said later.

Who wasn’t?

This was the same man who had never missed a Masters cut and who, since emerging as an elite golfer with a British Open win in 1987, had missed the cut in only one other major. The same man last seen heading for the parking lot at Augusta National with the back of his neck so red, that you could have lighted a cigarette by touching it to his neck. Which left the explanations up to his swing guru, David Leadbetter.

``There are weeks, unfortunately, that this game can do things like that, even to someone like Nick,″ Leadbetter said.

``You can put the whole thing down to putting. Nick found it hard to put a 3-footer in, let alone a 30-footer. He was struggling all along to find some confidence.″

He found some at the 18th by making a 12-footer for birdie, but it was too late. The ball, and his chances of defending a Masters title, disappeared into the clown’s mouth.

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