By the time you read this, play in the first round of the 78th Masters--the second-best sporting event in America (behind the Kentucky Derby, naturally)--will be under way.
What makes the Masters so great? Let us count the ways:
What makes the Masters sui generis among the other majors is that it’s played on the same course--the sacred slice of heaven that is Augusta National--every year, whereas the other events move around from site to site. This means that when you stride down the fairways at Augusta, you’re following in the same footsteps as every other illustrious golfer since the Masters started in 1934. It’s also powerful for viewers; since we see the same holes year after year, we know the course better than we know our own lives, and can recollect the famous--and infamous--moments that have taken place on those greens and in those fairways over the decades. Even the pin placements remain consistent. We all know exactly where the pin is going to be on 12, 16, and others during the final round--and so do the players.
History is living and breathing at Augusta. Past champions can return to play for as long as they like, long after their winners’ exemptions have run out at other events. The fireplace burns incandescently in Butler Cabin, players traipse over Rae’s Creek on Hogan’s Bridge, and numerous rounds have been ruined playing “Amen Corner” (11, 12, and 13). The club was co-founded by Bobby Jones, so the course and tournament traces its lineage all the way back to the game’s first transcendant star--the only man to ever capture the fabled “Grand Slam.”
And, Jones’ Southern propriety still rules the grounds; galleries are “patrons,” and there is a “primary cut” but no “rough.” Driving down “Magnolia Lane” is like stepping back in time; the Masters is quaintly atavistic, little changes over the decades, and concession prices remain the cheapest in all of sports.
The way the course pops on television is also a major aspect of the event’s success, with resplendent flowers--each hole is named after the dominant flower on that hole, so golfers play holes like “Holly,” “Firethorn,” and “Pink Dogwood"--grass the perfect shade of green, and pure white sand in the bunkers. For many, especially those of us residing north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Masters literally means spring is here; it heralds in warmer weather after we’ve been buried in cold and snow throughout the winter.
The course set-up is also tailor-made for drama, especially the theatrical second nine, which gave rise to the cliche, “The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday.” Wild vicissitudes are common. A player can made birdie or eagle on the reachable par-5’s (13 and 15), or he can make bogey or double by losing balls in the treacherous water hazards. The 12th (”Golden Bell”) is the finest par-3 in golf, and players worry about losing a ball--and their chances of victory--in Rae’s Creek. Water is also present on 16, another sublime par-3.
In addition, the green jacket presented to the winner has become so iconic that golfers strive desperately for that green blazer like Jay Gatsby grasping for the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s pier. Sam Snead was the first winner to receive a jacket, in 1949, and, each year, the previous year’s champion presents the new victor with a jacket. Players can only take their jacket off-site for the year after their life-changing triumph; after that year, the coat must stay in Georgia, hanging in the Champion’s Locker Room, to be worn only during Masters week. The year after winning, each champion also gets to pick the menu for the Champions Dinner, held Tuesday evening when he returns to the golfing cathedral to defend his title--a tradition started in 1952.
Then, there's the enchanting Par-3 contest, perhaps the most unique spectacle in all of sports. Contested on the Wednesday before the tournament begins, participants play Augusta's gorgeous nine-hole par-3 layout. Famously, no player has ever won the par-3 contest and then the tournament, so superstitious players--if they're near the lead--have been known to dump their tee shot in the water on nine, or have their caddy or a patron hit a shot or a putt--thereby disqualifying themselves. This is in keeping with the light atmosphere; it's less a competition than a shared bonding experience the day before the pressure kicks in--many players have taken to having their child or significant other caddy for them, and the players often let a caddy play a shot or two. (Fuzzy Zoeller always proves a fan favorite, because he habitually pulls a child from the gallery to hit a put for him.) Even former champions who have grown too old to compete in the actual tournament come to Augusta to play the par-3, and provide memories for a lifetime. ESPN begin televising the contest a few years ago, and I haven't missed one since. It's utterly charming to watch these guys out there with their sons and daughters, girlfriends and wives, grandchildren or parents.
The highlight group recently has been Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player--"The Big Three." Between them, they own 13 green jackets, and an astounding 34 total major championships. (Jack has more than anyone, with 18, Player has nine, and Arnie has seven. Nicklaus and Player are part of only a paucity of golfers to capture the career "Grand Slam," winning all four majors at least once.) Their competitive days long behind them, they still show up to play together in this contest, giving patrons young and old a last glimpse at three icons of the sport, and a chance to relive vibrant memories of their past glory. Their interactions with the patrons--and the way they needle each other--is delightful and often humorous. In no other sport does this sort of thing happen.
"The Big Three" also act as the honorary starters, striking the first tee shots early Thursday morning before the tournament officially begins. Before this triple, the honorary starter role had been filled by the likes of "Lord" Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and "The Squire," Gene Sarazen--all Masters champions and legends of the game just like "The Golden Bear," "The King," and "The Black Night." It may seem queer to you that thousands of people show up in the wee hours of the morning to watch three geriatrics each hit one shot, but that's the golf, and that's the magic of the Masters.
The telecast on CBS only adds to the grandeur, from the near-constant bird songs that make for a symphony in the sky, to the serene piano chords struck in the background. The final round of the Masters is golf’s most-watched telecast each year, and it compares favorably with the ratings of marquee events in other major sports--with the exception of the N.F.L. (The N.F.L. trounces everything.)
And, yes, I fully acknowledge CBS over-promotes the event; by the time April rolls around, even Taliban fighters hiding in caves know when the Masters is and what network it’s on. And yes, the amount of reverence the announcers treat the Masters with--especially Jim “Hello, friends,” Nantz--is tantamount to cardinals whispering about the Ark of the Covenant and incredibly pretentious.
But, I confess, I love it all! It truly is “a tradition unlike any other.”
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan.