By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Adam Scott's dramatic playoff victory on Sunday provided a perfect exclamation point to the 77th Masters which had endured moments of imperfection while also offering a tantalizing glimpse into golf's future.
The quality of shot-making produced by Scott and Argentina's Angel Cabrera at the business end of the tournament was extraordinarily good, and perhaps even more impressive was the high level of sportsmanship they extended to one another.
Double major winner Cabrera gave Scott a thumbs-up after they each hit the green with their approach shots at the second extra hole, and the pair walked off arm-in-arm after Australian Scott had stunningly sealed the win with a 15-foot birdie putt.
The two Presidents Cup team mates gave fans around the world a breathtaking reminder of how clutch golf can be played with integrity and honor, even during the white-knuckle intensity of a major championship down the stretch.
All this after the opening major of the year had been tainted by two controversial rules incidents.
China's 14-year-old Guan Tianlang, the feel-good story of the tournament, incurred the wrath of Masters officials during the second round when he received a rare penalty for slow play that almost ended his amazing debut at Augusta National.
Rules officials imposed a one-stroke penalty on the prodigy, a decision panned by Guan's playing partner, twice former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, but the Chinese narrowly survived to make the cut and seal the award for the best amateur player.
The youngest competitor ever at the Masters, Asia-Pacific Amateur champion Guan commanded much of the spotlight during the week with his poise, demeanor and superb short game as he became the youngest player to make the cut at a major championship.
While many fans and several players viewed the slow-play penalty as heavy-handed to say the least, Guan once again provided tantalising proof of the vast golfing potential in the Chinese market.
The world's most populous nation had celebrated another coup last June when Shanshan Feng, 22, clinched the LPGA Championship by two shots in Rochester, New York, to become the first person from mainland China to win a women's major.
Remarkably, Feng was born just five years after the first golf course was opened in China.
The other rules controversy at the Masters involved world number one Tiger Woods, who had been a red-hot favourite coming into the week after winning three times in just five starts on the 2013 PGA Tour.
A four-times champion at Augusta National, Woods was spared the ignominy of disqualification when the rules committee decided to exercise leniency over a serious infringement in the second round.
Instead of sending the 14-times champion packing for taking an illegal drop at the par-five 15th after his third shot had ended up in water, they opted to slap him with a two-stroke penalty.
Masters officials defended the decision, saying that Woods had initially been cleared of any wrong-doing after a video review before the American completed his round but many felt Woods escaped censure because of his lofty stature in the game.
Former world number one David Duval tweeted: "Was there intent to break the rule is the question? I think he should WD (withdraw). He took a drop to gain an advantage."
Stunningly, Woods had incriminated himself during his post-round interview when he described in detail how he had gone "two yards further back" for the penalty drop in order to create a better shot.
His admission of what was an innocent mistake forced Ridley and company to summon the world number one to Augusta National on Saturday morning to explain his thinking but, at that stage, a disqualification was no longer on the cards.
While there have been many instances over the years of players being disqualified for signing for an incorrect scorecard, Woods was extremely fortunate to benefit from an amended rule introduced at the 2011 Masters.
Though he was found guilty of violating Rule 26-1, which requires a player to drop the ball "as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played", he was saved by Rule 33-7, which gave Masters official discretionary powers to waive penalty of disqualification.
Both Woods and Masters officials emerged with very little credit over the "penalty drop" affair so it was with huge relief that golf fans were able to savour a breathtaking tournament finale on Sunday as Scott and Cabrera delivered in spades.
For Scott, a maiden major title and the first ever Masters win by an Australian was the best possible reward after several close calls in recent years, in particular a gut-wrenching late collapse at the British Open nine months ago.
Scott seemingly had the Claret Jug firmly in his grasp when leading by four shots with four holes to play at Royal Lytham but he finished bogey-bogey-bogey-bogey to hand South African veteran Ernie Els the title.
Long viewed as a future world number one, the 32-year-old Queenslander is one of the most popular and respected players in the game and his long-awaited breakthrough at golf's highest level has been warmly welcomed by his peers.
"I could not be happier for my buddy Adam Scott," four-times major champion Els wrote on his official website on Monday. "I said after Lytham that he'd win majors and he didn't waste much time doing that!"
Scott received lofty praise from his fellow Australian and former world number one Greg Norman, his long-time idol, mentor and, more recently, friend.
Norman, who won two British Opens but famously missed out on the famed green jacket at Augusta National three times, predicted that Scott would win more majors than any other Australian golfer.
"I am so happy for Adam," said Norman, who watched the last few hours of the Masters telecast from his home in South Florida. "I think he'll go on and win more majors than any other Australian golfer.
"He's a better driver of the golf ball than I ever was. Nobody ever gives him that recognition. The last 74 holes, he was blistering them down the middle.
"He probably had more pressure on him than any other player on the planet because he was playing for not only the millions of people in Australia ... but there was more pressure on him because no Australian has ever done it."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)