AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | If The Masters is a rite of spring, it’s also a means of getting to know new players. The Masters by its invitation policies intentionally brings golfers to the world’s attention. The invitation is to writers as well as golfers: It says, take this opportunity to learn about players you probably didn’t know, as a first step in following their progress in the game.
The result is that while older players mark their exits from competition here—think Billy Casper, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and, this week, Raymond Floyd—younger, little-known players mark their entry to the world stage. They’ve already accomplished significant things just to be invited, but the attention given them has mostly been local. Here, at Augusta National, with the world’s media assembled, it becomes national and international. Global.
Let me turn, then to some of the players I’ve come to know first at the Masters. I’ll start with an 18-year-old Korean who played this week at the Masters but who didn’t make it to the weekend. I’m speaking of Chang-Won Han. He won the Asian Amateur last October, which meant Augusta National invited him to play. This was the first Asian Amateur. A partnership between the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation and the R&A created the tournament. Chang-Won shot 12-under-par 276 at the Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, China.
Chang-Won stayed in the Crow’s Nest at the top of Augusta National’s clubhouse. He played a practice round with fellow Korean K.J. Choi. He’ll attend college in Korea next year, and faces two years of mandatory military service. It will be interesting to see how he combines his competitive life on the course with school and other obligations.
For me, The Masters has always been a feast of international golf. It’s where I come year after year to learn what’s up in world golf, and the game only gets bigger around the world. I’ve always agreed with the late and much-missed English writer and broadcaster Henry Longhurst that golf is the Esperanto of sport—its universal language. This isn’t meant to insult soccer, which is also a global sport. But golf started in Scotland and it’s truly traversed the world. That’s always evident at The Masters, and also at the Open Championship.
For further evidence of the game’s spread, I had a chat this week with Tenniel Chu, the executive director of Mission Hill. He told me that there are three million to four million golfers in China now, and that the country will have the world’s largest golfing population by 2020 given the current growth rate. The Mission Hills Golf Series that was launched in January brings higher-handicap juniors in every Sunday and is full into September.
“We’re grooming them from the ground up,” Chu told me.
Turning from China, let me move on to the 16-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero. It’s been great fun following last year’s British Amateur champion this week as he made the cut and finished at 4-over-par 292. Phenomenal. He played the first two rounds with Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion. He shot 71-76. two international players. Weir and Manassero are separated by 24 years in age but they were joined by their journeys around Augusta National.
Weir said he couldn’t imagine being 16 years old and playing in The Masters, let alone making the cut. “When I was 16, I was shooting 75 in junior tournaments in Ontario,” Weir said. “I was thinking what I would shoot around Augusta National, and I figure something like 85.”
Manassero’s ability to play Augusta National at such a young age reminded me of when I first came across Seve Ballesteros. That was also at The Masters. Ballesteros was in his mid-20s when I first saw him at the 1982 Masters. That was my first Masters. Ballesteros won in 1980 and would win again in 1983. He brought such style and flair to the game.
I loved watching him then and continued to follow him closely all through his glorious career. It was a treat to return to The Masters every year and to see what he could do. Watching Ballesteros provided a course in golf appreciation. He played creative golf and he brought joy to the effort, which seemed like no effort at all.
My favourite memory in all of golf, in fact, is when Ballesteros was paired with Tom Kite during the 1986 Masters that Jack Nicklaus won. Kite holed a shot of some 100 yards for eagle on the par-5 eighth. Ballesteros then played a long pitch and run into the green, and holed that shot for eagle on top of Kite’s. They walked to the green side by side, to massive applause.
Ballesteros to Manassero: The Masters to me is about ringing in the new: new international golfers, that is, and then following them year after year here at Augusta National. Already I can’t wait for next year, and more young international players to appreciate.