Masters beauty arrives to rescue our spring from ugly side of sports

The lead-in to this spring – an undervalued sports season – has been, um, unsettling.

Within four days in March, the Atlanta market had two cornerstone athletes removed. Franchises are built like Jenga towers. Take out a Freddie Freeman here and a Matt Ryan there, and it all falls down.

Baseball, whose reigning champion resides nearby, got spring all wrong. The year began with the game in lockout while threatening to perform an amputation in installments on its regular-season schedule. All over issues that seemed oh-so important to anyone who can hit a 98-mph pitch but otherwise weren’t going to fill anyone else’s gas tank. Workers unite for a better pre-arbitration bonus pool!

The sides would settle, and the season would be saved, but not before our ears were insulted by the complaints of the wealthy.

Just in time, here comes the Masters.

Take us away, beautiful golf tournament.

Take us away from a chaotic first three months of 2022 to a place where chaos is barred at every green gate. The Masters really almost is as former three-time champion Gary Player once put it: “Here, small dogs do not bark and babies do not cry.”

If not exactly saving the season, the Masters will once more fully define it here in Georgia. Aerial photos of Augusta National have revealed the return of a full complement of grandstands up and ready to receive a full complement of fans. With the pall of the pandemic lifting for a moment and more the usual number of pilgrims allowed to worship on site this year, preparation for a Masters in full are underway.

The swells who run this tournament hatch their plans in a skull-themed mountain fortress – so it seems, at least, given all the levels of secrecy they impart upon a silly game. But it seems they are intent upon returning as many in-person eyeballs to their garden as ever – that exact number never to be revealed. As has been painfully discovered the past two tournaments – once with no fans, once with but a few thousand – a Masters without all its patrons is like a Tarantino movie without a soundtrack, a wedding without a wedding night.

For 51 weeks a year you couldn’t get into the place by hook, crook or parachute. The dome of privilege is so graciously impregnable. But this week, either in person or through the miracle of Hi-Def, we all enter a transfer portal, a gateway between the grubby commerce of Augusta’s Washington Road and the horticultural authoritarianism of Augusta National’s Magnolia Lane. In the passage, all are invited to shed the irritations that come with following sports that are so much messier than golf at Augusta.

True, certain faces of this franchise will not be here. Phil Mickelson talked himself out of this year’s event, breaking a 28-year streak of mutual affection. There just isn’t enough room in the small champions locker room for all his added baggage.

Mickelson will be missed by some, but not in any kind of Freddie Freeman way. After all, the real, enduring faces of this franchise are white and pink and purple and smile on command from the azalea bushes along Amen Corner.

There is no free-agent movement to or from the Masters, nor any transferring in or out. No one demands a trade to a better event. A player either earns an invitation or withers a little inside for having been excluded. Where else would anyone rather be? Even the quirky, iconoclastic pro Mac O’Grady was forced to once admit, “This is where God hangs out.” Heaven requires no escape hatch.

Here, players and management seem to get along. Or if they don’t, the players have the good sense to keep their gripes to themselves.

When last we left Augusta, Hideki Matsuyama’s caddie, Shota Hayafuji, bowed to the course after his guy tied down the championship. You don’t get that level of respect at the John Deere Classic or, for that matter, in many other pro sports.

Matsuyama recalled the moment in a recent Masters teleconference. A year later, he remains amazed by how the bow was received by a public unaccustomed to such sporting grace: “I’m glad that Shota did it. It’s a sign of respect, not only to the Masters tournament but Augusta National. ... It was something that was good. I never really thought it would receive the attention that it has generated.”

Golf changes. The Masters does, too, only in slo-mo. Other tournaments have surrendered to the inevitability of the cellphone, but not this one. The 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open is a place for frat parties passing for competition. The 16th at Augusta National, a far more sanctified par-3, remains but another pew in church.

Because the Masters is so unlike anything else in sports is exactly why we so look forward to it now.