In a week when we couldn’t make our way down a padlocked Magnolia Lane, homebound golf fans had to settle instead for memory lane.
Our guides were familiar broadcast voices, many of them — Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi — long stilled. Golf Channel re-aired the 1986 Masters, the Rosetta Stone of major championships that revealed the Sunday strengths of Jack Nicklaus and the comparative frailties even among Hall of Famers in the generation that followed him. Jack was winning too over on CBS, which gave us the epic ’75 Masters, in which he helped Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller add to what would ultimately be a combined seven silver salvers. More recent Masters tournaments were also dusted off: ’04, when Phil Mickelson broke his duck and Ernie Els’ heart, and ’19, when an approaching storm moved up tee times and saw Tiger Woods secure his fifth green jacket by Sunday lunchtime (his first jacket was pretty much sealed by Sunday lunchtime too, but that’s another story).
The retro weekend broadcasts — in addition to the Masters YouTube channel, which contains every final round dating back to 1968 — were a welcome fix for quarantined golf junkies who are otherwise denied until November by the COVID-19 crisis. But for me, two streams diverged in a locked down New York City apartment, and I took the one less clicked upon, at least in April. I opted for the only major tournament we know for certain won’t be played this year.
The Open Championship website has every official film since 1970 — Jack won that year too, of course — and it’s a delightful reservoir of the quaint and the quirky. In my quarantine viewing I elected to skip more recent Opens that remain reasonably fresh in the mind, despite the ample wine intake necessary to stomach small town British food those weeks. It’s earlier Opens, those from the ’70s and ’80s, that offer beguiling glimpses of a time when even major golf was less corporate, and pleasant reminders of players long forgotten because they’re either dead or just not brand-building on InstaGrift.
Four years ago today, Ernie Els saw his Masters hopes effectively end before he even reached the second tee thanks to a six-putt from short range on the first. It was a moment that said much about the struggles of Els the player, but much more about Els the professional. I wrote this in the aftermath
Major championships are golf’s most unforgiving coliseums, exposing every weakness and insecurity in order to identify and then celebrate the player most worthy of a victory that both defines and elevates a career. But only on Sunday evening. And only for one player.
For the rest of the competitors, majors usually bring varying degrees of misery, battles against expectations they can’t meet, elements they can’t control or demons they thought vanquished. Especially at the Masters, which began Thursday in Augusta, Georgia.
Ian Woosnam’s struggle this year was clear-cut: At 58, the diminutive 1991 champion is too enfeebled to play a course measuring a daunting 7,435 yards. He shot an opening-round 82, 16 strokes worse than leader Jordan Spieth and just one stroke better than last place, occupied by a 16-year-old amateur from Costa Rica.
Bubba Watson’s battle was against the only thing more unpredictable than the volatile two-time winner himself: the weather. He was close to the lead early, but the blustery winds—assisted by his fickle focus—saw him slump to a 75. His play was poor enough to spur a Twitter spike for the hashtag #PrayForTed, popular among golf fans who follow Watson’s petulant criticism of his caddie Ted Scott with an almost Talmudic devotion.
Then there is Ernie Els, a four-time major winner and one of the finest golfers of his generation. Els wrestled only himself. And he lost.
This ought to have been an outstanding week for Miller Brady. The PGA Tour Champions, of which Brady is president, began its season in Hawaii with more fanfare than usual thanks to the debut of Hall of Famer Ernie Els. Nor is Els the only major winner who will slather on the Bengay and saddle up for the senior circuit in 2020. Jim Furyk and Mike Weir both turn 50 on May 12, with Rich Beem following in August.
Yet for all the promise this year holds for Brady, it presents a problem too: Phil Mickelson.
In golf there are moments that define a player’s career, then moments that define his character.
Ernie Els has been favored with an abundance of the former. Like the U.S. Open at Oakmont a quarter-century ago, when he emerged as champion after 92 holes, needing extra innings on top of an 18-hole playoff. Or the four-way shootout at Muirfield in ’02, when he claimed the Open Championship. There were a couple other majors, 19 victories in all on the PGA Tour, more than 70 worldwide.
Only Phil Mickelson can challenge Els for the right to be called the second greatest golfer of the last 25 years.
There were major disappointments, too. A handful of nearlys at the Masters, a few at the PGA Championship, a gutting playoff loss to Todd Hamilton at Royal Troon in the ’04 Open. That one hurt. Legends aren’t supposed to lose to guys named Todd who bunt hybrids.
But one moment stands out as the measure of Theodore Ernest Els. It came three years ago at Augusta National, when his Masters ended after about 15 minutes, on the very first hole of the tournament. He six-putted from six feet.
Only in the city that promoted Mayweather-McGregor as a fair fight and Liberace as a sex symbol could Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson be considered rivals. “The Match” is fresh evidence that Las Vegas can distort any reality just long enough to separate a rube from his billfold.
Carnoustie’s charms can be elusive, but its cruelties are readily apparent. The old links has scant aesthetic appeal, no alluring views or heaving dunes. Like the village from which it draws its name, Carnoustie is simple and functional, and that function is simple: stress test the world’s finest golfers until just one remains unbroken.
Sometimes not even the winner emerges unscathed from a cross-examination at Carnoustie. Paul Lawrie, the 1999 champion, sought therapy after his victory was widely dismissed as a gift from a clownish Frenchman.
There’s a reason why the lingering images from recent championships here have been of the vanquished, not the victors: Jean Van de Velde barefoot in Barry Burn, Sergio Garcia doubled over in anguish after his putt to win lipped out.
At Carnoustie Opens, one man’s ecstasy is invariably built on another’s agony.
Not at the 147th Open, however. It was won by Francesco Molinari, not lost by his challengers.
Heartbreak at the Masters is like a doomed first love affair, the one whose ache never quite dulls. Sure, players can go on to find love in other places — the Opens, a PGA Championship — but the pain of a loss at Augusta National doesn’t ever fully disappear.
Some of that is owed to familiarity. As the Open returns to Carnoustie this summer, Jean Van De Velde will field a flurry of calls to autopsy his 1999 collapse. But at least the Frenchman only has to relive his fiasco every decade or so when the rota returns to the scene of le horreur.
Fail at Augusta National and the ghosts will start whispering every year on the drive down Magnolia Lane.