News & Opinion

Masters stands alone as best sports event

The greatest sporting event on earth isn’t played in a stadium with a retractable roof or an arena subsidized by $500 million in taxpayer dollars. It takes place on a brilliantly disguised piece of property in Augusta, Ga., across the street from the Publix at National Plaza. If you’re standing at the intersection of Washington and Berckmans on the northern edge of town, heaven is just a flip wedge away.

Not that the folks who run the Masters want you to notice them. In an age when excess is confused with success, they basically refuse to hyperbolize their purpose or their product. Beyond the staggering beauty of the grounds, the membership at Augusta National Golf Club clings to its anachronistic sensibilities, as if to suggest that it’s still OK to leave well enough alone.

And that, perhaps more than any other reason, is why their golf tournament is the most lovable occupant on the sports calendar. Four straight days. Not too long, not too short. Past champions are recognized, and legends are canonized. The playing field is immaculate, the closest a ballyard comes to a work of art, a strategic marvel designed by two brilliant men with a complete understanding of shot values and the risk/reward factor.

You don’t get this stuff at the Super Bowl, where it’s nice of them still to squeeze in a little football between the seven-minute coin flip, the latest commercials and the smoke-bomb-addled halftime show. Or the NBA Finals, where they take two or three days off for every 48 minutes played. Or the World Cup, where a team that scores two goals is defined as an offensive juggernaut, where exquisitely talented athletes tumble to the ground and writhe in pain after someone steps on their shoelace.

There is no faking it at Augusta National. The golf course can become a bit unruly at times, but there are days when it is quite vulnerable. Your angle of attack means everything, but wild drivers such as Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods have won multiple titles because of their ability to recover from bad shots with sensational ones.

Wimbledon is a nice tournament, a gathering where tradition is valued with the same gusto as you’ll find in Augusta, but seriously. Tennis? Anyone? The same goes for the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby: very big deals in very small sports. As for the World Series, we’ve seen some incredible drama in recent years, but November is no time to be playing baseball. Especially when half the games end at midnight after 13 pitchers and a half-dozen replay reviews.

Golf is played in daylight, when kids can watch the entire telecast and grow to love the game without mom showing up to whisk them off to bed. Of course, some people think golf is boring, but at the Masters, particularly on the weekend, the slow pace seems only to amplify the suspense. Not every movie needs to include a 15-minute car chase, four flipped automobiles and a couple of fiery explosions. Sometimes, just a good script is all you need.

I used to think the Final Four was as good as it gets, but that was before college basketball turned into a scholastic charade for the flock of top players who leave school after one year. There were some very memorable national-championship games for a while, from Bird vs. Magic in 1979 and deep into the ’80s, but college hoops has become a mess. Somebody call the janitor.

College football? The playoff is pretty cool, even after we’ve wallowed through the buildup for three solid months. A lot of sports fans might find themselves in search of a rooting interest, however, because there’s a good chance your school was knocked out of contention in mid-September. It’s a provincial thing, a significant presence on the sports landscape that means everything in certain parts of the country and very little in others.

Nobody wears a helmet in golf. You can see what the players look like, which is why Rickie Fowler is so popular, but you also can see their facial expressions after they strike a shot. Other than horseshoes, I can’t think of another game that can make such a claim. It adds a dimension to the viewing experience, whether you’re watching on TV or among those onsite.

At the Masters, the sights and sounds are different. Special. Unlike any other, as Jim Nantz would say. There is a certain serenity to the presentation, mainly because CBS does whatever the club tells it to do, and to this point, it’s fair to say the club knows what’s best. That corny background music. Those slightly uncomfortable interviews in Butler Cabin. The overdubbed bird chirps. The best-mannered galleries in the universe.

Nobody yells “Baba Booey!” at Augusta National. Nobody.

They come for the golf, and golf is what they get. And if you’ve chained yourself to the couch for all four days, you get very few commercials. The fellas in the green jackets know you don’t like interruptions, and they certainly don’t need the revenue. No title sponsor, no deluge of PGA Tour promos.

Just the finest golfers in the world. Seventy-two holes apiece, plus a sudden-death playoff, if needed, by which point there’s an excellent chance you won’t be changing the channel. Gentle stimulation, heightened anticipation and, if we’re lucky, a riveting conclusion on the finest nine holes ever built.

The Masters always delivers. No other sporting event can say that, either.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com