The Masters

First Look

A fresh assessment of a golf shrine, from the ruins (we don't mean the old guys) to the myths to the amateur smokers. Oh, and you, too, can get down and dirty with a legend

April 2006

Shortly before attending my first Masters, I winged across the Atlantic to inspect Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Hopping across the Irish Sea to Dublin, I logged time at St. Stephen's Green, Trinity College, Phoenix Park and the Abbey Theatre, then swung across to Paris to take in the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Jardin des Tuileries and the Place de la Concorde. Then, just for good measure, I hooked north to Berlin so I could bask in the daunting splendor of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. The question awaiting me in Georgia was whether the Augusta National Golf Club could possibly measure up to the grandeur and majesty of these eye-popping, awe-inspiring, intergalactically revered shrines.

It did, it did. Radiantly gorgeous and steeped in the kind of magic, tradition, charm and staggering botanical variety that most sporting venues can only dream of--Wrigley, Fenway, be damned!--Augusta National was everything I'd always been told it would be. The greens could not have been more bedazzling. The trees could not have been more winsome. The atmosphere could not have been more genteel. And don't even ask about the wisteria!

But to be scrupulously fair, Augusta National possesses certain inherent advantages over all those other legendary locales precisely because of its anomalous setting. Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate are magnificent edifices planted in grandiose historical districts, and are surrounded by other, similarly stupefying structures. Thus, as stunning as Notre Dame might be, it still has to vie for attention with the Luxembourg Gardens, the Opera, the Bastille and the mythical Seine. It has some competition.

Augusta National, by contrast, is poised cheek by jowl with Washington Road, a belligerently unappealing strip of macadam that bears a suspicious resemblance to the Highway to Hell. Here is the Venus & Adonis Hair Stylists. Here is Body So Bronze. Here are an assortment of preposterously hideous neoclassical statues that give preposterous hideousness a bad name. And yes, administering the coup de grease, here are Jeff's Lube and Tire Kingdom.

Clean-plate types on the prowl for Red Lobster, the Olive Garden, Arby's or any of the other feed troughs that blight our national landscape certainly won't be disappointed here. For as far as the eye can see, fast-feederies, stuff-your-faceries, and pork-out-eries festoon the thoroughfare, flanked by muffler joints, mattress outlets, bomb-basted cineplexes (Coach Carter, Are We There Yet?), deep-discounters and all the other macabre detritus of suburban America. The net effect is to make the neighborhood look not so much like a place where the local zoning board was bought off as where the local zoning board was assassinated and replaced by an architectural-review committee handpicked by Taco Bell.

This being the case, Augusta National cannot fail to impress the first-time visitor. Just as Chicago looms over the Midwest like a Prairie Byzantium because there is nothing else that even vaguely resembles it among all those fruited plains and amber waves of grain, Augusta National is both a beacon and a fortress, an oasis of sanity and class, providing much-needed respite for pilgrims seeking relief from all the pre-fab rubbish that adjoins it. It is not just a shrine. It is not just a cathedral. It is oxygen. It is a sanctuary, a place of hiding from the lurid crassness of modern civilization. Once you get inside, you won't ever want to leave. Even if you don't like golf. It would be like chucking the verdant splendor of Shangri-La for another spin around the Kalahari.

Those who do in fact like golf can immediately devote themselves to clearing up certain divisive issues as soon as they arrive at the club. Is Phil Mickelson's Velcro smile dermatologically plausible? Apparently. Does Vijay Singh ever look like he's having fun? Yes, eyewitness reports confirm that he stopped frowning for a full 7.68 seconds on Day 2. And what's the story with Tiger Woods and those clubs? Oh, sure, now that Woods has reasserted his complete and utter suzerainty over the sport, it's easy to forget that old-school, high-octane Tigermania was nowhere in evidence the first two days of the 2005 Masters. Winless in 10 consecutive majors entering last year's tournament, his career was starting to resemble Ricky Martin's. If not Hanson's.

Ominously, Woods had a brutal time of it the first 36 holes, and the somewhat less-than-overwhelming crowds accompanying him around the course reflected how far his star had fallen, at least in the eyes of fickle fans. Yes, you could actually get within gawking distance of Woods in the early rounds; no, the crowds were not massive, breathless throngs stretching from here to the Caucasus. No one was talking about Woods breaking Nicklaus' records those first few days while he was smacking the ball into the water; the conversations mostly involved those mysterious equipment woes that had allegedly sabotaged his game. Equipment woes are no longer the subject du jour now that Woods has pocketed the Masters and the British Open, and now that his Vatican-scale entourages have returned to their previous full front-runner strength.

The Masters, of course, provides a splendid opportunity for even the most casual fan to pay tribute to the legends of yore. Accordingly, I spent the first few hours hound-dogging Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo, who, struggling off the course at the end of one painful round, opined to a colleague, "The old man is old." Paying this sort of obeisance to the legends of the game is a sine qua non for the true fan; it is why we trek across the hinterland to Cooperstown and Canton; it is why we drag the kids to Mount Vernon and Gettysburg. It is also why some of us go to the Louvre.

After fulfilling these sacerdotal obligations, it would have been entirely natural to pick up the spoor of Woods, Singh, Mickelson and the feisty Chris DiMarco, who looked like a lock to win the whole thing until Woods erupted from his inexplicable funk. But blighted by the contrarian spirit I share with most Irish-Americans and all Philadelphians, my primary interest during the early rounds of the tournament was not to watch young men playing well but to watch old men playing badly. Perversely attracted to train wrecks, I can honestly report that no sequence of majestic Phil Mickelson bunker shots or improbable Tiger Woods uphill putts could provide anywhere near the spectatorial pleasure to be derived from watching Billy Casper machete his way to a hair-raising 105 on Day 1.

The Masters is the only athletic event in which competitors who have not been competitive for decades are allowed to flail away on the same terrain as dapper young chaps with sturdy hairlines and visible abdomens, studly types who might actually have a chance to win the tournament. This is why the young players secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, wish the old-timers would go away: Are there no workhouses? Are there no assisted-care facilities? Are there no senior tours? To a certain degree, their animosity is forgivable; while icons like Gary Player still perform like the lion in winter, some of the gods of yesteryear are starting to resemble the lion in permafrost.

Casper, in vintage "Tin Cup" fashion, took an unbelievable 14 on the 16th hole. Because the 1970 champion was competing on the same course as Singh, Woods and Mickelson, this was like watching the now-decrepit Ralph Kiner lunging at a Mariano Rivera fastball, or the gimpy Bill Russell trying to dunk over Shaquille O'Neal, or the septuagenarian Frank Gifford trying to beat Brian Dawkins on a down-and-in. Actually, it was worse; Russell and Gifford still look like they can play a little.

To be perfectly honest, I did not actually see Casper take that 14 on his seventh hole of the day, and wasted a good part of the day trailing him, hoping that he might log an even more spectacular score coming down the stretch. And to be even more perfectly honest, there is no official record of Casper's Götterdämmerung, as he not only refused to sign his scorecard but might have given second thoughts to signing his birth certificate. That's why I'm telling my grandchildren that I saw Billy Casper take a whopping 14 at the 2005 Masters; if Casper doesn't have to sign his card and 'fess up about his miserable outing, why should I feel obligated to tell the truth?

A female friend once asked me why men take such delight in seeing wide receivers decapitated as they gallop across the middle of the field. "Because it's not happening to us," I replied. The same holds true at a tournament like the Masters. Golf is an almost entirely punitive sport, the only major competitive activity other than bicycling where the pain is inflicted not by an opponent but by the playing field. This puts both participants and observers in the curious position of paying homage to a course that has done little but cause them physical and emotional distress.

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