This ought to be a week that Shaun Micheel savors, returning to a major championship where he can wrap himself in gauzy memories of his finest achievement. Instead, he approaches the 100th PGA Championship with a familiar gnawing anxiety, conscious that every mention of his “once upon a time” fairytale victory in 2003 brings detractors eager to emphasize the “once.”
“I look forward to getting back, but I have some trepidation about the noise that’s going to start appearing on social media before too long,” he said last weekend.
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.
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 Enforcing rules that seem outdated is a tradition unlike any other at Augusta National, but one tradition warrants celebrating: A patron who bellows abuse or inanities at a player quickly will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.
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.