It’s as if spring has come, so summer can’t be far behind.
Tournaments have been up and running since the beginning of the year, but the Masters at Augusta is the true start of the golf season. If the world’s best players put a premium on the moment when their invitations drop through the letterbox, think how most journalists feel when Augusta beckons.
Not surprisingly, few are ever dragged kicking and screaming to the Masters. Whatever you might think about some of the rituals at the heart of this rich man’s event, and whatever you might think of a sporting footprint which is bordered on one side by a tawdry strip of malls and cheap motels which make Dublin’s O’Connell Street look like the epicenter of civilization, and on the other by a small city so dull it beggars belief, Augusta National is a golfer’s Eden.
The very fact of returning to the same pristine course each year where the shots of the past echo in the present is part of what makes the first major championship of the season special.
And whereas a reliance on tradition sometimes frustratingly gets in the way of progress, it has a strangely soothing effect at Augusta. Change comes slowly, and a time when the game is a frenetic publicity contest between the FedEx-this, and the Buick-that, no one seems to mind.
If the current British Open champion, Padraig Harrington, whose head has never been turned by fat cats and fast talk, feels a rare sense of anticipation when he drives up Magnolia Lane, that should be good enough for the rest of us. For lovers of competition, the Masters is much less about privilege and much more about Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods. It’s unashamedly about history and tradition.
For all its legendary stuffiness, the Masters can be strangely democratic. Any writer who appears at the door of the clubhouse at, say, Muirfield in Scotland, can expect the sort of welcome usually reserved for Barack Obama at a Republican Party meeting. At Augusta, however, humble scribes are welcome to break bread in the inner sanctum.
Just last year, as I and a couple of colleagues searched for a free table in the clubhouse, Phil and Amy Mickelson found us some space.
And once, I literally bumped into an extremely appealing blonde on the clubhouse stairs. The lady in question Mrs. Tiger Woods to you, Elin to me apologized before you could say grand slam.
But woe betide anyone who transgresses any of the regulations laid down by the keepers of the Masters flame. The use of cell phones is invariably a thorny issue, and while all journalists can blab away to the hearts? content in the press center, anyone heading out on to the course, even with the phone switched off, is walking a tightrope.
The man from the BBC made that mistake a couple of years ago, and after being summarily frog marched off the premises, was later only readmitted following a few hours of shuttle diplomacy between his organization and Augusta.
And, oh yeah, don’t run whatever you do, don’t run. Travel back in time a little to 2005, and picture Tiger Woods’ now famous Sunday chip at the short 16th hole.
Remember how the contact appeared to be perfect with the ball spinning, and then slowing before veering almost unbelievably to his right. It was easy to imagine Jerry Maguire-like Nike executives urging the ball to stop on the edge hole with a close-up of the swoosh on hundreds of millions of television screens. For a second Woods too believed that he had come up a fraction short, but gravity and genius were working in harmony.
After the ball dropped into the hole, and an explosion of deafening sound had surged through the pines, my only thought was to get to the 18th green as quickly as possible to witness another Woods triumph. As I set off, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. “Don’t run, sir.” I didn’t, and I haven’t since.
There are no hotels worthy of the name, so you?re obliged to rent one of the many houses which local folk put on the market. You and a group of fellow journalists might pay $10,000 (dollars) for the week, while a marquee player would need to stump up a multiple of that.
If the nearby shabbiness of Washington Road would lead you to wonder where the oasis is hidden, Augusta National is, as they say, a thing of beauty. Much hillier than you would ever have imagined, sometimes you feel like putting your hand out to check if what you’re seeing is real.
Augusta is not necessarily the most difficult of courses, not in the way a U.S. Open layout can be difficult. The back nine offers opportunity as much as it courts calamity, and if a green jacket wasn’t on the line, no one could claim that holes 16, 17 and 18 induce an inordinate amount of panic.
But on a Masters Sunday, shots that should be fairly routine take on a life of their own. Why else do you see players preparing to hit, addressing the ball, and then backing off to gauge a breeze that might or might be wafting in the first place? Why so much indecision, so much second-guessing?
The answer, simply, is that Augusta gets inside a player’s head.
Harrington has mentioned that he can either be inspired or spooked by all the shots from the Masters he can recall over the years. If he finds himself with the same putt as Jack Nicklaus holed at the 17th in 1986, with the same second shot to number 15 as Seve Ballesteros faced again in ’86, or with that same chip at the 16th as Tiger Woods, it is never easy to blank the past and focus on the moment.
This will be my fifth time at Augusta, and if the heavy rains of my initial visits made me feel at home, last year’s early Georgia spring was bone dry, so much so that when the players arrived early in the week to begin their practice sessions, they quickly realized that the challenge would be the most difficult in the modern era.
Now, don’t think here that the men of the Masters were naive, or that they were somehow blindsided by the unseasonal weather. They knew exactly what they were doing.
On the outside, Augusta might appear like a throwback, but not alone do they have the most perfect golf course, they also have enough state-of-art green keeping technology to set it up virtually any way they wish.
But instead of watering the course to slow it down and make it more manageable – Sunday morning before the final round was the only time the hoses were turned on – they conducted an experiment which left the players feeling like guinea pigs on a new fangled wheel. And the experiment failed.
Playing in the last group on Saturday, the South African Tim Clark only missed one fairway and signed for an 80. It was the Masters masquerading as the U.S. Open. Not a single player was under par at the end, and there were just three rounds in the 60s on the Sunday.
If there was a grim fascination about the denouement, the fact that the course was on the edge made it impossible for someone to stage a Nicklausesque back-nine charge. It wasn’t about who had the courage to attack, it was more about who had the nerve to defend. Only the cold kept most of the galleries from nodding off.
The unheralded Zach Johnson got it right to earn his place in history, but the Green Jackets got it wrong. By bringing the course to the very brink in terms of difficulty, they produced a tournament that will be remembered as the forgotten Masters. For a moment, paradise was lost.
But not for long. From the maze that is Atlanta airport, and out on to I-20, the road to Augusta next month will be uneventful. But the destination remains one in a million.
P.S. This year sadly, there was no envelope with that precious invitation. It appears the Masters people have got a handle on e-mail. Ah, the pace of change!