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.
Schedules are sacrosanct in golf. Each season rotates around the immovable cornerstones of the calendar — springtime in Augusta, summer amid wintry weather on a British links — and each week is identified not by its dates but by its PGA Tour stop. Valspar last, Match Play this, Valero next. There are schedules within schedules, the roll call of tee times that lines up the action and the broadcast listings that bring it all home.
The abandonment of the Players Championship began (at least) 11 desolate weeks without Tour play, severed our tethers to the schedule, and left both fans and players adrift.
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.
On the second Sunday in April every year, Augusta National feels less like a golf course than an operating table, upon which men are laid bare and probed for frailties not readily apparent to the naked eye. And no facility in the world does a more thorough job of diagnosing a faint heart, a deficit of intestinal fortitude, an absence of daring.
Those aren’t ailments that will appear on an X-ray or a doctor’s chart, but the final round of the Masters routinely exposes each and every one of them.
Of course, the recent vulnerabilities of Tiger Woods have been more obvious: physical injury, swing woes, personal turmoil — each a test more daunting than anything Amen Corner can pose. By comparison, the crucible of the back nine on Sunday afternoon at the Masters must have seemed a welcome relief.
Golf has marketed the virtue of its players for so long that you’d be forgiven for assuming PGA Tour cards come with certificates of moral rectitude.
Until we recently began living under par, “These Guys Are Good” was recited with an almost evangelical fervor. The slogan wasn’t intended to refer only to the quality of play evident on Tour, but also to the not so readily apparent qualities of its members: sportsmanship, humanitarianism, charity.
That branding has two potential snares: Even a trivial divergence from the righteous narrative is magnified, and it denies golf fans the manufactured hatred that thrives in other sports. After all, it’s tough to hate a guy when you only hear about his decency and kindness to puppies.
It was fitting that the 100th PGA Championship was contested on a golf course with all the design variety of a boxing ring. Sunday’s slugfest deserved to be conducted under the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules rather than the U.S. Golf Association’s.
Brooks Koepka confirmed himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion with his second major victory of the year and third in six starts, having sat out the Masters with a wrist injury. His was a decisive win, but it was a win on points.
This was no knockout. The greatest of them all, a man who has been punch drunk and on the ropes for several years, was still on his feet, and until his very last shot was throwing haymakers with a ferocity not seen in a decade.
The debate over unruly crowd behavior at golf tournaments is – much like those troublesome fans – growing louder, increasingly fractious and more persistent. A welcome respite looms at golf’s marquee event.
You probably won’t hear much chatter on that subject during the Masters, chiefly because you won’t hear much of the hecklers either. Enforcing rules that seem outdated is a tradition unlike any other at Augusta National, but one tradition warrants celebrating: A patron who bellows abuse or inanities at a player quickly will feel security on his collar (it’s always a “him”) and swiftly be shown to the street.
You won’t hear Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley asking for patience or acceptance of the lobotomized louts, or requesting that players simply deal with the disruption. Spectators pay to watch the show, not to be part of it. The Masters Committee understands that.
Two things tend to blight sporting careers with a bleak predictability: unforeseen injury and untethered expectations. The psychological toxicity often comes not from the aspirations of the athlete – since those can be managed or adjusted – but from the expectations he cannot control: those of others, the insistent chorus that chirps today about his tremendous potential and tomorrow about his dismal underachieving.
That chorus must now be as familiar a feature of spring as the first birdsong for Rory McIlroy.
Just above the doorway through which players walk onto center court at Wimbledon is etched a line from Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem If: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same.”
Sergio Garcia could make a case for having that same inscription carved into the Sarazen Bridge at Augusta National. Gene’s bridge crosses the pond fronting the 15th green, a journey Garcia himself memorably failed to make with five balls during the opening round of the Masters. He signed for a 13 on the par-5 and shot 81. A second-round 78 gave him the worst-ever two-day total by a defending champion. Only two amateur rookies fared worse.
There are a handful of constant themes in the Masters script produced every year on the movie set that is Augusta National Golf Club. Drama, of course. Often some tragedy. Scenes of euphoric joy, moments of quiet despair. The occasional old love affair rekindled. A healthy dose of sentimentality. Heroes are abundant, villains invisible.
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.
Each time Rory McIlroy arrives at Augusta National, the burden of expectation is a little heavier. It’s been that way since 2011, when he lost a four-stroke lead on Sunday. He won the very next major by eight shots and three more since, but those trophies may as well be checked at the public end of Magnolia Lane. The Masters is a major onto itself – what you accomplish elsewhere doesn’t subtract from the pressure of anticipation, it only adds to it.
A man gets accustomed to hearing that things are out of his reach when he stands just 5-feet, 4½ inches or when he’s the blue-collar son of a Welsh dairy farmer with dreams of making it in a black-tie world.
Ian Woosnam is both of those things, but Tuesday night — four decades after he took to the road chasing the European Tour in a beat-up VW camper van stocked with a frugal diet of baked beans — he arrives at a berth in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Tiger Woods has long been accustomed to owning the sports headlines on the day after the Arnold Palmer Invitational concludes. That PGA Tour event—which Woods has won eight times—wrapped on Sunday without its legendary namesake (who died in September) or the injured Woods, who in recent years has spent more time on the sidelines than Bill Belichick.