News & Opinion

Worth the wait: Augusta and spring ...aah!

True, the current PGA Tour schedule actually started in October – who can forget that Safeway Open, heh? Also true, the Players Championship conducted three weeks ago featured a major-championship field and an amusement park for a 17th hole.

But it’s not until the ball goes in the air next week at Augusta National that you’ll know it’s safe, that spring is here, that golf is in full bloom. You’ll see the azaleas and dogwoods, you’ll hear the tinkling piano, you’ll breathe the Southern air. And you’ll know where you are immediately, in the land of egg salad, where the Krispy Kremes flow and the corners cry “Amen.”

You’ll realize the wait is over, the canvas is pastel and the cabin fever is broken. If you’re lucky enough to be there, you’ll leave one of the most obnoxiously commercial paths you’ve ever traveled – Washington Road – and enter a world that you only imagined: wall-to-wall green, not one blade different from another, not one piece of refuse in sight.

If you are at home, turning on HD television, you will have the same experience. You will ponder what’s before you and swear that Adam and Eve lurk somewhere in the background.

“First time I walked on the grounds, and it felt like I wasn’t even on real grass,” 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth once said. “It felt like I was walking on a video game, like they’d rolled in these giant mats and that’s grass. Nothing was out of place.”

The best of golf’s four major championships is arguably the most endearing sports competition in the world, a sensory embarrassment of riches. The Masters doesn’t have the “it factor”; the Masters nurtures “it” and invites you to see what it looks like.

The Masters was started by a person – the late Bobby Jones – not by an association. It is run by a private club that supervises one such party a year, a group whose primary goal is to honor the game with the most credible, virtuous and romantic championship possible.

Are the cash registers singing? You’d better believe it. But no one is squeezing fairways, choking greens and going to the mattresses to “protect par.” Every other championship calls one who comes to watch it a spectator. At the Masters, it’s patron. As the cowardly lion would say, “Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it the truth?”

The Masters happens in the same place – Augusta, Ga. – on the same grounds – Augusta National Golf Club – every year. Those who watch annually know the surroundings as well, if not better, than do some of the players. They have an immediate frame of reference, anticipation and appreciation for what is taking place, what has taken place, and what lies ahead.

The tradition “unlike any other” is ever present, ever accessible and ever applicable.

Those who saw Spieth butcher No. 12 in 2016 might have seen Arnold Palmer make triple bogey there in 1959. They can compare Spieth’s quad to Tom Weiskopf’s 13 in 1980. Or they might remember when Raymond Floyd hit one on the bank in 1992 and watched it roll back into the water … the same year Fred Couples hit it on the bank and watched it stay dry … the year Couples beat Floyd by two strokes.

The Masters is associated with Jack Nicklaus, indubitably. The Golden Bear is to the green jacket what Ted Williams was to batting titles. Nicklaus won at Augusta six times, the last in 1986, as he overcame an advanced age (46) and an extremely busy pair of slacks. If that victory isn’t the most famous in the sport, it’s certainly the most recognizable.

The Masters is the advertising antithesis of the Super Bowl. No sponsorship signs are seen anywhere on the grounds. A beverage is contained in a Masters cup; a sandwich is homemade and wrapped in green plastic; a napkin has the Masters logo. Scoreboards are scoreboards, not billboards. Concession stands are hidden in nooks and crannies, between pine trees.

Cellphones and cameras are not allowed. Autographs can be had only on the practice range. Civility is the rule of the day. It’s all about the golf, for the players and the galleries.

Exclusivity is another Augusta trademark. The size of the field varies from year to year, but always is smaller than the other majors, the best of the best. The Masters is the “hardest ticket in sports,” and that holds true for players and fans alike. That said, because Augusta National is always the course, it is the major some are most likely to win, and others are least likely.

The U.S. Open, by reputation, is regarded as the most difficult test in golf. But come April 11-14, they will play the 83rd Masters and no one ever has carded four rounds in the 60s. Why, over that same period of time, the Toronto Maple Leafs have won 10 Stanley Cups – albeit the last one 52 years ago.

There are so many other things, from free parking to a Champions Dinner, from the Par 3 Contest to the pimento cheese, from the state-of-the-art press building to the time-honored white caddie boilers … things that make the Masters much more than a golf championship.

You might think the golf season is under way, but get ready for the real kickoff: the Masters is just around the bend.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD