Well golfers here it is, the curtain raiser for this year’s major season. The eyes of the sporting world descend onto the plush and paradisiacal majesty of Augusta National. Every sport has hallowed turf; to Leafs fans it’s Maple Leaf Gardens, for the Tartan Army it’s Hampden but for golf it surely has to be Augusta National, home of the US Masters. Yes St. Andrews is ‘the home of golf’ but with enough money anyone can play it. Augusta is reserved for a very select and lucky few, it’s golf’s Garden of Eden and has such incredible romance associated with it.
I’m the least spiritual person you will meet, but even I have to admit that this place has something of the heavens about it. It even has a stretch (11,12 and 13 called ‘Amen Corner’). Every golfer dreams of putting on the green jacket one day. The only thing that I personally feel supersedes it would be lifting the Claret Jug. Watching this great tournament, golf’s only major that has a fixed annual venue, is like a complete sensorial experience. The greenest grass you’ve ever seen, the stunning pink azaleas, the roars from the crowd juxtaposed with the deafening silence as the players play the par-3 12th hole and the excitement that your own golf season is almost upon you. It’s a special time of year for golfers.
Golf royalty designed the course on a former nursery. Bobby Jones and Dr Alister MacKenzie were responsible for the layout of Augusta and it opened in 1933. In 1934 the inaugural Annual Augusta Invitational tournament was played, this later became the US Masters. Since it opened the course has been lengthened by some 600 yards. McKenzie, being British, designed the course to be played with a links-type game. He was a huge fan of St Andrews and wanted emphasis put on the ground game, unfortunately his death shortly before the opening of the course meant this vision wasn’t realized. The co-founder of the course Clifford Roberts changed the course to move away from the ground game soon after McKenzie’s death. As much as links golf is real golf the way it should be played, the creativity and artistry needed to play short game shots around Augusta are part of it’s amazing charm.
For me, The US Masters is THE tournament to win. Of course, as a Brit, The Open Championship is the most important major to me but to win a green jacket you have to be made of the right stuff. You don’t really get first-time Masters winners. Winning at Augusta takes time, it’s a learning process. In fact only 3 players have ever won on their first attempt and the list is fairly illustrious. Horton Smith won the first ever Augusta Invitational in 1934, of course someone had to be the winner that year and they would be a rookie but he was one of the best players of his era. The next rookie winner was the following year when one Gene Sarazen took the title and what a story that was! He was 3 strokes behind leader Craig Wood on the par 5 15th hole. Sarazen had a 235 yard shot left and opted to play a 4-wood, he holed it for an albatross (the real name for a score of 3-under par on a hole not a double eagle, please take note North America!). The so called “shot heard around the world” has gone down in Masters lore and 20 years later saw the bridge to the green at 15 named Sarazen’s Bridge in honour of the shot. This forced a 36 hole play-off and Sarazen eventually won.
It would then be a 44-year wait for the next rookie win which came from Fuzzy Zoeller. Again the 1979 US Masters (as it was now called) went into a three-man sudden death play-off that included Ed Sneed and Tom Watson. This was Fuzzy’s first and last Masters victory and made him the only player in the modern game to win on the first attempt.
A rising star of the Scottish golf game Gordon Sherry came to visit my club when I was a junior to do a coaching clinic. I remember standing creaking my neck to look at him, he is almost 7 feet tall, and he told us of his US Masters experience. He won the 1995 Amateur Championship which came with an invite to the 1996 US Masters. He told us his first competitive putt on the glass-like greens of Augusta National. He said he watched in horror as his putt ran the length of the green and ended up yards off the front making him look foolish.
I could speak of Augusta National and the US Masters all day, you may have gathered that. To drive up Magnolia Lane with a US Masters Invitation in my hand is a dream I’ve held since I was just a boy. Indeed in writing this I have had several chills down the spine thinking of the great memories that this wonderful tournament has given the sport that I love so dearly. One thing I know for sure is that this week will see four more days of history and entertainment. Nowadays if you win at the Masters you deserved it, you worked for it and you should wear your jacket with pride. I do hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it and that the tournament is as good as it was last year.
Photo credit: Augusta National Golf Club