Live from Augusta — a treat 35 years in the making.
So you’ve been wanting to attend The Masters since you were 11 years old in 1975, when you watched on an Easter Sunday as Jack Nicklaus left “bear tracks” across the 16th green and then waited while Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller missed agonizingly close birdie putts on 18 that would have tied him. You’ve imagined what it would be like to see that hugely sloping downhill fairway on the tenth hole, with its elevated, cross-country green that Ben Crenshaw traversed in a bit of magic in 1984. You think the 13th hole, on TV, looks like the most perfectly designed golf hole in the universe. You couldn’t even breathe during parts of Nicklaus’s charge, with son Jackie on the bag, in 1986, and you cried when Crenshaw wept for Harvey Penick after winning in 1995 — and you still, to this day, get a sick, sick, empty, empty feeling in your gut when you think of Greg Norman’s death march in 1996.
Then the unthinkable happens and your brother-in-law, as a Christmas present, lines up two tickets to Augusta National for the Saturday and Sunday rounds this year. Even better, you arrive to find the most perfect weather imaginable, with bright sunshine both days and high temperatures in the mid-70s. The leader board when you get there is studded with proven players: Westwood and Mickelson, Woods and Choi, Couples and the amazingly spry, 60-year-old Tom Watson. Young gun Anthony Kim, his belt full of bling and his stride full of brashness, lurks as well; so does Bill Haas, son of longtime Masters competitor Jay Haas and grand-nephew of 1968 Masters champ Bob Goalby.
You walk out onto the course near the first tee… and you’re in heaven. The vista is stunning. The hills roll out in front of you in dramatic fashion, with no underbrush under the massive pines that line each hole, which means you can see through the trees to fairway after fairway after fairway. Azaleas and flowering trees of multitudinous kinds are everywhere you look, all framed by the greenest greens of grass and leaves imaginable. Television just can’t do it justice.
The first hole, rarely seen on TV, is quite an opening test. At 445 yards, a bit uphill, to a green that undulates like a wind-blown sea, it tells you right from the start that this is a course both to enjoy and be reckoned with. Defending champion Angel Cabrera is first off the tee on Saturday morning, with the gentlest of tail winds behind him, and he crushes the ball within 95 yards of the hole. You do the math. Yes, as the commercials say, these guys are good.
As you walk the course, though, and watch the marvelously struck shots, you have trouble staying in the here and now. There you are at the par-five second green watching Sergio Garcia spray his second shot off of a patron’s head and back into the fairway for what turned into an easy birdie — and your mind’s eye instead sees Phil Mickelson holing an impossible long eagle putt there a few years back. There on the third, a short par four with massive fairway sand traps, your mind replays Jeff Maggert’s ball hitting the bunker lip and bouncing back off his body for a killing penalty stroke.
Holes four through seven are superlative tests of golf, again too little televised to do them justice — but on eight, wow, you understand why announcer Gary McCord got in trouble by describing the immense greenside mounds as “body bags,” and you also wonder how some of the elder past champions even manage to hike all the way up the hill. Nine is where Norman kept leaving approach shots short and watching them roll all the way back down to his feet. Ten is Norman again rolling down a bank into disaster, and Chris DiMarco’s second shot ending up in a bush, and Len Mattiace chopping up the hole in a playoff. Eleven — well, you try to figure out precisely where it was that Larry Mize chipped from in 1987 to break Norman’s heart.
And so on. You’ve watched for so many years that past and present merge into a great big jumble, because the actual view in person is so much more vivid — so much more impressive than the already visually stunning TV pictures — that you psychologically need the mind’s-eye replay just to provide context to what you are seeing in person. Every uneven lie in each fairway has a meaning given to it by some past shot. Every magnolia has its memory. Every dogwood has its day.
Eventually you set up shop in bleachers by the 15th green, from where you also get a binocular-aided view of the 16th hole if you twist around and crane your neck. For several years the hosts at The Masters shaved the banks of the nominally par-five 15th too severely, sending too many decently struck balls back into the drink. This year they have gone too far in the other direction — this, my one and only criticism of the whole, meticulously planned event astonishing in its success at melding great efficiency with great charm and touch — so that the bank isn’t shaved enough. This makes the potential penalty far less threatening, the risk-reward “par 4.5” concept instead replaced by a hole the pros play as if it is only a slightly tough par four.
But with almost every player easily reaching the green in two, it does make for good theatrics as pro after pro makes a run at an eagle. On Saturday, Kenny Perry succeeds, holing out from a greenside trap to an appreciative roar. An hour later Fred Couples earns even louder hosannas as he chips in from behind the green, coolly celebrating his eagle while clad in sockless glory like he’s a teenager strolling in his Top-Siders. Has there ever been any other golfer so beloved by every gallery as Fred Couples is just by virtue of looking so preternaturally effortless?
Speaking of beloved, Tom Watson’s heroics last year at Turnberry have finally elevated him nearly into the realm of Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, with genuine and deep affection pouring forth from the crowds surrounding each green as he approaches. Never as approachable or as generous with his time as Jack or Arnie, Watson nevertheless has always conducted himself with a fierce integrity, and the fans — or “patrons,” as Augusta National calls them — clearly sense that here is a man who deeply honors the game and merits deep approbation in return.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Australian journeyman Nathan Green, destined to finish dead last among those who made the cut, finds gold amid his grime by knocking his tee shot on 16 part-way up the hill and watching as it trickles, trickles, trickles back down, then suddenly is sucked as if through a drinking straw into the cup for a hole-in-one. Another hour later, young Ryan Moore, wearing a shimmering green tie, matches Green’s feat, with his own hole-in-one propelling him into a top-16 finish that earns him an automatic spot into next year’s field.
And, all the while, you watch the scoreboard and consult your course map and try to figure which crowd roars echoing through the hills signify triumph or disaster for which of the leaders at which of the holes. A Couples roar and a Mickelson roar are louder and more joyous than any others; a Tiger roar is more like that of an awed collection of safari-goers watching a kill. It’s weird: A roar for Tiger seems to have no celebration in it. And for Westwood and Choi, the roars aren’t intense, but they are respectful. Everybody seems to admire them, but nobody to identify with them. You sense not a hint of hostility toward them — indeed, the crowds seem to genuinely like the smiling Korean — but there’s just no apparent rooting interest for them, either.
Anthony Kim, meanwhile, makes the crowd just plain have fun, with his stride such a strut that his 24-years-young energy is infectious and appealing rather than off-putting. A fist-pumping eagle at 15, a birdie putt at 16, and a miraculous par through and off of the trees at 17 top off a remarkable final-round 65 that garners him a third-place finish. The roars for him are highlighted by an appreciative laughter — as one would laugh and applaud simultaneously after watching a great circus trick.
So yes, The Masters turns out to be everything you have imagined for 35 years that it would be. You scramble from 15 to the 18th green in time to see, just barely through the assembled throngs, the final birdie putt by a winning Phil Mickelson — and then, by accident rather than design, you end up caught right along the rope line as Phil and tiny wife Amy are escorted towards the Butler Cabin, the cancer-fighting Amy literally sobbing with joy, two feet away from you, as Phil’s arm squeezes her tightly while they walk.
And then the old trick of mind’s-eye memory starts again, and you see Nicklaus being escorted towards Butler through adoring throngs in 1986, and you see Jim Nantz in 1992 inside Butler choking up as his college roommate Couples dons the Green Jacket for the first and only time.
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