Thursday, April 5, 2012
Stone bridge at Amen Corner, one of the iconic sights at Augusta National.
It’s Holy Week in Georgia.
The fact that it is the week between Palm Sunday and Easter is completely irrelevant. That is mere coincidence this year. No: In Georgia, Holy Week is the week preceding the second Sunday of April. For that is the week of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, the sanctum sanctorum of the golf world.
The festivities begin on Monday with three days of practice, including a beloved Par Three contest Wednesday afternoon. The tournament proper kicks off Thursday morning, four consecutive days - seventy-two holes - of golf as played by the finest practitioners of the sport.
Yesterday, I trod the hallowed fairways of Augusta National for the first time in nineteen years. My friend Gary had scored practice round tickets in Augusta National’s lottery; when he invited me to join him, there was no way I could decline. There is no other major sports event that offers spectators the chance to be in such close proximity to the players, and there is no other sports event that takes place in such exalted surroundings.
I had been to the Masters twice before, in both 1992 and 1993, with She Who Must Be Obeyed accompanying me the second time. Both times were at the invitation of a corporate customer, and both involved the entire four days of tournament play. Logistics were simple, owing to our having been lodged at a house within convenient walking distance of the course. This time was different, a one-day affair with an early-morning departure from our home precincts in Atlanta.
Tiger practices his greenside manner at Number Fourteen.
The practice rounds at The Masters are very different from tournament play. For one thing, the players really are there to practice, so they often will hit several shots from tee, fairway, or greenside locations. They will practice putting from several spots on the greens. And they will exchange the occasional bon mot with the patrons, something that happens much less frequently in the laser-intense focus of competition.
Short course, shorter caddies: the Par Three contest is a crowd-pleaser.
The Par Three tourney, held on a separate nine-hole short course, provides additional entertainment, with several players bringing their children to caddy or provide “Awwww, how cute!” moments. And on Hole Sixteen of the main course - a par-three with a lake covering the entire span between tee and green - a favorite tradition is for players to skip tee shots across the surface of the lake right onto the green. Martin Kaymer managed to ace the hole on Monday doing just that.
Patrons are not permitted to bring cameras during the tournament proper, but that rule is not in force on practice days. As a result, virtually everybody has some sort of photographic apparatus in hand - a notable exception being cell phones, which are absolutely verboten at all times. Between the course and the players, there’s more than enough shutter-fodder. It is, perhaps, a small compensation for the absence of competitive play.
There’s a lot to love about The Masters besides the world-class field of competitors and the gorgeous surroundings. The patrons are well-behaved and polite, and there is none of the logo-bespattered merchandising one sees at every other golf tournament. Except for the commercial logos on the players’ bags and apparel, there is nought to be seen but the familiar Masters emblem and brand, on everything from the multitudinous variety of Golfy Swag to the very Moon-Pies and chips at the concession stand. And, remarkably enough, prices for swag and food are quite reasonable, considering that Augusta National enjoys a seller’s market. The signature pimento cheese sandwich is still a mere buck-and-a-half.
We timed our departure perfectly, escaping to our car moments before the traditional afternoon deluge. What better way to observe Holy Week - and the Yahrzeit of my mother, a lifelong golf aficionado and player - than to worship in the Cathedral of Golf itself?
Barry, Gary, and Larry. (You can’t make this stuff up.)