Green jackets restore drama at Masters

BY foxsports • April 12, 2011

The Masters has been restored to the most exciting event in golf, and maybe even in all of sports.

And not just because Augusta hosted its first Maxim party last week.

"It must have looked great on TV," the ebullient Aussie Jason Day, who tied for second, said of Sunday’s breathtaking finish and Charl Schwartzel's victory.

"I can't wait to watch it."

I’ve covered many big-time sporting events over the years, but few have prompted the kind of deluge of text messages, phone calls and emails I got from friends and colleagues raving about the real, palpable and unforgettable drama that Sunday afternoon produced.

I knew it was special when my wife, who thinks of golf as either a ponderous pursuit for old, fat men with nothing better to do or as an excuse for men to get out of the house, spent the afternoon glued to the television set.

I had no idea she even knew who Rory McIlroy was, but there she was crestfallen, as if it were one of her own who’d just disintegrated in front of the world around Amen Corner.

“He seems like such a decent young man,” she said. “It broke my heart.”

One of our sons, who’s historically shared his mother’s enthusiasm for golf, even interrupted slaughtering zombies on his video game when Tiger Woods made that electrifying eagle on the eighth.

And I can tell you from bitter experience, no one’s ever been able to get him to stop his crusade to save the world from those pesky zombies.

So why did so many non-golf fans stop and watch?

It’s not golf itself that did it, but the age-old universal appeal of the human stories unfolding on that canvas.

Congratulations are in order, then, for those responsible for making the Masters must-see TV again.

And I don’t mean the players. The main characters in Sunday’s drama were allowed to put on virtuoso performances because the stage had been set for them. Literally.

This year, not only were the pins cut in mostly accessible positions, but the greens were softer, allowing approaches to stop nearer the hole.

Birdies and eagles were flying, and no one was complaining.

And the credit for creating that kind of atmosphere should go to the leadership of Augusta National Golf Club.

Now, I’m well aware that it’s not popular among golf’s chattering classes to do anything but take jabs at the green coats who run the Masters.

The news that a female columnist, Tara Sullivan, from The Bergen (N.J.) Record, was denied access to the locker room while her male colleagues were allowed to pass, suits the stereotype of Augusta National.

But it’s perpetuating myths. Sullivan was stopped by an overzealous security guard who, incidentally, also was a woman.

Female reporters, in my 15 years of covering the tournament, have had no trouble going into those locker rooms. Sullivan deserved, and got, an apology. End of story.

That‘s not to say the club doesn‘t have weird policies and doesn‘t still in many ways reflect a bygone era.

For instance, I thought it was rude for Ron Townsend, the club’s first black member, to demand Rickie Fowler turn his hat brim to the front during his pre-tournament news conference.

But I also think it’s ridiculous for my own club to ban me from wearing my hat at the bar.

The members of Augusta National are, by and large, obscenely rich, powerful and elite. Sexist, too, if you believe that it’s unacceptable to not have a female member, as Augusta is said to operate. (The club does not disclose its membership policies.)

But the view of them as a sort of aging band of confederate freemasons stuck in the past ignores the evolving nature of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs.

Since Billy Payne took over as chairman in 2006, and members like the affable, laid-back Kiwi Craig Heatley have assumed senior roles, the place has become far more welcoming as it shifts into the 21st century. For instance, next year fans will be able to apply for tickets online for the first time.

But the greatest legacy of the Payne era is that without being obviously disrespectful to those who came before — principally past chairman Hootie Johnson — the Masters itself has again become the most exciting major.

After Tiger Woods hit 3 wood and had 87 yards into the last hole a decade ago, the old guard decided that Augusta National needed to be “Tiger-proofed.”

They went overboard. The tournament lost its identity as the course was stretched almost 500 yards longer and made much more difficult to play.

“It is always fun to come here, but after the changes of a few years ago, we don't see the same excitement and birdies that we used to," Phil Mickelson said in response to the "new" Masters.

Woods equated Augusta National to “a U.S. Open course,” and he wasn’t being complimentary.

There’s nothing wrong with the U.S. Open being a torturous grind; there’s room for that, just as the British Open demands the winner to negotiate not just the course but also the elements.

But polite applause for a well-earned par never has been in the lexicon of the Masters, where only three times in 75 tournaments has an over-par score won.

The weather wasn’t good in 2007 and '08, which didn’t help, but those tournaments were among the worst in history. Payne knew it and, with the cooperation of the weather, set about to bring the roars back to the Masters.

He did. And Sunday's fabulous finish was the Masterstroke.


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