April 6, 2009

Arctic Open? Nope, the Masters

Even while needing parkas and ski caps, spectators at Augusta National were still able to bask in the glow of the Masters

On an unusually brisk day at Augusta National, there was still plenty to savor.

On an unusually brisk day at Augusta National, there was still plenty to savor.

When you're 8 years old and you're at the Masters for the first time (what took so long?), you're toasty even when everyone else is in fleece jackets, ear muffs, knit caps, ski gloves, and generally layered to the ear lobes. It was 10 degrees beyond freezing here this morning, 42 degrees at 6 a.m. with an eyeball-refrigerating wind. This is Georgia, man. It's April, it's the Masters. What's with this winter thing?

"I'm warm," said Jack Doe, whose father, despite my hopes, is not John Doe but Rob Doe of West Des Moines, Iowa. The boy was here with his uncle, Josh Varilek. Little Jack jumped off his picnic bench seat, unzipped his jacket and spread it open to show why, besides being a kid and unaware of grown-up concerns, he was warm. He had on a T-shirt under an Iowa State basketball sweatshirt. "See?" the scamp said cheerily.

I was making my annual walk-around inspection of the Tuesday practice-round crowd when I spotted Jack Doe. He was near the 12th green. He was eating Masters-branded BBQ potato chips. He wore a brown cap bearing the word TITLEIST. Being a crack investigative reporter, I quickly sized him up as a future golf nut. Our conversation clinched it.

"I got my first bogey on my second time out golfing," he reported.

"Seen Tiger yet?" I asked.

"I want to get his autograph," he said.

"Nice cap, Jack."

And he turned it goofy-sideways, laughing.

That was the thing this day. It's always the thing at Augusta. Everybody's laughing. There were North Face jackets, muk-luks, windbreakers over sweaters, and more hoodies than you'd see in Bill Belichick's closet. But cold? Cold as in turn your bone marrow to ice? Nah.

It was pleasantly cold to Marty Shimmel, a grown-up golf nut from upstate New York who over the years has frozen several body parts while watching Buffalo Bills football games. His buddy, Bob Davis, chimed in: "Wind chill of 30 below when the Bills beat the Raiders, 51-3, in 1990."

On this day in the South, Shimmel was the one who wore shorts.

"My wife said we had two inches of snow at home last night," he said. "This," and he turned his face to the bright if eerily unwarming sun, "is summertime in Buffalo."

"Well, it's winter in Florida," Marlene Stacy, of St. Petersburg, Fl., said when I relayed the Buffaloan's weather report. I spotted her as she carefully directed her video camera to .... nothing. She was shooting toward the 10th green where there was ... nobody. Then I realized she was recording gorgeous pictures of ... azaleas. "In Florida, the season is over," she said. "But here, the azaleas are at their peak right now. Just beautiful."

And we thought women came to Augusta only to lay eyes on Camilo Villegas.

The practice-round days of Masters week are a separate event from the tournament itself. Some days it seems there are more people on the grounds for these rounds than for the play that counts. Chances are, it seems that way because it is that way. Augusta National never reports attendance figures, but the early-week crowds are large. And they leave money. The Buffalo tourist, Bob Davis, said he came with a please-bring-me-list that cost him $770 at the gift shops (the only places in the world where you can buy stuff with the Masters logo on it without getting arrested for dealing in counterfeit merchandise.)

On these days, the Masters is a good walk enjoyed. I was walking through the pines between the 14th fairway and 15th green when I realized I had no destination in mind. I was just listening because everyone had something to say, such as: "That green is a nasty little sucker." (True of all of them, but the reference was to the 16th.) "Where's Gary McCord when you need him?" (To remind us it's golf, not brain surgery.) "This place hillier than you thought?" (Until you've set foot here, you have no idea of the elevation changes and the seasick-making rolls of the fairways. TV flattens it all.) "Tiger's not here, he's off in his own little world." (Hey, fella, it's his own big world.)

Then I saw a man wearing a green windbreaker. On it, in block letters: MICHIGAN STATE. This being the South, this being a short and happy drive from Chapel Hill, this being no more than 12 hours since the Michigan State Spartans had lost the college basketball championship to the North Carolina Tarheels, I cleverly said to the man in green, "Seen any Carolina people today?"

Darrel Reece took it in good humor. He said, "No, I think they're all drunk today."

About noon, I felt a strange sensation on the back of my neck that turned out to be the first kindly touches of the sun. Jack Doe was right. At Augusta, even when it's cold, it's warm.