It was the roar that got me.
It emanated from one of the deepest parts of the golf course; the 16th hole, in fact. It was a sound that reverberated through the tall Georgia pines, a cheer that might be in response to a Jack or an Arnie or a Seve or a Spieth making a Sunday charge.
In fact, it was a big name – Rory McIlroy had made a hole in one on 16. But it was during a practice round. A Monday practice round.
Non-golfers and cynics like to poke fun at The Masters, and some of it is merited, particularly from the broadcast perspective. The schmaltzy music, the forced lingo (there are no spectators at the Masters, there are “patrons”), and the hushed commentary (particularly from Jim Nantz, who often sounds like he’s reading from a papal encyclical) often seem over the top. The tournament’s racist past is not easily dismissed – and it shouldn’t be.
And the TSA could take some lessons from the Masters as far as security measures are concerned – there are black-suited Pinkerton agents in abundance, one must pass through metal detectors far more sensitive than those found at airports, and there is a long list of prohibited items posted. My friend Dave Weisman, a retired 3-star general and former member of NATO’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a 2-inch pen knife confiscated when he checked in for Wednesday’s Par-3 event. The General has no love lost for Phil Mickelson, but I doubt he planned on using said weapon on Lefty.
But all that aside – one would be hard pressed to find a better way of spending a spring day in Georgia than walking the hilly grounds of Augusta National during a practice round. The course is dizzying in its assault on one’s senses. The turf is an almost impossible shade of green – unlike most courses in the deep South that feature Bermuda or zoyzia, Augusta is turfed with cool weather grasses that do not go dormant in the winter and is offset by the pure white sand in the cavernous bunkers. Virtually every kind of flora and fauna can be found on the course (there’s even a palm tree near the 4th green). When asked by friends in the DFW area what it’s like there, the best description that I can muster is to imagine if someone has placed a golf course in the midst of the Dallas Arboretum. And even that’s not adequate.
My friend Chet (who had secured tickets for us) and I paused along our trip around the course to imagine some of the shots we’d witnessed on TV (or in Chet’s case, in person – he’s attended the tournament many times and played the course, a benefit of his friendship with Charlie Yates, the son and namesake of one of the greatest amateur golfers of the 1930’s). When we got to the 10th (which resembles the upper portion of a downhill ski course), we sought out the spot from which Bubba Watson pulled off this incredible shot. All we could do is laugh.
I had to do all those things one does at Augusta – eat a pimento cheese sandwich (still only $1.50 and ludicrously delicious), buy souvenirs, sit in the stands in back of the 12th tee which gives one the opportunity to view play on different parts of Amen Corner, watch players skip shots across the pond at 16. And what struck me the most was how downright happy people were to be there. There were a group of Argentines clad in blue and white shirts inscribed Vamanos! Fabian – a tribute to their countryman Fabian Gomez, who they cheered during his practice. Asians, Indians, and yes, a fair number of African Americans were mixed into the gallery. Spouses and significant others marveled at the azaleas.
And that roar from 16.
Sorry cynics. I’m a believer.
This year’s Masters will undoubtedly be remembered as The One That Jordan Spieth Gave Away, which is unfortunate for Danny Willet. He is hardly a flash in the pan, coming into the tournament as the 12th ranked golfer in the world and the winner of four events internationally. His final round 67 was pretty much a flawless piece of work – the closest he came to being in trouble was when he missed the green with his approach on 17 and was left with a pitch-and-run shot that had more twists than an Adam Sworkin plotline. He made it appear much less difficult, the sign of a true champion. But if anyone mentioned the Englishman as a pre-tournament favorite, it was the best kept secret since the Manhattan Project.
Willet almost didn’t make it to the Masters. His wife was due to deliver their first child this past weekend, but agreed to be induced two weeks early so that her husband can make it to Augusta and is the unofficial heroine of Danny’s victory.
And while he was lighting up Augusta on Sunday, his brother PJ was doing the same on Twitter.
There were plenty of roars from 16 on Sunday, as three competitors holed out for aces, including the ever-popular Davis Love III and the irrepressible Louis Oosthuizen, whose ball was tacking toward the hole before striking that of J.B. Holmes – and then continued on to its final destination.
The cheering was certainly welcome, as the playing conditions for the first three days of the tournament were nothing short of brutal, with winds gusting over 25 mile per hour and turning Augusta’s back nine – usually a source of exciting play – into a chamber of horrors. The 15th is a hole in which par usually gives back a stroke to the field; on Friday and Saturday, it was a pretty damned good score.
For the first three rounds (and the first nine of the finale), Jordan Spieth held off the field, which was somewhat surprising. It was Jason Day who, among the New Triumvirate, was a heavy favorite, having come off consecutive victories at Bay Hill and Austin. Adam Scott and Ricky Fowler were also bandied about as possible victors; others felt that Phil Mickelson was, at age 45, ready for one final charge. As it turned out, Fowler and Lefty missed the cut, Scott was far back in the field, and Day could never quite get it going.
Spieth came into the tournament as a bit of a puzzlement. Aside from a comfortable win at the Tournament of Champions in Maui, his play had been somewhat indifferent for most the season. Some observers felt that with the opportunities presented to him by virtue of his sensational 2015 season, he had spread himself too thinly among international tournaments and endorsement appearances. His ball striking was rather pedestrian and his putting alarmingly inconsistent.
But he fashioned an opening round 66, a remarkable round given (by his own admission) some ragged iron play. At the same time, one could sense that this was not going to be an easy week for Spieth, as each time he separated himself from the field, he inexplicably let it back in – particularly on Sunday, when he saw a four shot lead evaporate to one over the spectacularly named Smylie Kaufmann. Meanwhile, Willet lurked three shots back at even par.
Spieth was adequately concerned to fly in his swing coach, Cameron McCormack, to oversee his warm-up for the final round. And it seemed to work, as Jordan fashioned a front-nine 32 (including four straight birdies to close out the side) and opened up a 5 shot lead on the field. But a careless bogey on 10 and another (caused by a poor tee shot) on 11 were disconcerting.
Anyone who’s played the game has experienced the wrenching events that occurred on #12 for Spieth; however, watching it in real time was equivalent to seeing the wide-open receiver drop a perfectly thrown pass or the 90% free throw shooter clank two important attempts off the rim. The difference is that when it happens to a golfer, no matter what the stage, there is no place to turn, – no apologies or excuses to be rendered. Dumping a second shot into Rae’s Creek left most of us – including the golfer himself – saying to ourselves, “Are you [fucking] kidding/shitting/yanking me?”
It’s to his everlasting credit that Spieth, after that quadruple bogey disaster, came back to birdie 13 and 15 while parring 14 (the latter two despite a couple more wayward drives), and had a chance to close to within one on 16 after a good tee shot. He missed the slippery downhill putt, however, and when his approach on 17 caught the front bunker (the microphone picked him up moaning, “That’s not nearly enough!”), that effectively shut the door on any chance he had of coming back.
How damaging this is to Spieth in the long term remains to be seen. It’s evident that there’s some work to be done on his swing, and perhaps even more so on that 6-inches of space between the ears about which Bobby Jones so famously talked. My take is that he’ll be heard from again, but it won’t be an easy process.
Congratulations, Danny Willet. And my apologies. I’ve seemed to have spent more time on the runner-up here.