The Masters - It's That Feel-Good Time of Year Again

By: Jay Flemma


The Masters may herald spring to the golf world, but it's really Christmas in April. It's golf's yearly celebration of rebirth - a reunion, a revival and the gold standard of how a championship should be run but, better still, for one week all sports fans will be of good cheer, tradition, altruism and sportsmanship.

For that reason alone, the Masters is the greatest sporting event in the world.

Moreover, no other American golf venue enjoys such an alluring synergy of beauty, strategy and history as Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. Oakmont, Winged Foot and Oakland Hills are all phenomenal courses with rich histories. Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Shinnecock are all indisputable masterpieces. But Augusta is unparalleled. It is meant to be America's proper rejoinder to St. Andrews and it is, in almost every way.

"If you can't fall in love with Augusta National, you might be a cactus," joked Lee Trevino. "This is what golf is all about," the Merry Mex concluded, and he's right.

This year both professional golf and Augusta National are heading into the Masters on a high note. The PGA Tour has had its share of dreaded Monday finishes, but it's been rewarded with a run of "proper winners" nonetheless. Fan favorite Phil Mickelson, defending FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedecker and young Turk Dustin Johnson have all won so far, and rising superstar Rory McIlroy fired a smooth 66 to take second place just last week in Texas.

Everyone is rounding into shape heading into the first major of 2013.

And yes, as you may have heard, Tiger Woods has won three times already, including victories at Torrey Pines (where he can win with one leg tied behind his back) and Arnie's joint outside Chez Disney. We've had great run-ups to the Masters for the last few years, but between 2010 and '12 Woods was the one piece that was missing. First it was scandals, then it was swing changes, then it was injuries: there was always something frustrating him the last three years from being truly "back."

Now he's off to his hottest start since Thanksgiving night 2009. But is he truly "back"? Yes and no; I hate to sound like Bill Clinton, but it's appropriate - it depends on what your definition of "back" is.

"I'm back playing a full schedule this year," Woods said last year during the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. "I've not played a full schedule in a very long time. I've been told I would never win again, so I'll just play it out and I know that once I get into the rhythm of playing, playing tournaments and being able to practice and work on the things that Sean (Foley) wants me to work on, things will get better, and they have. And I'm starting to see some nice consistency and I'm very pleased by that."

Now, after Woods raced out to three early wins in 2013, the media, desperate for more casual eyeballs, are proclaiming him "back" with a paroxysm of hagiographic hero worship, some even pointing out that, based on their reading of the other 2013 major championship venues, Tiger stands a great chance of winning the Grand Slam.

There is a grain of truth to their hyperbole - the majors are the real litmus test for Tiger being "back." He's the one who made the majors his imprimatur, his birthright, his life's work. There was even a time when he made the major championships his plaything. So he will be judged most accurately by the benchmark he set.

While Tiger-philes point to his 2012 and '13 PGA Tour wins to support their argument he's returned to form, most ardent fans and knowledgeable sportswriters - those with a sense of history - know Tiger isn't truly back until he wins a major or two. He can win every "Bay Hill Shootout" and "Torrey Pines Classic" for the rest of his life, but they will be Pyrrhic victories if Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors doesn't fall.

Nevertheless, heading into this year's Masters two things are certain about Woods: this is the steadiest golf he's played since "You Know When," and as someone with four green jackets he always plays well at Augusta National.

Even so, Woods is also the only major player entering the tournament with a whiff of controversy as well. First he yanked the lion's tail by releasing saccharine-sweet photos of himself and skier Lindsay Vonn, his new squeeze, to - in his words - "devalue them" to the "stalk-a-razzi."

Still, how does the song go? "Don't tread on Superman's cape . . ." It was the gossip tabloids that were Tiger's undoing more than anyone else other than himself. He of all people should know that they don't play fair and they don't play clean. So why antagonize them? As Lucy once told Charlie Brown, "Keep your head down, stupid."

So all this begs the question: Meet the new Tiger . . . same as the old Tiger? Better still, why do we still think great athletes make great role models?

Augusta National, however, comes in riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave of popularity the likes of which even it has not enjoyed in many years. Do you hear that silence? The silence so loud it's deafening? That is the sound of every journalist in the house having to clam up about Augusta National not admitting women. It's a joy not having to hear the knee-jerk, petulant, self-righteous hue and cry from misguided do-gooders who actually thought it helped women's rights to have two ladies admitted to an American country club.

Not since the Martha Burk three-ring circus had the dialogue reached such a new low as the strident and unprofessional hectoring last year. It was to be expected early in the week; the issue has been a talking point for many decades. But to incessantly harangue the club even as the Sunday final round was in progress was too much. There's making a point, and then there's hijacking the tournament. Louis Oosthuizen is pulling Gene Sarazen out of his hat for an albatross at the second hole on Sunday afternoon and all a bunch of ink-stained wretches can do is tweet and Facebook their disgust and loathing for the club membership.

Is there any worse assignment for a sportswriter than to bloviate on Twitter while the Masters heads to the back nine on Sunday? Roller derby, perhaps . . . or maybe water polo or synchronized swimming. Whiling away the Masters on Twitter? That's a waste of a credential.

Harp and harangue and hand-wring all you like, but for all the criticism no one else runs any tournament in the world this well as the members of Augusta National. Dinosaurs will roam the earth again before any sporting event can match the Masters.

Moreover, the club is also scoring high marks from architecture and design fans for slowly rolling back many of the Tom Fazio changes instituted between 2000-06, changes which proved both controversial, ineffective and detrimental to the excitement (and, therefore, the good and welfare) of the Masters. Fazio's ideas on "Tiger-proofing" the course were actually "field-proofing," as Woods won three times on those years, twice in cakewalks.

Worse, Fazio's newly-added rough and trees sapped birdies from the back nine and energy from the tournament. The Masters is defined by the incomparable drama and romance of Augusta National's home half and especially the back-nine par-5s: birdie, eagle or catastrophe. Arnie's charge was born back there, Jack raised his putter in exultation back there, and Phil was hitting a 200-yard 6-iron off an unpredictable pine-needles lie between a gap the size of a stick of Juicy Fruit to a pin tucked just behind Rae's Creek with the green jacket in the balance. Crazier things have been reported, but not by reliable sources.

But that's why the Masters is the most exciting event in golf. Bold, daring shots such as Mickelson's define the tournament, and temptation is the soul of golf. Few sporting events in the world have that razor's edge of all-or-nothing like the Masters. You can't sit back and nurse a lead; you have to play to win. Other than the statistical outlier of 2007 (with a winning score of plus-1 289), the last 21 tournaments have been won by scores of minus-7 or better, and 13 of those 21 wins featured scores in double-digits under par.

"There's a lot more birdie holes on the back nine than there are the front," noted Mickelson. "If I can make the turn at under par, I feel like there's a 3- or 4-under-par round on the back, and that's where the round really happens is the back nine."

Take 2011 as an example. Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes on Sunday to finish off a sizzling 66 and smoothly power to the green jacket after breaking out of a logjam of no less than eight players who held at least a share of the lead on the back nine.

Or last year, where a sizzling 32 on the back side helped Bubba Watson catch Oosthuizen and set up the "Golf Shot of the Century" (so far) - a screaming hook with a wedge (a hook with a wedge!) out of deep woods and up on to the green, nestling to a cozy 12 feet with everything on the line.

For those insisting the PGA Tour needs Woods to increase excitement and accessibility to the casual fan, I submit last year's Masters - one for the ages . . . and it didn't involve the 14-time major champion.

Meanwhile, driving accuracy continues to be the least important stat at Augusta. With no rough, it's a second-shot course; you can drive all over the park. (As Woods and Phil frequently do!) For the last five years, only an average of three players in the top-20 on the leaderboard were in the top-20 in driving accuracy. You can go out there and sling it.

Woods and Phil are the two best alive at that. Now that Rory seems to have gotten the hang of his new Nike irons, he'll contend as well. He loves to attack the golf course. We thought we lost him in Caroline's bed sheets, but then he did a Godzilla impersonation at supposedly unconquerable Kiawah Island to win by eight, dusting Tiger by 15 shots on the weekend. Game on!

Finally, even though we haven't heard much from the international players, they like to come out in force for the Masters, especially the Euros. In particular, watch out for Sweden's Freddie Jacobsen, who has been red-hot since last year's U.S. Open.

So now we wait: the deep breath before the plunge for golf's yearly rite of spring - but really, Christmas for golfers to begin.

News, Notes & Quotes

Sometimes the class, elegance and tradition result in a morality play, but that's golf. We celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nicklaus's first Masters victory but it is also the 55th and 45th anniversaries of two other, more controversial Masters. In 1958 Palmer won the infamous "embedded-ball" Masters after holing out two balls at the 12th. He was allowed to card a three, not a five, and went on to win his first of four Masters in seven years. In 1968, Roberto DiVicenzo (and Tommy Aaron as well) failed arithmetic and Bob Goalby became the Masters winner by technicality.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.


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