March 9, 2009

First Impressions

Our guest does Augusta and offers some thoughts for Chairman Billy Payne

The start of the back-nine roller coaster: the 495-yard, par-4 10th hole drops more than 100 feet. AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Brokaw narrates a slideshow detailing his observations of the Masters

The start of the back-nine roller coaster: the 495-yard, par-4 10th hole drops more than 100 feet. AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Brokaw narrates a slideshow detailing his observations of the Masters

Editor's note: Through the years Golf Digest has asked a number of journalists -- the likes of George Plimpton, Joe Queenan, Bruce McCall and Holly Brubach -- to attend the Masters to give readers a first-timer's view of the tournament. Our guests for 2008 included legendary broadcaster Tom Brokaw and illustrator Mark Ulriksen, whose work accompanies Brokaw's words.


THE RIGHT HONORABLE BILLY PAYNE

CHAIRMAN AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA

Dear Mr. Chairman,

It was good to see you in the new cafeteria of the media center of Augusta National on Saturday at the Masters.

My friend Dan Jenkins was giving me a tour, explaining that the old press lunch room was a pretty spare arrangement. "You could get a cup of coffee and a Krispy Kreme, and that was about it," Dan said, chuckling at the memory and plainly impressed by your upgrade, which included heaping helpings of eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and grits for breakfast and an appealing assortment of hot dishes, sandwiches and salads for lunch.

(I had the pulled-pork-on-a-bun two days running. Very tasty.)

Smart move. Journalists expect to get into heaven on a press pass, and they expect to be fed well -- and for free -- along the way. Anyway, as I told you, Dan and the editors of Golf Digest invited me to be their guest and to write an essay on my impressions as a first-time spectator at the Masters. I accepted with alacrity (a word I seldom use, but we're talking an invitation to the Masters here).

I'm not much of a golfer, playing 10 times a year, but I am a dedicated Big Event Sports Fan. I've been to five Olympics, a half-dozen Super Bowls, two Rose Bowls and two Orange Bowls, at least eight World Series, two NBA championships, one Final Four, four Wimbledon finals, two heavyweight title fights, Daytona and the 1955 State Class B South Dakota High School basketball championship (a helluva game, but that's another story).

I'd played Augusta a few years ago -- the caddies are sworn to secrecy -- but the Masters was the last Big Event on my check-off list when Jerry Tarde, the editor of Golf Digest, called with the offer. That was the good news.

The bad news came after he gave me an essay the late, beloved George Plimpton wrote for the magazine when he attended his first Masters. It was classic Plimpton: smart, droll, insightful, self-deprecating and, as always, a stylish, witty narrative that placed the reader at George's side as a boon companion.

It was so good I wanted to retreat to my room for the duration. But I had come all this way, and I really did want to join the thousands of pilgrims who every year make up those reverential galleries.

I wanted to hear those hushed tones everyone uses when talking about the Masters, the one-stage-above-whisper "majestic" and "unlike any other" in every commentary and conversation. I was so conditioned I half expected the very pleasant and efficient people manning the security screening gates at the entrance to be dressed in choir robes and singing softly, "Welcome to Augusta, where majesty reigns and cell phones do not ring. Bless you for coming, but remember, at the end of the day you must return to your ordinary lives."

Instead, Mr. Chairman -- can I dispense with that title, Billy? After all, we've known each other since the Atlanta Olympics, where you presided with good-ol'-boy charm and the determination of the Georgia Bulldog defensive end you once were.

Billy, I quickly learned that your golf club during Masters week is not so much church as it is a kind of pop-up principality, a sovereign nation with its own economy, laws, citizens and culture tucked away in northeastern Georgia among the strip malls, Jiffy Lubes, Hooters, Waffle Houses and bait shops of Augusta.

When I shared that observation with golf friends, they said, "Be careful. The members of Augusta National Golf Club are thin-skinned about criticism. They don't want any help from the press in telling them how to run their tournament."

You've got to be kidding, I thought. Good golly, so far as I know your membership is made up of captains of industry, financial titans, big names in sport, members of prominent American families -- men who have arrived to such a degree they have been admitted to the most coveted club in golf. They have money, power and a green jacket. Surely they have much more important matters to worry about than an occasional barb in print or a pointed commentary on the air.

Besides, the annual effusive press and broadcast praise for the Masters, the long list of barons desperate to become members whatever the price (what is the price, by the way?), the faithful thousands who come every year as volunteer workers and spectators -- isn't all of that a comforting buffer against the random press shot across your clubhouse veranda?


THE REPUBLIC OF AUGUSTA NATIONAL

Back to my discovery of Augusta as a golf club-cum-sovereign nation. I was a little ashamed I hadn't realized that before. I take a certain pride in my reputation as a political reporter, and yet all these years I'd overlooked the tiny but powerful republic of Augusta National Golf Club.

Think about it, Billy. Besides your own economy, laws, security, rules for citizenship, you have housing, parkland, culture, tourism and a wine cellar as a hedge against the devaluation of the local currency. Your immigration controls are already much better than those along the southern border of the United States. If you wanted to raise an army, you'd have no shortage of generals volunteering to run it.

I guess all you're missing is democracy, and I gather that won't be coming to Augusta any time soon. But, hey, Russia is officially a democracy, and Putin made Augusta look positively Jeffersonian.

In three days hanging out with the thousands of people who pour into your club every day during the tournament I saw no one organizing a Lincoln Brigade or wearing a Gloria Steinem T-shirt. They just wanted to walk the grounds; groan or cheer their favorite golfer; buy Masters golf shirts, caps, jackets, balls, key chains and pen sets; purchase Masters sandwiches wrapped in green tissue paper for the very affordable price of $1.50 or $2.50; smoke cigars; turn to their companions and whisper, "Isn't this majestic?" They seemed to know the rules, and if they didn't, they could turn to the opening pages of the slim, green spectator's guide. Robert Tyre Jones Jr. -- the legendary late Bobby Jones -- wrote in 1967, "It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty, but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors.

"Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player." Mr. Jones' old-school civility and Southern manners set the tone for the Masters: polite but firm. That includes the admonition against running on the course, "considered to be unacceptable behavior." No cell phones, beepers, flags, banners, periscopes, ladders, coolers or weapons of any kind (regardless of permit). Cameras are permitted only during practice rounds. A certain decorum is expected at all times.


A MOUNTAIN OF MUDDY BUBBA

Two man-mountain bubbas who showed up on Saturday in floppy straw hats and baggy shorts to accommodate their tree-trunk legs must have skipped over the section about safety: "Please be reminded that under wet conditions the grounds may become slippery, and appropriate precautions should be observed." A morning rain had turned the spectator crossing on the first fairway into a pitched and muddy hazard. Our two big boys nonchalantly strolled onto the slick, balancing cups of beer in each hand. Boom. One went down. Hard. Got up, fell again, and then a third time. He was about four acres of muddy shirt, shorts, legs and arms.

When they finally reached the far side, two Augusta security guards materialized and escorted them back across, quietly but firmly. Someone guessed that if they weren't drunk and had money they'd have a chance to buy new outfits, but otherwise they were likely through for the tournament.

I watched this little episode with a pair of Kansas City brothers, Mark and Michael Wheeler, who wanted me to know it was the exception. The Wheelers, who come to Augusta every year as volunteers to help out at the tournament and for the chance to return in May to play the course, said their favorite spectators are the first-timers who show up from around the world for the practice rounds. Mark said, "I love seeing people come through that gate for the first time, get down and kiss the ground. They try to get a few blades of grass as souvenirs. Some of them even try to get a drink out of Rae's Creek [at Amen Corner] like it's holy water." (Note to you, Billy: I hope it wasn't a violation to quote the Wheelers. They obviously treasure their Masters experience, and I wouldn't want to jeopardize their chances of returning.)

The first-timers are the most fun to watch. They remind me of the tourists in Washington, walking around the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, mouths agape, taking it all in quietly. On Sunday I was trailing Phil Mickelson for a while and stopped to watch him hit a recovery shot after an errant drive into the woods. A couple recognized me, and one was all atwitter at being within 30 yards of Phil. Her mate explained that his brother was a pilot for one of golf's legendary players. "All these years," he said, "I've never gotten even a sleeve of balls from him, and then this year he comes up with two tickets!" He looked dreamily off into the distance and said, "Sunday at the Masters."

There were other unexpected meetings in the galleries that linger. A son of a favorite Chicago Irish-American lawyer came over with his boy, the lawyer's grandson. The grandfather died recently, and it was a chance for me to express my condolences and laugh about some favorite memories. It occurred to me this is where the old lawyer would want his grandson to be, at the Masters and catching me up on the Cubs' prospects.

Watching Tiger tee off on Saturday I was approached by two cigar-smoking men who wanted to say hello. Maurice Young had watched me while growing up in Los Angeles; Alix Polyne is a Brooklyn product, and they're now successful businessmen and avid golf fans.

One lives in Atlanta, and the other in Chicago, so they get together to catch Tiger wherever they can; their last outing was at Doral. The men, African-Americans, both play the game, but they're disappointed there are not more blacks in professional golf.


A 6-YEAR-OLD'S FRONT-ROW SEAT

By the way, Billy, were you disappointed more kids didn't show up, even though you let them in for free to spark some interest in golf, which has gone flat in growth in recent years?

I have one story that will cheer you up.

When Tiger was on the first tee Sunday, I maneuvered into position beside the roped-off area where CBS had its crane camera. I could see the tee, and if all else failed, I could see the monitor on the giraffe-like camera. A CBS technician signaled to someone behind me to come under the rope.

It was 6-year-old Carrington Osborne, there with his dad, Marvin, from Chattanooga, a black son and father who idolize Tiger. Carrington, in his Masters cap, was taken to a spot where he had a clear view of his idol, but he kept turning back to his dad as if to say, Can you believe this?

Marvin tried to focus him: "Watch Tiger," he whispered loudly. Carrington pivoted to the tee just in time to see Tiger launch a 300-yarder to the far rise on the first fairway.

When Carrington returned to his dad's side, I high-fived him, and we talked golf for a while. Marvin has been playing for 18 years, and Carrington is taking up the game. I'd like to be there in 20 years or so when Carrington tees it up with some friends but then pauses before his swing to tell them about the Sunday in 2008 when he was within 10 feet of Tiger Woods. Or maybe he'll be at that same tee on Sunday at a future Masters.


ANOTHER FIRST: TIGER IN PERSON

I had my own Carrington moment the first day. When I arrived in Augusta, it occurred to me that as familiar as Tiger is in my life -- the televised tournaments, commercials, billboards and sports-page encomiums -- I had never seen him in person.

Friday afternoon, I hustled to a spot just below the seventh green. There, perfectly framed by the stately pines, was the elegant outline of Tiger Woods, taller and more buffed than I had imagined, dressed in contrasting shades of Nike gray and black, preparing to hit a 140-yard shot to the flagstick. As he stood over the ball, artistic and athletic in every detail, I fast-froze the image for my memory bank.

I picked up another favorite golfer that weekend: Boo Weekley, the good ol' boy from the Florida Panhandle, the country guy who sometimes shows up in camo rainpants and admits that when he was a teenager he got knocked out by an orangutan.

When Boo clocked his drive, a soft chorus of Boooooooooo would sound around the tee box, an expression of affection that seemed to say, "You're one of us -- who will spend his prize money at the Waffle House and Bass Pro Shops before going home."

He also reminded me of the late Hank Morgan, a sportscaster when I was doing the news in Atlanta in the mid-'60s. Hank, who was a broadcaster for the Braves as they were making their transition from Milwaukee to the South, had a thing about sports names. "Can you imagine," he'd say, "looking down into a bassinet at your newborn son and saying, 'We'll call him Dow Finsterwald?' Or your daughter, who you hope will grow up to be a tennis player, and saying, 'Why don't we call her Peaches Bartkowicz?' "

I wish Boo Weekley got his name from the memorable character who rescued Jem and Scout in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Anyway, Boo is better than Dow or Peaches Weekley.

By the way, Billy, I don't like to brag, but I thought at the end of Friday, young Mr. Immelman had a real shot at the title, despite all the talk about Mickelson being five under and Tiger still in reach. Immelman was so cool and precise out there, so reminiscent of his mentor, Gary Player.

I knew Tiger would make a charge, so I positioned myself at the seventh green again Sunday to watch Immelman as he nailed an approach shot within a few feet of the pin. He was still 11 under par at that point, and it appeared a birdie was in the bag. But he missed the putt.

When he walked to the eighth tee, I was standing along the rope, trying to see just how upset he was, whether he'd sneak a look at the leader board. He didn't; he concentrated on his notes, looking neither left nor right. Despite all the pressure, I thought he could hang on.

Speaking of pressure, what about you? Your second year as chairman, and you have to make a rain-delay decision on Saturday. Then there's all of that entertaining, the coat-and-tie lunches and dinners in the clubhouse or at your cottage. Everyone wanting to shake your hand or introduce you to their boss, who is just dying to play the course some day.

I have a tip.

Get Dan Jenkins to invite you to the Golf Digest dinner at one of the nearby homes the editors rent. A groaning board of country ham, fried chicken, roast beef, biscuits, home-baked rolls, a fine array of Southern veggies, casseroles and peach pie. Jug wine and cold beer to fuel lively discussions about the nocturnal activities of a few of golf's biggest names, the long career of sportswriter Shirley Povich, the genius of the late Red Smith, the athleticism of Michael Jordan, the intelligence and basketball skills of Tiger, Ali stories, the Olympics and steroids, the presidential campaign, golf names from the past -- anyone remember Jack Rule of Waterloo, Iowa? -- and the navigational skills of Max Adler, a young writer for Golf Digest.

The night before, Max had driven me home from the annual USGA cocktail buffet in downtown Augusta. We were staying in a gated community just outside the city limits, and I had full confidence in Max's driving until we crossed a bridge with a sign that said, "Welcome to South Carolina." For a moment I thought he was taking me back to New York.

We made a swift recovery, and the next day when I met South Carolinians on the course I was able to say, "Have I been to your state? I was there just last night."

Well, Billy, as I think you can tell, I had a grand time. Truly, that was one of the best weekends of my Walter Mitty life. Over the years I've tried to rank my "I was there moments." I think being at Yankee Stadium when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in a row and another World Series moment, being at Dodger Stadium when Kirk Gibson hit the Roy Hobbs homer, are ranked No. 1. Watching Michael Phelps win gold after gold in the Olympics is a close second. Add Joe Montana's length-of-the-field drive against Boomer Esiason's Bengals in the Super Bowl, the two Borg-McEnroe finals at Wimbledon, Michael Jordan's 55 points against my Knicks in his Garden return, Michael Johnson's 200 at the Atlanta Olympics -- and now Sunday at the Masters is my complete set.


A RUN-IN WITH CLIFFORD ROBERTS

Also, Billy, I guess the statute of limitations has run out on my earlier transgression.

About the time you were playing football for the Dawgs and Vince Dooley at the University of Georgia, I was working at WSB-TV in Atlanta, the state's most powerful television station.

When the Masters rolled around in 1966 I was looking forward to watching it on the local CBS affiliate, but television coverage of the tournament would be blacked out in Georgia because the emperor of Augusta National, the late Cliff Roberts, wanted to ensure there would be large galleries on the course.

With the bravado of a 26-year-old, I wrote a stinging editorial for our station, condemning the blackout, saying Georgians deserved to see the greatest sporting event their state had to offer.

The next day one of my big bosses called me in to say he'd just gotten off the phone with a very angry Cliff Roberts, who wanted me fired, immediately. My boss smiled and said, "I'm not going to fire you, but if anyone asks, be sure to say I really took you to the woodshed over this." He was a powerful figure in Atlanta, but not even he wanted to get on the wrong side of Mr. Roberts.

So it's good to know 42 years later I was treated so well and that the galleries are larger than ever, even with all the television coverage.

When I left late Sunday afternoon I thought, I haven't had this much fun in northeast Georgia since I covered that cockfight raid with the state Bureau of Investigation not far from here in 1966.

Billy, I hope you'll let me come back someday, but if you don't, as Dan Jenkins, in his best Bogart style, told me as I was leaving, "We'll always have Augusta."

Sincerely,

TOM BROKAW