The Masters is the greatest sporting event of the year -- period, full stop, end of sentence, end of paragraph.
Not the Super Bowl, not the World Series, not the Stanley Cup. The Masters.
Not the Final Four, not Daytona or Indy, not the Champions Cup Final. The Masters.
And noooooo…not the Mint 400, not the Cozumel International Fishing Tournament, and definitely not even the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals. The greatest single sporting event of the year is the Masters Tournament, because nothing else blends rebirth, renewal, and reunion with such altruism, grace and class.
It’s an elegant event, born from a more enlightened age, tempered steel forged in the furnace of the Great Depression. Take this entire week to add up the number of times some writer or broadcaster – any writer or broadcaster - will bring up that Augusta National Golf Club once nearly went belly up and had top be rescued from the brink of bankruptcy, protected by the reputation and clout of the Georgia Railroad Bank and Trust Co., who held the club’s original mortgage. (The over/under for that prop bet is two.)
You see, the story that Augusta National was built the old fashioned way – hard work, risk, and a singular goal of putting the patrons first - is not part of the media agenda. It doesn’t fit the modern narrative. Seventh Avenue and the Fourth Estate would have you despise the Masters, vilify the Masters, resist the Masters. It’s too whitebread, too rich, too stodgy, too privileged, too capitalistic, too Puritan...too anything, too everything. But looking back through the decades, it’s astonishing to see how much of we’ve been preconditioned to believe about Augusta’s reputation is all wrong. Money, power, and elitism didn’t build Augusta; courage, faith, and perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds built Augusta.
Indeed, men who, at times, couldn’t rub two nickels together built Augusta. In 1934, just before the inaugural “Augusta National Invitation Tournament,” the fledgling club survived financial crises so dire that Clifford Roberts wrote to Bobby Jones that Augusta was “one jump ahead of the Sheriff.” Strangely enough, being broke provided Augusta National with its best defense. The biggest and most powerful creditors weren’t demanding payment because they knew they’d get nothing from a bankrupt club.
Still, in the chaos and carnage the Depression wrought on other clubs – even Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Pasatiempo suffered terribly – Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts and Alister MacKenzie endured and showed what vision, focus, and diligence can achieve. The tournament is still the flagship of American golf and a hugely influential gold standard to which all professional sporting events should still be held. The patrons come first: all their needs are anticipated and provided at a reasonable price. (The most expensive menu item is a mere $5.) The Masters was the first golf event to park 10,000 cars, provide daily pairing sheets, supply diagrams of the golf course on the reverse side, rope off galleries, use the “over-under” method of scoring and erect on-course scoreboards, among other innovations. Clifford Roberts made the tournament a success by focusing on the exact things preyed upon by the Jim Dolans and Dan Snyders of the world. Unlike Seventh Avenue, and in sharp contrast to what we’re led to believe about the super-rich, Augusta has their finger pressed firmly on the zeitgeist of what rank and file golfers want – value!
Moreover, the genteel, restrained and dignified way in which the Masters Tournament is run is an integral part of its allure with casual and fervent fan. Despite modern society’s efforts to dumb down the rest of the sports world to the lowest common denominator, we still have something pure, inspiring.
That’s the beauty of Augusta. We have something both endearing and enduring. It’s golf’s most incomparable romance.
MacKenzie’s showmanship and the nation’s love affair with Jones were two excellent draws, and the land for the golf course, built on an old indigo plantation turned Fruitland Nursery, contained thousands of exotic, stately, and exquisitely beautiful trees, shrubs and flora that were downright enchanting when brought o life by color television.
Moreover, the choice of MacKenzie ensured that Augusta, as she was originally built, rejected penal architecture. Temptation is the soul of golf, and its heroic all-or-nothing moments ensure that Augusta is the most exciting, alluring and romantic golf course in America. Driest ball wins, but you still have to go out and play golf for the title. There’s no hiding, no playing defensively, and limping to the Green Jacket.
Now, for the first time in roughly two decades, as we turn towards the Masters, not a single player on the PGA Tour has more than one win since the calendar year began, and only Matt Kuchar and Xander Schauffle have two wins total over the course of the wrap-around season. Who’s shown the best form so far this year? Based on cumulative performance since January, we’ve got our eyes on Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood and Marc Leishman.
Rory’s been reliable – top-5 finishes at Kapalua, Torrey Pines, Riviera and Mexico, and a win at Sawgrass at the Players Championship. Rory plays well at Augusta; top 10 in each of the last five years consecutively. I know he recently told reporters, “I don’t need to fill a void in my life by winning majors,” but that rings hollow. True: Rory doesn’t need a Masters win to change his life forever as, say, a Charl Schwartzel or Danny Willett. Rory’s got four majors already, two of them in insanely record-smashing fashion: the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship where he rewrote records previously owned by guys like Nicklaus and Woods. But with a career so sterling, not having a green jacket would always feel like a strike against. Rory’s chasing immortality right now, and a green jacket is pretty much a pre-requisite.
And watch for one other phenomenon: Rory rises to the occasion. He tends to peak at the majors, like all the true greats.
Justin Rose, Justin Thomas and Francesco Molinari aren’t chasing immortality yet, but they are chasing the next step. Some call it “validation,” but I think that sells short their already significant accomplishments. Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, outlasting a desperate, but ultimately star-crossed Phil Mickelson. He’s also got an Olympic gold medal, though it’s far too early to really asses that accomplishment’s true worth. Rose would already have his Green Jacket, but for Sergio Garcia finding lightning in a bottle at an unexpected time. Rose got beat by a guy who had all but given up on himself.
Still, Rose has 24 professional wins and eight top-5 finishes in majors, (including at least one in all four majors). And this year he won at Torrey Pines and had high finishes at Sawgrass and the Match Play. Grit, determination and birdie streaks. That’s Justin Rose.
Similarly, Thomas and Molinari have broken their maiden by winning majors. Molinari is the reigning “Champion Golfer of the Year” after besting Tiger at Carnoustie, while the long-hitting Thomas tenderized Quail Hollow at the 2017 PGA Championship. Molinari is, perhaps, the hottest golfer on the planet over the last calendar year if you also take into account his Thunder God smiting of all opponents at last year’s Ryder Cup. Molinari won at Bay Hill and was a semi-finalist at the Match Play. Give him the edge over Thomas, but both are worth a long look on your pairing sheet.
I don’t know which is more sensational, Tommy Fleetwood’s golf or his hair, but I can’t help loving both. He’s a swashbuckling birdie machine that heats up like a microwave, then h e flips his hair and turns every woman in the gallery to goo. He’s a phenomenon, and with an even keel, he should one day cut a more fitting figure as a Master champion as either Sergio Garcia or Patrick Reed did combined in the last two years.
Finally, watch out for Australia’s Marc Leishman. He hangs around leaderboards at majors with remarkable frequency, including a playoff loss to Zach Johnson at St. Andrews in 2015 and a T-4 at the Masters in 2013. He was the PGA Tour rookie of the Year in 2009 and his four PGA Tour wins include Bay Hill and the BMW (a FedEx Cup Playoff event). This year alone he’s had top-5 finishes at Kapalua, the Sony Ope, and Riviera, and he was a quarter-finalist at the Match Play. He’s the kind of guy that could – surprise! – happen to find himself atop the leaderboard after 72 holes.
And so for one glorious week, we can all leave bitterness and rancor and anger behind. The Masters is here, and its our golf elixir: refreshing restorative, reinvigorating. The golf season has truly begun, and the dazzling sunrise reflecting brilliantly off Rae’s Creek is only surpassed the irresistible glimmer of the moonlight as day declines. Spring has sprung in the hearts of all golfers, and for one week, no matter who wins or loses, the true winner of the Masters is alaways the sports viewing public. And that’s just how Jones and Roberts would want it.