AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Charl Schwartzel could sense his shot at history was slipping away, a two-shot deficit about to be staring at him with four holes to play unless his next putt dropped.
"I needed to do something," Schwartzel says he realized as he walked toward the 15th green.
The 26-year-old South African did more than anyone could have expected, making birdies on the final four holes at Augusta National Golf Club to win the Masters by two shots over Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day -- and on the 50th anniversary of the day his countryman Gary Player became the first international player to win the Masters.
As many as five players were tied for the lead on the back nine, and a playoff seemed imminent. Only an unprecedented finish by Schwartzel could prevent it.
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"I felt good over every single one of them," Schwartzel said of his birdie putts down the stretch. "I had so much confidence in my putting stroke at that stage."
So many others had a chance to seize control Sunday, but only Schwartzel followed through.
Scott seemingly did everything necessary to become the first Australian to win the Masters. He made a pair of steely par saves down the stretch to finish off his second consecutive 67 and was within seconds of pushing his lead to two shots with two holes to play.
"I played well today, and that's all I could ask for," Scott said. "Obviously, I can't control Charl, and when you birdie the last four holes at the Masters and you're around the lead, that usually wins. Nothing I can do about it."
All the heroics Schwartzel needed to claim his first major championship were complete before he hit his approach to the 18th green, a one-shot lead safely secured while he stood in the fairway with everyone who could have caught him already in the clubhouse.
All that was left was one swing and two putts -- and he only needed one of each, rolling in an aggressive birdie putt to put the finishing touches on a 6-under-par 66 to finish at 14 under.
By that point, his spectacular start to the final round -- he chipped in for birdie on the first hole and holed a sand wedge from 114 yards for eagle at No. 3 -- had nearly been lost in what became one of the wildest finishes this storied course has ever seen.
"You're walking down the fairway, and there's so many roars," said Day, who closed with a 68 for his best finish in a major in his first Masters. "You don't know what's going on, and you see a number pop up on the leaderboard, and the crowd is going crazy. It lived up to everything I expected and more, which is fantastic."
A magical week turned quickly for 54-hole leader Rory McIlroy.
On Saturday, McIlroy looked very much the part of the confident, unflappable young gun Tiger Woods used to play, rebounding to make three birdies in the final six holes after briefly surrendering the outright lead.
The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, talked all week about his goal of playing stress-free golf, but he couldn't keep his cool in the pressure-cooker that is Augusta National on the second Sunday in April.
The four-shot lead he slept on had evaporated within half an hour after his tee time, and although he made the turn with a one-shot advantage, he watched it dissipate for good with a triple bogey at the par-4 10th and proceeded to give back six shots to par in a three-hole span to open the back nine en route to an 80.
He slipped to a tie for 15th.
"I thought I hung in pretty well on the front nine today," McIlroy said. "I just hit a poor tee shot on 10, and I just sort of unraveled from there. ... I've got to take the positives, and the positive is I was leading this golf tournament for 63 holes."
With McIroy sliding down the leaderboard and 2009 champion Angel Cabrera unable to sustain his charge on the back nine, Schwartzel become only the second Masters champion among the last 21 to come from outside the final group.
He's also the youngest player to win the Masters since Woods in 1997, and a resurgent Woods was among the group he had to hold off to do it.
The man who torched Augusta National's front nine for a 31 on Sunday certainly looked like the Tiger of old -- muscling up to hit shots mortals shouldn't be able to hit, running in long putts with confidence, even barking at photographers for old time's sake.
A seven-shot deficit was obliterated by the time he made the turn with a share of the lead, but a pair of short misses -- for par at the 12th and for eagle at the 15th -- and a poor approach that led to a missed opportunity at the par-5 13th kept him from notching his first Sunday comeback for a major title.
Instead it was Schwartzel joining his friend and fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen among the more unlikely players to claim a major championship since Woods last won one at the 2008 U.S. Open.
And he had to beat an impressive bunch from around the world to do it, with six continents represented among the top nine finishers.
"I'll be lying if I said I was not looking at the leaderboard," Schwartzel said. "But sometimes I would look at it and not register what I was looking at, and I think that helped."
That sounds about right. There was too much happening at the top for anyone to process -- until Schwartzel did something.