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.
AND THEN THERE'S THE GOLF
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.
IN SEARCH OF A TRAIN WRECK
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?
NO PAIN, NO GAME
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.
On the other hand, golf is all about pain to begin with; sane people take up archery or canasta. And there is no denying that weekend golfers clearly derive an immense amount of pleasure from watching a mythical figure's putt roll all the way back down the hill--with the whole world watching. Through the minds of these weekend warriors must be running the thought: I've stunk out the joint my entire life. Today, it's your turn to stink out the joint. And at least they never have to answer Jim Gray's probing question, "How painful was it to stink out the joint today?"
It is no secret that the face of the Masters is anything but the face of contemporary America. Women do not compete, minorities are rarely seen on the greens or in the galleries. Presumably, this will change someday, though, by the looks of things, not anytime soon. On a more positive note, some of the less-appealing features of contemporary America are nowhere in evidence at Augusta. Skinheads are rarely seen. Mullets are shockingly underrepresented, demographically speaking. Not even John Daly's most downmarket fans sport rattails, and genuinely offensive tattoos are few and far between.
Daunted by the tournament's rich tradition, which provides an increasingly tenuous link with an era when Americans kept a civil tongue in their heads, and sensible trousers covering their butt cracks, spectators are markedly less rowdy than at other sporting events. When the beer-swilling Visigoths who pass for today's fans attend Red Sox games or Rolling Stones concerts, one invariably gets the sense that it's all about them, not about the legends they paid to see. At the Masters, there seems to exist a tacit, unspoken realization that the event is all about Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, that Augusta National is first and foremost a place to worship, and that the customary position for worshiping is on one's knees.
CALLS SHALL GO UNANSWERED
The most demonstrable symbol of the Masters imperious rejection of the modern world--other than the absence of women and minorities--is the complete and utter ban on cell phones. If for no other reason than to recall what this great nation was like before technology pummeled it into submission, people should take in the tournament at least once. Yes, Virginia, there was a golden era when Americans did not work 24 hours a day, when they did not multitask, when they implicitly understood that there were certain events in their lives that beggared speech. Yes, Virginia, there was a time in the history of this great nation when even frat boys kept their damn mouths shut and let Freddy Couples putt for a birdie without having to hear Jared from Encino tell Jackson from Brookline and Jason from Shaker Heights that he was watching Freddy Couples putt for a birdie and, gosh, he only wished that Jordan, Josh, Jillian and Jenna from points north, south, east and west could be there with him because that would be so, well ... sweet.
The fact that so many motor-mouth lawyers, investment bankers, stockbrokers, entrepreneurs, salesmen and journalists can actually be induced to shut up, mind their manners, and stow their cell phones for whole days at a time should give hope to us all. Yes, Virginia, it is still possible to teach grown men how to behave in public. Though, if the Augusta National Golf Club ever does relax its ban on cell phones, then you can just yank out your hammer and nails and board up this society for good.
CIGARS SMOKED BADLY
Augusta National is one of the last public places in America where cigar lovers can puff on a stogie without risking incarceration, the venomous opprobrium of the Prius community, or death. Spectators smoke anywhere and everywhere, assisted on at least one occasion by an intrepid Florida entrepreneur who had set up shop on Washington Road only to be arrested by the local gendarmerie for purveying villainous contraband smuggled in from Fidel Castro's balmy den of sin. Yet it quickly becomes obvious that the Masters is afflicted by an epidemic of what is best described as amateur cigar aficionadoing. Cigar smoking, like sumo wrestling or polygamy, is best left to those best equipped to perform it, but a disconcertingly large number of smokers at the Masters are utterly at sea when it comes to lighting up a Montecristo.
In the fullness of time, the tournament directors might consider offering informal three-day courses training neophytes in the advanced carcinogenic arts; for now, let me merely note that one does not chomp on a Panatella, one does not actually smoke the cigar label itself, and no cigar that I know of is designed to be physically masticated and ingested. A grown man who does not know how to smoke a cigar is like a grown man who does not know how to swear; if you haven't learned how to do it by age 40, better luck next lifetime. Don't get me started on the women.
A GOOD MYTH IS HARD TO PERPETUATE
Augusta National is the repository of numerous myths, though these days it is harder and harder to get a good myth going. If I thought there was any mileage in it, I would already be circulating a story that Casper shot that 14 because he saw not only the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Ghost of Christmas Past but also that creepy little girl from "The Ring" as he was lining up his eighth putt on 16, and it kind of rattled him. After all, we already have the myth of Ben Crenshaw being spooked by a mysterious apparition in the 1984 Masters.
In 1954 Billy Joe Patton was attempting to become the first amateur to win the Masters, but he hit his second shots into the water at the par-5 13th and 15th holes and finished a stroke out of a playoff. Thirty years later, Crenshaw had the lead and was debating going for the green at the 13th but thought he saw Patton in the gallery. Crenshaw played safe and won, but Patton later told him he wasn't at the 13th when Crenshaw played it. This is a truly wonderful story, and I have no reason to believe that it is anything less than the truth. But there is no denying that it is the kind of myth that would have a hard time gaining traction today because of the ubiquitous presence of TV cameras.
This is as true in golf as it is of any other sport; there have been no official reports of extraterrestrial intervention by ghosts, specters, wraiths or demiurges in any of the major sports in my lifetime, which is a terrible shame, as several of these sports could use some discreet intercession from the spirit world. This is one of the sad effects of living in a technologically sophisticated age; it is almost impossible for good myths to get started when people like Bryant Gumbel are on hand to immediately disprove them.
While visiting Augusta, I heard two charming myths that seemed to be worth investigating. The first was that the 13th hole had once been the site of a cottage serving as Confederate headquarters during the Civil War. This I heard from a jovial Maryland native who fancied herself a bit of a Civil War buff. A bit of a Civil War buff myself, I was happy to hear this kernel of trivia; it finally made me feel like I was well and truly ensconced on a front porch of a plantation way down in Dixie sucking on a mint julep beneath the shade of a magnolia tree. The Terrapin State denizen was visiting Augusta for the first time and was accompanied by an amiable young traffic expert who had recently relocated from West Lafayette, Ind., and judging from the 24-hour pileup on Washington Road, clearly had her work cut out for her.
"The Yankees were supposed to torch the cottage, but they didn't," the woman reported. Then, chuckling in the good-natured way that chucklers often will, she wisecracked: "Damn Yankees can't get anything right."
Well, to give credit where credit is due: Sherman did burn down Atlanta. Still, I thought this legend was worth checking into, and when I was unable to quickly corroborate her most appealing story, I quietly repaired to the Augusta Museum of History. Here, the very helpful and frightfully knowledgeable director of curatorial services, Gordon A. Blaker, told me that the myth, which he had heard bruited about before, was almost certainly not true. Producing a military map, Blaker indicated that the line of Confederate defenses ringing Augusta never reached as far as the site of Augusta National Golf Club, at that time a fruit nursery, and most assuredly did not attain the area now occupied by the 13th hole.
An additional defect in the story was that, according to Blaker, the Union Army never actually reached Augusta, being rebuffed twice by Confederate forces under the adroit command of Joe Wheeler. Be that as it may, I plan to tell my grandchildren that the 13th hole at Augusta National was, in fact, the site of Confederate headquarters, because it makes a terrific story and I don't think any of my grandchildren are going to go all the way to the Augusta Museum of History just to prove that Gramps was a liar.
An even more intoxicating rumor was that the comely maidens at the local Hooters were ringers brought in from Atlanta, Myrtle Beach and Florida, as there were not enough lovely locals to meet the needs of the highly demanding patrons during Masters Week. This theory I heard from several people, though mostly from golf writers who only tell the truth when they are being paid to.
One night I popped down to Hooters, where John Daly was holding court nightly, with his trailer parked outside, simply to ascertain the veracity of this mythological asseveration. The girls on hand were fairly typical Hooters gals, sweet and sassy, but not the kinds of girls who would take your breath away. At least not all of them. Given the establishment's reputation for employing well-endowed young women, I was disappointed to find that one of the employees was a bit sparrow-like. If it was true that these young women had been recruited from hither and yon to staff the purveyor of tasty comestibles during the annual golfing bacchanal, it strongly suggested that the Augusta region was woefully understaffed in the babes department. At least in a retail setting.
Six months after Woods won the tournament, I still could not get that Hooters story out of my head. A consummate professional, I knew that I had to get to the bottom of this. So grabbing my hat, quite driven to distraction, I jumped on a plane to Columbia, S.C., rented a car and motored all the way back up to Augusta. Striding into Hooter's, like Douglas MacArthur returning to the Philippines, I was thunderstruck to find a quartet of ludicrously fetching young women on hand to serve me. Particularly stunning was Dena, the feisty young lady who waited on me.
"If you're still here on Tuesday, there's a Daisy Duke bikini contest," she advised me at one point.
Desk clerk! I'd like to change my reservation!
Lovely as Dena was, her hot-pantsed confederates were no slouches, either. Dena explained that although additional staff was usually brought in from out of town during Masters Week, this was only because the restaurant was busier than usual and needed lots of experienced staff to handle the large crowds. It certainly had nothing to do with the pulchritude of the women in question.
Based on my two experiences, I am now willing to wager that the prettiest Hooters girls--locals all--might very well take their vacations during Masters Week, abandoning unsuspecting, out-of-town ringers to the tender mercies of the John Daly crowd. In any case, those who would dare to suggest that the girls of Augusta, Georgia, and its immediate environs are not equal to the task of staffing Hooters with a full contingent of luscious lasses are now formally advised to hush their damn mouths.
Returning to our original cathedral imagery, Augusta National resembles the Louvre in one other important respect: If you're waiting to hear one of the spectators say something thoughtful, intelligent, helpful or original, you've got a long wait. "This place is gorgeous!" is a common assertion. Well, yeah. "This place rocks." No argument there. If a helicopter is heard in the distance, someone is sure to say, "It's Norman coming in." And bystanders eyeballing Davis Love III in a right pickle, marooned in a bunker on 16, have a tendency to recount similar impasses they once encountered back at Pebble Beach or Bethpage Black, as if anyone believed them, or anybody cared. Interesting story, Bob. But the Masters is real. Finally, on a purely personal note, counseling Tiger Woods on club selection is not strictly necessary; he's kind of been playing the game awhile.
Just as everyone hovers around the Mona Lisa, when there are perfectly fine Titians, Bellinis and Giorgiones nearby, everyone seems to want to get their picture taken with Arnold Palmer. One morning I was sitting outside the famous clubhouse, sipping a coffee, when I happened to notice Palmer seated nearby, chatting with friends. I realized that this was probably the first time in my life that I had seen Palmer's striking visage in repose, when he was simply relaxing--not competing, not waving at the gallery, not hawking motor oil--but just simply breathing. Palmer got to relax for all of about 23 seconds before a camera-wielding lout invaded his space, ignored the fact that Palmer was actually having a conversation with his companions, and demanded a photograph. Shortly thereafter, the beleaguered but unfailingly courteous Palmer retreated to the relative safety of the private cottages that adjoin the course, but not before some jumbo-sized simpleton fell down flat on his face while pursuing him.
"That there is the king of golf," opined one spectator, with that theatrical sententiousness that makes Southerners such an euphonist's delight. "Don't let anybody tell you otherwise."
I hope he was talking about Palmer, not the doofus on the lawn.
JACK AND THE MUDDERS
If the main story line of the 2005 Masters was the resurgence of Tiger Woods, the subplot was surely the farewell of Jack Nicklaus. When my grandchildren ask me if I saw Jack Nicklaus' very last putt at Augusta, I will tell them no, as no one seriously believes that Jack has hung it up for good, and I wasn't there to see it anyway. But if they ask if I ever spoke with the greatest golfer of the last half-century, I will tell them that I did. Rather briefly.
On Friday, when play was halted because of inclement weather, Nicklaus and his crew were stuck inside a van in a pool of mud beneath a tree adjoining the fairway. One reason they were having so much trouble moving was because Team Jack was in the car with their boss, avoiding the rain, when they should have been outside pushing. Gallantly, a whole bunch of spectators, yours truly included, joined forces and pushed the mighty sportsman's vehicle out of the muck. "Thanks!" said Nicklaus, as the van emerged from the primeval slime. "Anytime, Jack!" I replied.
Somehow, I don't think anything like this is ever going to happen to me at the World Series, the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. And it's certainly not going to happen at the Louvre. That's what makes Augusta special.
Joe Queenan is the author of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country and True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans. He won a Sports Emmy in 2005 as a feature producer for HBO's "Inside the NFL."