Most golf watchers share a characteristic that has nothing to do with whether they play off scratch or 24; whether they live in Iceland or Ireland; or whether they are male or female. If they play golf it is likely they will have watched the Masters on television, maybe many times.
Some of these enthusiasts, far from being addled with golf, know their azaleas from their rhododendrons, their White Dogwood hole (the 11th) from their Yellow Jasmine (the eighth), They know that putts tend to run towards Rae’s Creek and that the greens will be firm and sometimes unnervingly fast. Year after year they have sat in front of a television set to watch and hear another Masters unfold. For them, tuning in to a sporting rite of spring is, er, a rite of spring.
The one thing they haven’t been able to do is attend the Masters. The chance of getting tickets for one of sport’s most popular events is as remote as winning the lottery. What do they do? They turn to their televisions.
I know someone who is in a rather different position.
He has never sat at home and observed a Masters unfold courtesy of the cathode ray tube. Instead, he has attended the tournament (not a championship, remember) on nearly 40 occasions.
Watson in ’81? He was there. That was his first.
Nicklaus in ’86? He was there.
Langer in 1985 and 1993? He was there.
All those victories by Europeans when men from the Old World had green jackets slipped over their shoulders in eight out of nine years starting with Sandy Lyle in 1988? He was there.
The year Bubba Watson got a recovery wedge shot to curl perhaps 30 yards through the air so that one minute he was in the trees to the right of the 10th and the next he was on the green? He was there.
He was at Augusta in 1982 when war over the Falkland Islands broke out between the United Kingdom and Argentina. When he stopped his car at the gate to show his credentials to a guard, he was waved on his way with a cheery: “You’re from London eh? Don’t you let them Argies give you no s**t, man.”
I am that man.
From my first visit in 1981 to my last in 2019, I have got to know Augusta like the back of my hand. I have stayed at an hotel in downtown Augusta and the old Partridge Inn, which says it is the oldest inn in the south, halfway up Walton Way. I have eaten at many restaurants on Broad Street and listened to jazz in the late lamented Word of Mouth bar on that street.
I have even been to a nightclub known as The Snake Pit just the other side of the railway tracks populated largely by soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon hootin’ and hollerin’ at waitresses occasionally performing as artistes. For years, for those making their first visit to the Masters, a Saturday night visit to the The Snake Pit was an initiation ceremony. Once, when a colleague and I were there, strictly in pursuit of research you understand, he leaned over and said conspiratorially: “Don’t suppose I could put this on my expenses, could I?”
But I have never scrutinised the television transmission times and arranged my April schedule around the Masters broadcast – until now.
This year my seat would be a wingback chair in my sitting room at home in Henley-on-Thames, England. This year I would watch the Masters on television.
Last week, courtesy of COVID-19, my spring routine changed. I was unable to make my trip to the US to drink out of a plastic cup adorned with Masters logo. No egg salad sandwiches wrapped in green cellophane this year. No Michelob Light. No doughnuts. No peach cobbler. No endless cups of coffee sitting on the veranda beneath a gently twirling fan. No journeys on an electric buggy to the recorders area to grab a word with the players as they came out after signing their scorecards.
This year my seat at the Masters would not be in almost the back row of the tiered room in the media centre at the end of the practice ground. This year my seat would be a wingback chair in my sitting room at home in Henley-on-Thames, England. This year I would watch the Masters on television.
And having done so I can vouch that one of the most common comments made by spectators visiting the Masters for the first time is true. The course really is much hillier than it appears on television. If I had been given £1 for every time I heard that statement I would be a lot richer than I am. Television can do many things but it can’t convey that height difference. Rushing to get back from the 12th green, say, to the media centre, which used to be in a Quonset hut to the right of the first fairway, was quite a hike when attempted at the necessary speed to meet a pressing deadline. “Sir, Sir” said the man in uniform, a Pinkerton guard, said to me. “No running please. There is no running at Augusta.”
One of the results of always being in Augusta was that I never read the British newspapers in the build-up to the Masters. This year I did. Thus, in The Sunday Times there was a piece about Billy Foster, the caddie. In Monday’s Times a quote by Bernhard Langer formed the headline of an article – “I think a player in his fifties will win the Masters.” In the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday Lee Westwood and Helen Storey, his fiancée and sometime caddie, gave an insight into their relationship. “Imagine your wife offering to lug a 60-lb bag around,” Paul McGinley marvelled. “She’s his soulmate all right.”
Included in Wednesday’s Times was a 12-page supplement about the Masters, on the cover of which was a striking photograph of Bryson DeChambeau, described therein as “golf’s revolutionary.” It included an amusing piece about the champions’ dinner and the variety of food served. “Schnitzel, sea bass …or Bubba’s ‘happy meal’?”
Television for Masters watchers in the United Kingdom traditionally meant the BBC and the esoteric and engaging ruminations of Peter Alliss, the clipped Scottish tones of Alex Hay, Sam Torrance and a cast of others. The Masters on the BBC had drawn Lee Westwood to golf in 1986 as it had Nick Faldo in 1971. One year, a young, fair-haired altar boy named Bernhard Langer, at his parents’ home in Diedorf, West Germany, looked in wonder at television pictures from a golf course in Georgia.
In 1991, satellite television arrived in the United Kingdom and for a while coverage of the Masters was shared between it and the BBC. The BBC had the far greater audience but a narrow time slot. It had a smaller budget, too, being funded not by advertising but by a Government imposed tax. Satellite television, paid for by advertising and subscription, was the thrusting youngster, improving its coverage year by year even though the numbers of viewers remained smaller than the BBC’s.
The transmissions from this year’s Masters by both the BBC and Sky were made much more difficult by COVID-19. Restrictions on travel meant both organisations had far fewer people at Augusta than usual. The BBC rigged up a studio in the UK. It looked like a cross between the first-class cabin of a transatlantic jet and the television section of a High Street electrical store.
Sky had a channel dedicated to the Masters showing golf 24 hours a day for an entire week. As many as 100 people worked on its transmissions …
It can sometimes seem churlish to criticise the BBC, a national institution that has to operate within strict guidelines, but even so, there are two questions to pose: Why was the format of its Masters coverage so linear, starting at the beginning of the day and ending with a studio discussion? And, at the risk of sounding xenophobic, how Scottish it all was. In this age of diversity, are there no other voices that could be added? How the rumbling and ruminations of Peter Alliss were missed. This year was the first for years without His Masters Voice.
Sky had a channel dedicated to the Masters showing golf 24 hours a day for an entire week. As many as 100 people worked on its transmissions, which included having to link Butch Harmon from his home in Las Vegas with Paul McGinley, Rich Beem and Cara Banks at Augusta and Ewen Murray, Andrew Coltart and Nick Dougherty commentating from London. There were good studio features and some fascinating footage from old Masters provided by the Golf Channel. The time differences between the three places were only the half of the problems. Coordinating them all was another and sometimes one commentator would talk over the voice of another, or one commentator would be talking about Bryson DeChambeau when pictures of Justin Thomas were on the screen.
“It was a considerable communications challenge,” Jason Wessely, Sky’s director of golf, said. “A lot of people put a lot of effort into our coverage. We lived, ate and breathed the Masters for that week. I was getting three or four hours of sleep a night. There were a million things going on but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Masters is one of golf’s premium events, if not sport’s. Viewers want to fill their boots with it. We want to suck the very marrow out of it.”
Television is unrivalled in its ability to take the viewer there, wherever there is. Thus, many of the memories from my viewing marathon are those when a camera got close to an incident, much closer than a spectator could. Over the four days of competition I saw everything: the risk and reward second shots to the 13th and 15th greens; the teasing tee shots from the 12th; drives into the pine trees and recovery shots from the pine straw; DeChambeau launching another massive drive and nearly propelling himself after it; Rory McIlroy hitting his father in the leg on Thursday; Justin Rose’s run of an eagle followed by seven birdies starting at the eighth on Thursday.
Television had it all.
I saw Si Woo Kim bending his putter and then using his 3-wood with some dexterity. I saw Wayne Player advertising golf balls while his father took part in the opening ceremony – for which he was reportedly banned from Augusta. I saw Hideki Matsuyama not saying anything after one peerless shot after another and heard Harmon describing Will Zalatoris as looking like “a 1-iron without a grip”. Drones now give us an aerial perspective of Augusta National never seen before. That was a huge bonus. As I said, television had it all. I know. I was there. Well, I wasn’t there but you know what I mean.
A benefit of not being in Augusta was that I wasn’t under any time pressure to file a story. I was spared the sort of telephone call I used to get: “John we need your first edition by three pm your time,” a voice in London would tell me. “And we need your final story by midnight [seven pm Augusta time] at the latest. Not a minute later please.” Another benefit of spending so many hours in front of the television was that the more I did so the greater came the longing to pick up my clubs and go and play golf myself.
Red Smith, the great American sportswriter, was once asked to divulge the secret of journalism. His advice was succinct. “Be there,” he replied. “Be there.” For a journalist, being there is paramount, wherever there is. There is no comparable equivalent. You can talk to people. You can find things out yourself to your own satisfaction. You see and hear things with your own eyes and ears. Your coverage of the event is not filtered through someone else’s prism.
Watching a sporting event at home is better than nothing. Indeed, for those who have no access to tickets it is the next best thing to being there and at times it is better than that. But having spent time watching the 85th Masters on television I find my view is reinforced.
Television can only partially satisfy me. I can’t wait to be in Augusta in person next spring.
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