Tiger Woods has left some massive pawprints at Augusta National, but Arnold Palmer and TV have proved to be more consequential
The Masters happens to be the youngest of golf’s four major championships, although it’s easy to think it has the oldest of souls. Every tournament talks about honoring its past. At Augusta National, tradition is an essential component to the event’s identity, a trait that adds to its significance and further endears itself to the public.
From the Tuesday evening Champions Dinner to the green jacket awarded to the winner five nights later, customs are crucial at the little ballyard in Georgia. Same golf course every year. Same network handling the telecast. Same start to the competition, with the honorary tee shots Thursday morning. Because the club owns and operates the Masters – the PGA Tour holds no jurisdiction other than for its own sanctioning purposes – outside interference and commercial influence basically are non-existent.
When your membership has spent a collective lifetime accruing wealth and power, you don’t need a marketing department to help broaden your appeal. Familiarity breeds prosperity. In sustaining a product inherently draped in drama and decorum, the formula shouldn’t be trivialized, scrutinized or bastardized. Just ask Martha Burk.
Not every Masters is One For the Ages from a competitive standpoint, but every edition does have its own deep storyline, and if we’re lucky, more suspense than any Sunday afternoon all year. From a wider perspective, no tournament on earth has done more to shape the game’s legacy. Pro golf has become a television production, never more than in 2020, and though the other three majors certainly are big deals, Augusta National provides the consistently perfect backdrop to a 72-hole crossword puzzle in which the letters of the alphabet are replaced by little white balls.
Ain’t sports beautiful?
Not a syllable too soon, here’s a list of the five most significant Masters ever played. Heroic accomplishments (Jack Nicklaus, 1986) were deprioritized in favor of occurrences that define the tournament’s character and modern golf’s sensibilities. A dozen additional Masters could have been added to this countdown, but I’ve rambled on enough already, so let’s go:
1980: Seve Ballesteros, the young, gifted Spaniard and reigning British Open champion, became the first European to claim a green jacket, just four days after his 23rd birthday. It was an apt way to begin the new decade. Ten of the next 17 Masters would be won by six Euro-born golfers; Ballesteros would do it again in 1983. Moreover, this overseas dominance would run parallel to the stunning shift of superiority at the Ryder Cup. With Ballesteros steering the ship, Europe seized control of the biennial matches from the United States in 1985 and hasn’t shown much interest in relinquishing it since. Not only was he handsomer than James Bond and as daring as Evel Knievel, but Ballesteros would collect five major titles while redesigning pro golf’s competitive landscape. If we tend to lionize those who die too young, there is no overstating the late Ballesteros’ impact on the game as we now know it. The 1980 Masters was his first haymaker that landed squarely on Uncle Sam’s jaw.
2003: A bit of a sleeper pick, but easily justifiable. This was the year Burk, former chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, took on Augusta National’s male-only membership with an overt (and persistent) demand that the club admit females. Tournament chairman Hootie Johnson refused to budge, however, leading to a few months of hyperbole and headlines, courtesy of the agenda-friendlyNew York Times. Not until 2012 did Augusta National add women to its roster. By then, Johnson had long since overseen a massive facelift to the golf course, eventually adding 490 yards and hundreds of trees in an attempt to make the layout tougher. The first phase of the operation debuted in ’03, and for all the speculation that short hitters had no chance of even contending at a Masters, Mike Weir and Len Mattiace, two of the puniest drivers in the game, met in a playoff, which Weir won. If distance is a dilemma now, it was every bit the predicament 17 years ago. Unless, of course, you think it isn’t.
2001: Hootie’s crusade found its roots in this edition of the tournament, better known as Tiger Woods’ second Masters triumph and his completion of the Tiger Slam. It was an inconceivable feat – players rarely win back-to-back majors, let alone four straight – a victory that secured Woods’ standing as one of the greatest golfers of all-time at age 25. On his final hole of the week, Woods blasted his drive so far up the 18th fairway that Johnson felt compelled to grab his watercolors and start repainting Bobby Jones’ rendition of the Mona Lisa. This Masters was a big, big deal, with lengthy staying power. Pun intended.
1997: If four straight was a hoot, how about winning your first major as a professional by 12 shots, a mere four months after your 21st birthday? The Tiger Slam obviously was more difficult, but his utter destruction of Augusta National 23 years ago was more transcendent. This was nothing less than a game-changing milestone, with far greater impact on mainstream America and golf’s minority sector than anything he’s ever done. As the current defending champion, Woods added a fresh layer of varnish to his legacy two Aprils ago, but comparing the 2019 victory to 1997 is silly. You easily could make a case that Young Eldrick’s performance that week ranks among the greatest in sports history, perhaps without peer in terms of sheer astonishment. For all the hype, for all the breathless predictions, blind predilections and his father’s claim that Woods would become the next Messiah, nobody had dismantled the burden of expectation in such convincing form. Brilliance has no boundaries. The ’97 Masters never will fail to remind us of that.
1960: Without Arnold Palmer, there might not be a Tiger Woods. There might not be a lot of things, for that matter, testament to the King’s immeasurable influence on pro golf and growth of the Masters into the finest sporting event known to man. Augusta National was Palmer’s personal playground. This was the second of his four tournament titles from 1958 to 1964, coming in the fifth year of CBS’ coverage, at a time when television was beginning to emerge as a monolithic presence and yet another reason not to communicate with your kids. Ah, the good old days. It just so happens that 1960 marked the debut of Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest, another of those traditions that makes the Masters so special. Of much stronger allure, however, was the idea that millions of people could sit in their living rooms and watch this swashbuckling superhero do his thing. It didn’t hurt that Arnie finished birdie-birdie in ’60 to beat Ken Venturi by a stroke.
Golf had its movie star, and the drama hasn’t let up since. Sixty years later, the stage never has been greater.
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