“When a boy handed me a cup of water on the 16th tee, I could hardly hold it. I didn’t know whether I was holdin’ the putter or it was holdin’ me.” – Gay Brewer, 1967 Master’s Champion
You can’t see it. You can’t hear it. But boy can you feel it. Gay Brewer speaks of the palpable sense of pressure that is familiar to all who have been fortunate enough to find themselves with a chance to win the year’s first major. There is an imperceptible yet self-evident mystique that is felt by all golfers, journalists and patrons who make the trip to the hallowed grounds of Augusta National on the second weekend in April for the annual Augusta National Invitational tournament, informally known as “The Masters.” To be sure, this weekend’s contest will have a different tenor than those of recent years, with the conspicuous absence of one Eldrick Tont Woods. The Big Cat pulled out a week ago citing recurring back problems. Who will fill the void? Who can fill this void? The answer to this question shall be revealed late Sunday afternoon when the shadows of the towering pines shall stretch nearly as long as the storied history of the club itself.
Augusta National is traditional, yet timeless. Attendees of the tournament are not called fans. They’re “patrons.” And patrons do not run to see their favorite players, for they are not allowed to. They walk. If a patron sets a foldout chair by the 18th green at 9 a.m. and wishes to follow his favorite golfer for a few holes, he can return to the hole hours later to find his seat still open and undisturbed. This isn’t a baseball park. This is Augusta National. Despite the time-honored decorum and etiquette of The Masters, it is the Club’s ability to adapt over the years that has allowed the course to not only remain relevant, but to set the standard for major championship golf course set-up around the world.
Augusta National, perhaps more than any other championship golf course, has undergone a slew of changes since its original design by Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones in the early 1930s. Mackenzie, formally trained as a surgeon, served as a doctor for the British in the Boer War where he became an expert in camouflage. His surgical nature and mastery of visual deception served him well as he produced a meticulously routed golf course that features dramatic changes in elevation. The drop from the second tee to the second green is 90 feet. Rae’s Creek cuts across the southeastern corner of the Augusta National property and flows along the back of the 11th green, in front of the 12th green and ahead to the 13th tee in a corner of the course infamously known as “Amen Corner” for the “Hail Mary”s it elicits in players. It is the low point on the course. Newton’s law of universal gravitation proves true year in and year out at Augusta as players witness their balls bleed to this nadir. Just as everything drains towards this area of the property, so every putt has an innate tendency to break towards Rae’s Creek. This little nugget of local knowledge is sure to be in the minds of the contending players as they traverse Augusta’s back nine on Sunday.
“A tradition unlike any other,” The Masters is the only Major in golf that is played on the same course every year. The brainchild of club founders Robert Tyre Jones Jr. and Clifford Roberts, The Masters quickly cemented its place among golf’s most prestigious events. Since Horton Smith’s inaugural victory in 1934, the tournament has served as a backdrop for some of the ancient game’s most iconic moments. Gene Sarazen’s albatross at the par-5 15th in the 1935 playing of The Masters came to be known as the “Shot heard ‘round the World.” In 1986, following a six year drought in which he did not win a Major championship, the Golden Bear returned from hibernation with a one-stroke victory over Tom Kite and Greg Norman made possible by a back-nine score of 30. And who could forget Tiger’s carnal roar in 1997 when the greatest golfer of our time burst onto the scene with a Master’s scoring record of 270 that still stands to this day?
The roars. They are part of what makes The Masters unique. No matter where you are on the property, you can deduce what is transpiring in the tournament based on the roars from the patrons. Ah the irony, that in a place so renowned for its visual beauty it is the auricular sense that takes center stage at the climax of the most important weekend of the year. The reactions to a birdie are noticeably louder than that of a clutch save of par. And the roars that reverberate through the Augusta pines and cause the ground to shake in response to an eagle are even louder than the eruptions in response to birdies. One need not check the PGA Tour app on his smartphone for the status of the leaders — though he would not be able to even if he wanted as all cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices are strictly prohibited on Club grounds at all times — all he needs to do is watch and listen. The roars don’t lie.
When you watch CBS’s live broadcast of The Masters this year, we challenge you to find one brown blade of grass on the whole property. You won’t be able to. The 18 holes at Augusta National sit atop 500 acres of land that was formerly a nursery before the grounds were built to accommodate a golf course. Such pristine conditions do not come about by accident. They are the result of supreme efforts by the Club to ensure that every last pine needle is perfectly placed come the second week in April. In years when spring arrives early, the club’s landscaping staff puts ice underneath the Azaleas to ensure that they do not blossom too early before the tournament. A subterranean system of pipes and grates is installed beneath each green, intended to aid in drainage and gas exchange and consequently promote good turf health. But the Club’s arboreal and agronomical commitments do not stop there. Indeed, each hole on the course is given the name of a relevant flower or tree. Twelve is Golden Bell, 13 Azalea. Fifteen is Fire Thorn, and 18 Holly. This much is certain: the flowers and the holes are sure to be in fierce bloom for the duration of the four-day contest.
These are just a few of the things that make Augusta National so special. And come Sunday, the champion will no doubt have cultivated a deep appreciation for the storied history that is The Masters and his new place in it.
Safe Pick: Rory Mcilroy
Rory’s form heading into the year’s first major is much improved compared to what it was a year ago. The kid, who already has two majors to his name, has shown the ability to contend at The Masters, and he carded a final round 65 in last weekend’s Tour stop, the Shell Houston Open, so he seems to be peaking at the right time. Vegas seems to agree. (Odds: 10-1)
Sleeper Pick: Harris English
English is one of the longest hitters on Tour, which is by no means a prerequisite to winning but it does provide one with an advantage on the 7,465 yard track. I’ve had my ear to the ground for insider information over the past few weeks and my sources tell me that English, the 24-year-old Georgia native who played college golf for the Bulldogs, made a hole-in-one at Augusta National during a practice round at the course a few weeks ago. If the good mojo continues for English he may just be the one donning the Green Jacket come Sunday. (Odds: 40-1)
Heart Pick: Sergio Garcia
El Niño has long been my favorite golfer in the world and he is one of the best ball-strikers on Tour. He’s performed well in past Masters and already has three top-10s to his credit out of the four PGA Tour events he has played in this year. I’m hoping that this is the year in which the man who once said “I’m not capable of winning a Major” breaks through. (Odds: 25-1)
Safe Pick: Matt Kuchar
If I were a betting man (which I am not), Kuchar would be my guy. He arrives at Augusta fresh off back-to-back top-fives on the PGA Tour’s Texas Swing, and has finished 8th and 3rd in the previous two Masters respectively. Despite modest length off the tee, the affable Sea Island resident with an easy smile feels right at home at Augusta National: a combination of straight hitting and impeccable touch around the greens should serve him well this week. (Odds: 25-1)
Sleeper Pick: Billy Horschel
At this time last year, in an ephemeral moment of clairvoyance, yours truly announced to the world that unheralded Dane Thorbjorn Olesen would have a breakout performance at the 2013 Masters. I’m still not sure how he got the invitation — not even Thorbjorn Olesen had ever heard of Thorbjorn Olesen — but after a shaky start he mounted a Herculean rally to finish tied for 4th. This year I saw the same untapped potential in a young South African by the name of Tyrone Van Aswegan. Lamentably, TVA did not make the field. So again placing my finger squarely on the proverbial pulse of the PGA Tour, I feel that it may be Florida grad Billy Horschel’s time: Billy Ho is long, straight and can get it up and down from the ball-washer … and green just happens to be his favorite color. (Odds: 150-1)
Heart Pick: Fred Couples
Surely, the only person who’d like to see Freddy win more than me is his former college roommate and lead anchor of the CBS coverage Jim Nantz. It seems like it’s every year now that Couples finds himself in contention through 36 holes, and every year Nantz finds himself unable to contain his verging-on-homoerotic excitement. Perhaps this will be the year that Freddy holds on for all four rounds, making him the oldest winner in Masters history 23 years after first donning the green jacket. (Odds: 100-1)
Seniors Greg Jarmas and Nicholas Ricci are members of the Princeton men’s golf team.