Forget all the poetry about how Augusta National Golf Club is a “cathedral of nature.” Forget, for now, the azaleas and dogwood blossoms and the rolling, verdant hills, forget the tragic nobility of founder Bobby Jones’ grace in handling a crippling disease and forget the sad end of tyrannical former chairman Clifford Roberts. Forget the ghosts of near-miss amateurs Billy Joe Patton and Ken Venturi, or the agony of perpetual runners-up Tom Weiskopf and Greg Norman. And please, please forget the goofy sideshow known as Martha Burk that the New York Times so embarrassingly obsessed about a few years ago.
When the Masters Tournament begins on Thursday, watch every minute of it that you possibly can, not for any of those overplayed media storylines above, but because for pure theater it’s the single best, most arresting, individual (non-team) golf tournament in the world. Indeed, don’t limit the superlatives to golf: It’s one of the world’s best sports events of any sort, period.
Sure, the U.S. Open has its own brutal drama, the British Open its storied history and its quirky bounces, and the under-rated PGA its strong fields and player-pleasing, fair-but-tough course set-ups. But none of that can compare with the wildly unpredictable twists of fate that the Masters serves up quite literally as a matter of course — the course itself, by its ingenious design, being the source of those twists.
The first seven holes of the back nine are the essence of genius. Each one of them (with the possible exception of the recently toughened 11th) invites legitimate hopes for a birdie (or even better) without the player doing anything too heroic; but each also threatens utter disaster on every shot. Rarely does one course offer so many holes in a row where a three- or four-shot swing on each hole is such a real possibility.
From that breathtaking stretch the course finishes with two par fours that are less visually arresting and less obviously dramatic — yet filled the subtleties that somehow always make for great theater nonetheless.
Every back-nine hole has its stories. It’s tough to think of the 10th, for instance, without picturing Ben Crenshaw sinking a putt from seemingly halfway across the county en route to his first win — but it’s just as familiar as the place where little-known Len Mattiace hockey-pucked his ball back and forth across the green to lose a playoff in 2003.
The 11th was where Larry Mize blitzed Greg Norman with a 140-foot chip shot to win in 1987 — and where Norman nine years later three-putted from about 11 feet to confirm that he was indeed collapsing against Nick Faldo.
And on and on through each hole, with the 12th providing Fred Couples and Jeff Maggert the ecstasy and agony, respectively, in different years; the 13th where Tom Watson actually became the real Tom Watson by misinterpreting a gesture from Jack Nicklaus and letting his anger overcome his penchant for choking; the 14th where Phil Mickelson almost holed out en route to his first major title….
Okay, enough with the stories. No less than the great Jack Nicklaus himself is on record as saying that the likelihood of big surprises will be lessened this year because tournament organizers have lengthened some holes so considerably that the holes may lose their character and let the long bombers, about ten of them in his estimate, be the only players capable of winning.
Well, here’s saying that this is one of the first times the Golden Bear has ever been wildly wrong. Here’s saying that the only long bombers who will benefit from the changes are the ones not just long but straight. Because as the course has been lengthened, it also has been tightened. Which means that whereas Tiger Woods could drive it wildly in past years and still be hitting recovery shots with a 9-iron, now he’ll be hitting those same recovery shots — or, more likely, more recovery shots, because he’ll be forced to hit more drivers — with a six-iron and with more trees in his way.
The likely result will be more missed greens for everybody in the field, including the big hitters whose length otherwise would allow them easier opportunities to shrug off wayward shots. The short game will be more important then, not less — and even the mid-length drivers like past champions Mike Weir and Jose Maria Olazabal will again be on somewhat equal footing with the Tigers and Phils and Vijays of the golfing pantheon.
This isn’t to say that a long hitter won’t win — but only that the straight hitters and the good scramblers and putters will be in the mix just as ever.
All of which leads us…where? Established stars Woods, Mickelson, Olazabal, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, David Toms and the far shorter-hitting Luke Donald all seem to be in top form. The Golf Channel’s analysts, meanwhile, all seem to agree that Ryder Cup Captain Tom Lehman is the sleeper to watch. All of which makes sense. But sense isn’t always the same as prescience. And if Augusta National were wont to reward good sense, then Greg Norman and Tom Weiskopf, and Johnny Miller and Tom Kite, all would have multiple Green Jackets hanging in Augusta’s champions’ room rather than having nothing but bridesmaids’ outfits to show for their efforts.
The truth is that Augusta’s ghosts really do control the script at the Masters, and the ghosts every so often like streaky players who revere the game and who pay homage to its lineage. How else to explain Ben Crenshaw’s out-of-nowhere victory in 1995 right after serving as pallbearer for his mentor, Harvey Penick?
The Penick lineage also goes right through the runner-up to Crenshaw that year, the streaky traditionalist Davis Love III. And it goes to Love’s younger buddy Justin Leonard, another traditionalist who, like Gentle Ben, is a Texan whose putting stroke can suddenly produce extended streaks of magic.
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