AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | I have covered more than 150 of golf’s major championships and been at a few more as a paying spectator. Forty of those 150 are the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, and assuming I stay for a week each year, it means I have spent more than nine months of my life in that speck of a town. If I had a pound or even a dollar for every time someone said to me: “Augusta, eh? Can I carry your bags?” I would be significantly richer than I am now.
Because of COVID-19, this year’s Masters was the first I had attended since 2019. Hardly had I arrived than I became aware of how strong the feelings were among the patrons, feelings that echoed my gratitude at returning to a place I had visited 39 times before. “Good to be here” was said so often it sounded like a prayer. So was, “Good to be back.”
For me, the 86th Masters stands high in my pantheon though I realise many will disagree with me. “A little flat” would be one criticism. “Not enough birdies” would be another. “Hardly any roars” might be a third. “Too damn cold” might be a fourth. To which I would answer that though there was only one bogey-free round all week, while there were only 827 birdies and 17 eagles, and while a biting west wind made the course play long and hard in the first three days, it was still an enjoyable event. Unlike Mae West’s comment that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” an occasional variation in the climatic conditions at Augusta make for significant changes in the style of play and scores and thus add an extra dimension to the tournament. I like seeing the world’s best players tested to the full. And believe me, they were at this Masters.
Recently I have started leaving London the previous week, in time to cover the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the Drive, Chip and Putt. With these, Augusta National has come up with events that encourage boys and girls to learn to play golf at a young age – the D, C and P – which makes sure there is a stream of female competitors becoming good enough to compete in the ANWA later. Latanna Stone, for example, finished second in this year’s ANWA on her debut in it and had competed in the 2014 Drive, Chip and Putt. In time, there will be competitors in the Masters who once competed in the D, C and P. Augusta National might be traditional, but it is not hidebound nor blind to the future.
Click on images of the two Drive, Chip and Putt contestants above to enlarge. Photos: Courtesy Augusta National
The Drive, Chip and Putt competition, started in 2014, is delightful. Each year, one wonders at the skills of the children, some of whom are barely as tall as a standard-length driver, the distance they hit the ball, the accuracy with which they chip and the obvious lack of fear when they have a putter in their hands. More than once, on seeing such brilliance, a man or woman sighed to themselves: “I was like that once.”
Adding to the excitement this year was the tantalising thought that Tiger Woods might make his return to tournament play. He had last played competitively at the 2020 Masters, held in November, when he tied for 38th. One month later, he underwent his fifth back surgery, and two months after that, in February 2021, he had a car accident in Los Angeles in which he broke his right leg and ankle so badly that he was bedbound for three months amidst fears he might have the leg amputated.
Woods arrived at Augusta on Sunday, April 3 uncertain whether he was well enough to play two days later. He confirmed his participation only on Tuesday with the words, “As of right now, I feel like I am going to play,” words that reverberated around the world.
Rahm had his admirers among the patrons, but Woods, limping quite badly by the end, had many more. And they were vocal. They had eyes for only one man.
He dominated the tournament from start to finish. The “will he play, won’t he play” questions at the start of the week were followed by an opening round of 71, and Woods was described by Brandel Chamblee on Golf Channel as a “walking miracle.” That 71 was followed by a 74 and two 78s over the weekend – not exactly vintage Woods golf by a man who has won the Masters on five previous occasions. He took four putts on one hole, three on many others and finished 47th.
During my years of attending the Masters, I have found several viewing positions around the course that I treasure. The back of the ninth green, for example, because seeing players hit uphill to the green is interesting. Greenside at the 11th to watch a ball arriving on that green – or not, as the case may be – and seeing the tee-off on the 12th. The top row of a stand to the left of the 15th green is another good vantage point. To your right are the competitors cresting the rise and playing their second or third shots. Turn around and watch them play the 16th. Wait a few minutes and you can pick them up again as they tackle the 17th. Then speed walk (no running at Augusta National) up to the side of the 18th green.
It was interesting to watch Woods and Jon Rahm on Sunday as they made their way round a course that was bathed in typical Augusta sunshine. Rahm had his admirers among the patrons, but Woods, limping quite badly by the end, had many more. And they were vocal. They had eyes for only one man. “We love you, Tiger” they shouted at him. “Thank you, Tiger.” “Well done, Tiger.” Again and again Woods had to take off his cap to acknowledge the support. The noise suggested he had won another Masters; the reality was it was one of his worst performances here.
But 14 months after his horrific crash, he had proved that he could play golf at this level. And his smile Sunday evening showed just how happy he was. He was so tired at the end of his last round that he had to be helped onto a platform to answer questions from the media, and as he stood there he looked tired and much older than 46.
This year, Scottie Scheffler, 25, arrived at Augusta National as the newly anointed world No. 1, having been on a tear during which he had won three of his previous five events. A man with something of the build of a Brooks Koepka or Dustin Johnson and a quiet, low-key demeanour, Scheffler is not as well-known as some of his peers, so I, a pesky journalist searching for more information about him, asked him, “What are you like when you’re not playing golf?”
Scheffler laughed. “You’d have to ask my wife. I like hanging out. I keep a pretty low profile. Board games are some of my favourite things to do. Last week my wife and I played them a lot, and we’re doing that again this week.”
Sam Burns, a close friend of Scheffler’s, rounded out the picture. “At the end of the day, he knows that golf isn’t everything,” Burns said. “It’s not who he is; it’s what he does. I think that’s probably the most important thing. Once you become No.1 in the world, you get a lot of attention and things change a little bit. We’re staying in a house together this week and he has not changed a single bit, I can tell you that.”
Four men dominated this event. Woods, Scheffler, Cameron Smith, for the way he clung to Scheffler, and Rory McIlroy for his brilliant 64 on Sunday afternoon when he had the only bogey-free round of the tournament and one of only 17 eagles all week. To see McIlroy leaping around in the bunker on the 72nd hole celebrating his birdie was worth the cost of my transatlantic flight. Second was his best finish at the Masters, and one felt that a weight has been lifted from his shoulders and that he, perhaps the most naturally gifted golfer of his generation, might now go on and win the Masters and thereby achieve golf’s Grand Slam.
On Wednesday afternoon, thunder crackled in the air. That night, lightning bolts and torrential rain slashed this part of Georgia. It did little or nothing to dampen hopes that the return of Tiger Woods, if nothing else, would make memorable what was about to unfold. And though many would disagree, I thought it was a tournament if not for the ages then one for aficionados.
Such people relished watching the competitors play the course at its maximum length of 7,510 yards and, because of the wind, as it was meant to be played, by which I mean par 5s had to be played as par 5s.
Let me quote PG Wodehouse, a hero of mine, and use a favourite adjective of his. The 86th Masters, my 40th, was absolutely spiffing.
Top: A scenic morning view of Augusta National’s 10th hole. Photo: Courtesy Augusta National
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