Golf, Sport

The Hills Are Alive

Augusta, Ga. I WOULD be embarrassed to admit how big a part the Masters has played in my life: in my mental life, and, to a degree, my writing life. I’m talking, of course, about the tournament held every April at the Augusta National Golf Club.

Over the years, on practice ranges far and wide, I have “played” holes at Augusta National. This relieves the tedium of practice. I take the clubs I believe will be necessary on each hole. For example, I’ll take a 6-iron on 16 tees aiming for the traditional Sunday pin position. And, at night, I compete in the Masters, as I’m drifting off to sleep. Often, I’m head to head with Tiger. Strangely, he loses.

I am not alone in this, by the way, this Masters fantasizing. In fact, it is a pretty common condition. I can introduce you to many others who suffer from it, or rather, enjoy it.

Like them, I have watched the Masters on television from an early age. I remember the tournaments more than I do Christmases, and probably as much as I do presidential elections. Seve slashing his way around the course. Mize chipping in on Norman. Lyle coming out of the bunker. Floyd hitting it into the water on 11. And, above all, Nicklaus winning the tournament in 1986, at the age of 46. (He was the oldest Masters champion ever.) I will never forget watching the final round unfold, as I sat in my dorm room. That was an afternoon of utter amazement and jubilation.

The next Sunday, in the same room, on the same television, I watched Horowitz return to Russia, for the first time in over 60 years. I was extremely nervous as he played as I had been when Nicklaus played. But, like Jack, he triumphed. A couple weekends later, Willie Shoemaker was the winning jockey in the Kentucky Derby, at 54. That was a thrilling, odds-defying spring.

I have written about the Masters a lot a whole lot: about its history, its politics, its aura. You could even speak of its spirituality. You can write drippily about the Masters, and I hope I have not done that. But it’s hard not to drip at least a little. There are things about the Masters that irritate me because there are things about virtually every institution that is irritating. For example, the Augusta brass insists that television commentators refer to the fans, not as fans, but as “patrons.” Yeah, well, whatever. But we can live with some silliness and quirks.

From a lifetime of immersion, I feel like I know every blade of grass at Augusta National. In my mind, I have practically lived in the Eisenhower Cabin. And yet I have never been there never been to Augusta. I’m like Ruth Benedict (if I may), who wrote her book about Japan, The Chrysanthemum, and the Sword, without ever visiting there. (This was a wartime assignment.) Don’t let anyone fool you: That’s a very good book. Where Augusta is concerned, I even know what’s supposed to surprise the first-time visitor: the hilliness of the course, for example. It’s a lot hillier than you think.

I will soon find out for myself because I’m going to Augusta National, to witness this year’s Monday practice round. Will it spoil things for me, somehow? Will any harm come from setting foot on the course that has loomed so large in my imagination? Moreover, do I really need to go to Augusta National, given how much I know?

In any case, I am going. And I know that you can be surprised by things that you think you’re already plenty familiar with. I was shocked by the pyramids shocked by their size, their gargantuan, heaven-reaching size, and their mystery.

I fly into Augusta’s little airport, here in east-central Georgia. The building looks like an old mansion, with its pillars. Inside is a cardboard mockup of 13 green. Once outside, I sniff the air, which smells marvelous. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve come from Manhattan. Also, a huge American flag billows in the wind. A friend and I take the Bobby Jones Expressway to our hotel and wait for the next day.

Monday dawns inclement, but everyone is eager, and the weather will soon clear anyway. Along with Washington Rd., a gas-station marquee reads “WELCOME PATRONS.” So everyone’s obedient, huh? People seeking tickets line the road, up and down. One man holds a sign that reads, simply, “HELP!” Our hotel shuttle van will not be able to enter Augusta National down the fabled Magnolia Lane. We are dropped near a Publix grocery store but that’s all right.

Though this is first thing Monday morning three days before the competition begins the place is jammed. Security lines are very long. Oddly, we did not have this at the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. (my home-state PGA tournament). As you approach security, you see a sign listing prohibited items: cellphones and the like. The last item is “Knives/Weapons.” Really? Augusta is not as conservative a place as people think.

The workers could not be more polite, saying, “Welcome to the Masters.” “Enjoy the Masters.” “Have a great day.” They give you a tournament booklet, as decreed by Bobby Jones, the founder. Inside the booklet is an essay by him on how to watch the tournament: “Spectator Suggestions.” It holds up, beautifully.

On first sight of the course, my heart kicks a little. I’m reminded of my first visit, in childhood, to Tiger Stadium. These days, the sight of Detroit will make you weep for other reasons. I walk past the clubhouse and see a chef in a tall, tall toque. Beyond the clubhouse is Ike’s Cabin you can tell by the presidential eagle. And near it is the Butler Cabin, where you put on the green jacket. (Well, maybe you don’t, but a select group of others does.)

Gary Player is practicing from the bunker. He was the best bunker player in the world before every other pro got wise. Now they’re all bunker virtuosos. As he practices, Player actually skulls one – which is kind of refreshing to see. It comforts the masses when a pro hits a mere-mortal shot.

Out on the course, you encounter the “pine cathedrals” of legend. And the azaleas “blaze.” (That’s the word every golf writer uses, writing about Augusta National and its azaleas.) Is anything surprising? Yes, some things. For example, I hadn’t realized that No. 10 bends to the left like that. And I see that it’s a considerable challenge not to hit it into the water on 11: Everything slopes that way. But, I have to tell you: I have heard so much about the hills of Augusta that the course is actually a bit less hilly than I expected.

There is no gouging at Augusta: oh, no. The sandwiches still cost $1.50, and they’re still wrapped in the light-green cellophane. At Amen Corner, I have a meal of a pimento-cheese sandwich, potato chips, a Diet Coke, and a moon pie. Total: $4.50. Life has tossed me in some pretty fancy and expensive restaurants. I have never had a more satisfying meal.

From time to time, I have said about Salzburg, Austria – where I am a frequent visitor – “Every place you rest your eye is a treat. At every turn there is beauty.” The same is true of Augusta National. But speaking of Salzburg, I now have to go there, to work at the Easter Festival. And I will not be able to watch a shot of this Masters tournament not a shot of the competition. Instead, I’ll have to do what I do in the month of August while working at the summer festival. During this time, the PGA Championship takes place.

There is no telecast in Austria. The webcasting doesn’t work either, for some reason. So what I do is: go to the appropriate website and refresh the leaderboard, constantly. It’s kind of fun, actually.

Oh, you’ll want to know: Did I see him? Did I see Tiger at Augusta? No. I’ve written about him almost as much as I have about Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. And I’ve never laid eyes on him. But I expect to someday expect to interview him, too. And I imagine that will be an enhancement. As this visit to Augusta National has been. It is a good place worth dreaming about.

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