The Masters: A love affair that’s hard to explain

I don’t exactily remember the first time I watched The Masters golf tournament, but it must have been 1961 or 1962.  Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus dominated during my childhood — seven of the nine Masters tournaments between 1958 and 1966 were won by either Arnie or Jack.  What I do remember is falling in love with the game of golf while I was still in elementary school — completely from watching on TV.   Nobody I knew played golf.   I was a golf nerd and probably a pretty weird little kid.

Arnie and Jack in the early '60s

Watching the Masters is a guilty pleasure of mine.   It’s hard to explain.

There are so many things NOT to like about the Masters.  But every April when I see those drop-dead beautiful CBS opening shots of the 12th green, the 13th hole, the Clubhouse — I can’t look away.  When they play highlight shots from past tournaments going all the way back to before my time, my eyes start to well up.  Those memories are part of who I am and what I love to do.  The cynic in me temporarily takes a backseat to the nostalgic golf nut.

12th Hole - Augusta National Golf Club

Augusta National Golf Course was designed by legendary golfer Bobby Jones along with Alister McKensie. The course opened in 1933.  A year later the first Masters (known until 1939 as the “Augusta National Invitation”) was won by Horton Smith.  The Masters is one of the four major tournaments in the world and the only one that is played on the same course every year.

A lot of people don’t like the Masters.  The tournament kept a lot of the feel and tradition of the old south alive for much of its history.   Lee Elder was the first Black player in the tournament when he broke the color barrier in 1975.  Fearing for his safety, he hired body guards and rented two houses in Augusta that year and moved back and forth frequently between them during tournament week.

Lee Trevino refused to play there for a couple of years in the ’70s.  He said the course didn’t suit his game, but given his Mexican-American heritage, everyone knew there was more to it than that.  After Jack Nicklaus talked him into returning to the tournament in 1972, Lee still refused to go into the clubhouse to change his shoes.

Lee Elder, first Black golfer to play in the Masters (1975)

Until 1983, golfers were required to use Augusta National official caddies, who were, of course, African American.  The Augusta National Golf Club admitted its first Black member in 1990 and still does not allow women to join.  I love history, but studying injustice and prolonging it are two different things.  The Masters seems to hold on to the wrong stuff from the past longer than it needs to.

Call me a hypocrite, but I still love the place.  I’ve got too many great memories.  Liking the Masters is kind of like having an old southern aunt who has a Black maid and treats her like in the old days.  You still like old Aunt Augusta, even though you wouldn’t live that way yourself.  And you hope that she’s learned a few things about people over the years, even though you wonder sometimes.

The Augusta National Club is full of rich, white, Christian, old men — many of whom have attitudes about people that differ from mine.  Their prickishness is ever present, but that’s kind of what private golf clubs are all about anyway.  I’ve always had a great deal of ambivalence about the game of golf — loving the game/being turned off by many of the people who play it.   The Masters brings those feelings front and center.  But once I get a glimpse of old Aunt Augusta, with all her faults, I get off my high horse for a weekend and enjoy my time with her.

Fred Couples shares a laugh with his caddie in the parking lot at Hazeltine during the 2009 PGA Championship (photo by Steve Date)

So I’ll be taking a lot of peeks at tomorrow’s final round, even though it’s going to be a beautiful day here in Minnesota and it will be a shame to be indoors.  Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson (both players that I like) are at the top of the leader board.  But I’ll be pulling for Freddie Couples.  He’s in 5th place after 3 rounds.  At 50 years of age, he’s got some of the same childhood memories I do.

Nearly a half- century after I became a fan, Arnie and Jack are showing their years, but they’re still around and still playing.  They were the honorary “starters” this week.  It made me smile to watch them.  Here’s the video.

Those of us who are not members only see Augusta in the spring — and unless we’re lucky enough to get a ticket to the tournament, only on TV.   For us, Augusta is always springtime, always beautiful.  The azaleas and dogwoods are always blooming.  The grass is always perfect and impossibly green.  “Amen Corner” is still one of the truly gorgeous places on earth.  There’s no place I’d rather be this weekend.  Amen.

13th Hole - Augusta National

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One thought on “The Masters: A love affair that’s hard to explain

  1. my congrats to phil – i am glad he won – and with all the tiger news from the golf world – i am impressed by the commitment shown by phil to be a family man – i’ll admit watching him walking off the green and hugging his wife and kids made me a little teary eyed.

    but you? a cynic? i don’t understand what you’re talking about…

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