AUGUSTA — With the disappearance of two of the big three weather issues for which we hold everlasting contempt for at any outdoor sporting event — rain, lightning and gusting wind — there was recall in the opening round of the Masters on Thursday of the kind of wind you experience at the British Open.
The intensity of the bad weather Monday and Wednesday was ameliorated by the forecast of the weather improving right up until the final round on Sunday. A glorious Sunday at the Masters is like a memorable sunset, an indolent fire in October, going barefoot in the spring, watermelon in July and corn on the cob anytime.
After all, since Ken Venturi first said, “the Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday,” the first 63 holes are essentially irrelevant. Of the many Masters traditions that have become treasured, the classic finishes, though not preordained, seem to be as much of the tournament’s image as Magnolia Lane.
The finish on Sunday has often become extraordinarily dramatic in the most perfect of settings that has caused fans and aficionados to traverse oceans to see just one round of the championship. The U.S. Open is the national championship, the British Open is about tradition and history which overwhelms, the PGA has a noteworthy field, but the Masters has the greatest image and appeal of all.
On Sunday afternoon at Amen Corner, even on TV, you can hear the “babbling brook” sounds of Rae’s Creek and the wind whispering through the loblolly pines. And for those who show up at one of the most enchanting sanctuaries in sport, patrons can detect scents of dogwoods and azaleas.
When the tournament has ended and another champion has been crowned, the tour moves on, but history does not retreat. The unforgettable moments are there to be relived and to be savored for lifetimes: Interacting with Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead when they were still playing into their 80s, trudging up and down the hills of the Augusta National Golf Club, but loving every step of the way.
The story about Tommy Nakajima, who made 13 at the 13th hole in 1978, being interviewed about his score and asked if he lost heart during the ordeal? “No,” replied his interpreter, “He say he lost count.”
We also remember the deep and abiding love affair Arnold Palmer had for the tournament. He once said, “Augusta and this golf tournament has been about a part of my life as (much as) anything other than my family. I don’t think that I could ever separate myself from this club and this golf tournament.” And Jack Nicklaus winning for the sixth and final time in 1986, with his son, Jack Jr., on his bag. His son told me afterwards about his dad’s birdie putt at the 17th as he was scoring 30 on the back nine.
“I thought his putt would break one way,” Jackie said, but recalled his dad saying, ‘I remember that it breaks toward Rae’s Creek.’ His memory told him what his eyes couldn’t see.”
For all the great champions to have been crowned, there are the many who became “have nots,” victims of what might have been. Jordan Spieth last year seem destined to be the fourth back-to-back champion when he made quadruple bogey at the par 3 12th hole and played himself out of the tournament.
In 1989, Nick Faldo won in a playoff over Scott Hoch, who had the advantage of being on the green while the Englishman’s second shot on the 10th hole lay in a greenside bunker. Putting uphill, Hoch could have been serenaded with hosannahs by leaving his ball short of the hole for par. Instead, he left his ball less than three feet above the hole for a knee-knocking downhill putt which he missed, making five when four would have won the tournament. With new life with a bogey, Faldo then won with a birdie on the 11th hole.
Another mind-boggling loss came the next year when the fiercely competitive Ray Floyd made bogey at the 17th which allowed Faldo to get into a playoff which ended when Floyd hit his second shot into the pond at No. 11, the second playoff hole. I would have bet my house Floyd would never have lost in that fashion. The next year, Floyd said, “I know the record book shows that he (Faldo) won, but I gave him the golf tournament.”
Never has defeat seemed so punishing as it was in 1968 when Roberto De Vicenzo, of Argentina, finished with a 65, which would have tied him with Bob Goalby, forcing an 18-hole playoff, but De Vicenzo signed an incorrect score card (for 66 officially), which allowed Goalby to claim the green jacket outright without a playoff. This led to a distraught De Vicenzo lamenting one of the classic quotes in Masters’ history, “Oh, what a stupid I am.”