Monday at the Masters, early morning before the clouds take over. The pines throw long shadows over a green dewy carpet. The first wave of patrons — the highborn name given the customers here — make the slow, happy walk in from the acres of parking for which rich men have leveled homes to provide.
It is the start of another grandest week of golf, a practice round for players, a preview of what lies beyond the pearly gates for the paying customers. At least that is what all their smiles seem to say as they parade past more earthly security.
Isn’t that exactly what three-time Masters champion Gary Player told us when he said, “If there's a golf course in heaven, I hope it's like Augusta National. I just don't want an early tee time.”
Makes me think, you know, I’ve covered 31 of these things and can never remember hearing a child cry here.
I can never recall hearing a complaint bubbling up from the gallery or seeing a discontented tilt of the shoulders that suggested anyone at Augusta National on Masters week would rather be anywhere else in this big, wide world.
On the Masters side of the leafy curtain that separates Augusta National from reality it is as difficult to find an outwardly unhappy soul as it is to find a squirrel (one of the great, enduring mysteries at a place ruled by trees).
There is a reason that this is the one event that I cover that seems to inspire more curiosity and, dare I say, envy among friends and readers than any other on the sports calendar. More even than certain cataclysmic Super Bowls and certain very loud annual losses to Alabama.
People want to know what was being at the Masters is like. That’s after they take care of the obligatory, “You mean they pay you to be there for the week?”
Any explanation is inadequate, because so much of the Masters experience is a visceral one, appealing to an appreciation for order and sculpted beauty, the kind for which there are few other useful frames of reference. Where do you get a metaphor for a landscape where the weed has been cast out of Eden? Certainly not in my neighborhood.
I tried to think of some way to explain the Masters while spending Monday morning walking the back nine. But nothing useful came to mind on the hike to Amen Corner and back, a ritual pilgrimage. Because who really wants to work on a beautiful hike like this?
It has been, what, maybe 100 trips downhill to that low crook of the property, and still it was as uplifting as the first time. (Azalea report: On the scale of 1 to 10, 1 being nuclear hellscape and 10 being a kaleidoscopic acid trip, we’ll give this year’s crop about a 7.)
“The Masters,” the late British journalist Alistair Cooke once said, “is more like a vast Edwardian garden party than a golf tournament.”
While taking up a perch above the 16th tee box, waiting for the first group to come through, I tried to arrive at some words for the lithe spirit of Monday at the Masters, before it gets all serious and the numbers get posted. Wait, here comes Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and Fred Couples. They would be the first of the day to hear the chants from the crowd, “Skip, skip, skip.” And they would be the first to comply, dropping balls in front of the pond guarding the par 3 and attempting to skip golf balls across the water like flat rocks. They swung in unison, a choreography of frivolity that would have no place here in just three days.
And not surprisingly, Woods is good at that, as well. One, two, three skips and onto the middle of the green, followed by a thumbs-up to the cheering throng he always attracts.
When I first started covering the Masters, I worked from the attic of a metal Quonset hut, stuffy and crowded. Now while typing inside a building that is more manse than press room — all wood and glass and leather, a restaurant behind me, two TV monitors and a panoramic view of the state-of-the-art practice area in front of me — I strained to describe the lengths they go to here to lap every other golf tournament.
And then I just give up because the place still leaves me at a loss for adjectives after all these years.
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