Has Augusta lost its gusto?
Welcome back. It’s been awhile, but I trust you’ve all enjoyed your break from this column as much as I have. Not having to write about sports for the past few weeks has afforded me the opportunity to spend more time watching sports, and it’s a busy time of year for sports-watchers. Like some of the lesser religions, sports in America have their own sacred rites of spring. The manufactured hype of March Madness (sorry, Bucky); the unwarranted hopefulness of Major League Baseball’s opening day; the uncomfortable similarities between the NFL’s scouting combine/draft and a slave auction; the decadence and depravity of the Kentucky Derby—it just wouldn’t be spring without these things.
In my mind, however, only one sporting event marks the official start of spring, and that’s The Masters.
Augusta National’s rich history, the litany of legendary names associated with the tournament, the iconic green jacket: all of these things make The Masters a tradition unlike any other. I just made that up, doesn’t it have a nice ring to it? I’m thinking of having it trademarked.
But this year, as I sat and watched the venerated course being abused as though it were a step-child who’d just brought John Daly a warm beer, I realized that The Masters has a problem, and for once it doesn’t have anything to do with racism, or sexism, or any other kind of –ism.
The problem with The Masters is that it’s been mastered.
I don’t mean to take anything away from Jordan Spieth. The kid played an amazing tournament from start to finish, and he fended off some intimidating challengers on Sunday to close out his championship, but the course didn’t put up much of a fight along the way. Spieth matched Tiger Woods’ record-low tournament score of 18-under while capturing his first major, but the 21-year-old Texan’s feat lacks the historic, herculean quality of Woods’ win in 1997.
When Woods shot 18-under to claim his first green jacket in ’97, he finished 12 shots clear of the field. Compare that to this past Sunday, when Spieth’s minus-18 put him only four shots clear, and ten players finished within ten of him. They were making Augusta look like Bunker Hill out there, and it underscores the problem: golf has outgrown Augusta National in its current state. Tiger’s record-breaking runaway in ’97 marked the arrival of Superman; Spieth’s victory marks the arrival of the age of supermen.
Golfers and their equipment have evolved dramatically in the eight decades since Augusta was built, and the course has been repeatedly updated and adjusted throughout the years to keep up; remember “Tiger-proofing?” More than 600 yards have been added to the course since the 1930’s, and they’ve moved bunkers around and steepened greens, but the disparity between golfer and golf course at Augusta National has become too great. What we’re left with is a major championship venue without any teeth.
This year’s course was a big, warm hug. It was as soft and unassuming as the dulcet voice of Jim Nantz whispering about azaleas over maudlin music in the shade of the Georgia pines. (Awesome fact: The Masters theme, “Augusta,” was composed by Dave Loggins—third-cousin of Kenny Loggins, who wrote and performed “I’m Alright,” which was the theme song for “Caddyshack” and the No. 1 dance hit for gopher puppets in 1980.) Had Gary Player decided to keep going after his ceremonial tee shot found the middle of the first fairway, he probably would have come in under par.
I don’t want to see a major championship won with a score that belongs on an Xbox game, and I’m afraid that’s the direction The Masters is headed. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus’ first Masters wins combined didn’t equal a score relative to par as low as Spieth’s this weekend, and the scores will only get more ridiculous unless serious measures are taken to stiffen Augusta’s backbone. I’m not suggesting giant windmills, but nobody should be reaching a par-5 in two with an 8-iron in a major championship.
I have a terrible vision of a not-too-distant future when a grandfather tells a story about a man named Jack who won 18 major championships. His grandson will scoff and say: “So what? He won six of them at The Masters.”