The first week in April brings about a unique confluence of sports. The college basketball season comes to a conclusion—not always a climax—at the Final Four. The baseball season begins with all the traditions—those not wiped out by television—that we associate with Opening Day.
And the golf world gathers in Augusta for the Masters. For three days, the potential storylines are discussed over and over again—I’m as guilty as anyone, especially when I show up on Golf Channel—while everyone waits for actual golf to commence on Thursday morning.
Very little changes from year-to-year at Augusta National, although this year the club has built a multi (multi) million- dollar press building that, unlike the old place, is far from the golf course and the clubhouse. As I sit here, I can look at the driving range, although the player are about 425 yards—roughly a quarter-mile—from the picture windows.
The joke around the new building this week is that Tiger Woods must have designed the interview room. The old one was almost informal: no one used microphones to ask questions; no one was asked to, ‘please identify yourself and your publication,’ as they do in so many stilted, stiff interview rooms. Follow-up questions were possible—even easy. And, most of the time, when a player finished, he would stand around at the front of the podium and chat for several more minutes with anyone who wanted to linger.
Woods was always a notable exception to that rule. Those who cover the game regularly know that, “Tiger doesn’t scrum.”
Woods is actually the opposite of Bill Glasson, a very underrated player (seven PGA Tour wins) who was more than willing to chat informally when he came out of the scorer’s tent but refused to come to the interview room when asked to do so by tour officials.
“He doesn’t mind talking to the media at all,” Wes Seeley, a one-time tour PR person once said. “He just doesn’t like doing it under our format.”
Actually, most of us would prefer the Glasson method: talking informally rather than in an interview room.
NO ONE will be scrumming in the new interview room. It is massive and far more formal than, say, the White House briefing room. The players sit far from the reporters, far from where anyone can reach them afterwards to scrum. They’re taken out through a back door and whisked back to the golf course.
Woods—who decided not to come and meet with his media pals in the new interview room when he showed up here briefly on Tuesday for the champions dinner—would undoubtedly love the new set up.
When Augusta National decides to change something, it gets changed—and quickly. The new building went up in nine months. The same thing happened several years ago when the range was deemed out-of-date. What was the main parking lot one year became a brand new range the next year. It looked as if the range had been there since the club first opened.
But the traditions that make the Masters unique never change. The players are marched in for pre-tournament interviews on Monday and Tuesday. There is only ONE formal interview on Wednesday—that’s with Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. The chairman has been meeting with the media at 11 a.m. on Wednesday for as long as anyone can remember. The only difference now is that Payne does occasionally speak to the media the rest of the year. In the old days, the chairman spoke ONCE and that was it.
Payne has made a lot of changes at Augusta National. His predecessors fought change the way a cat fights a bath. Jack Stephens—a Naval Academy graduate—was the chairman when I first started covering the Masters. Every year, Stephens was asked why the Masters remained the only major golf tournament that refused to televise all 18 holes on the weekend. In those days, CBS didn’t even come on the air until 4 o’clock, when most of the field had already made the turn.
“We like to give our patrons (remember, there are no spectators, galleries or crowds at Augusta, only patrons) something that people watching at home don’t get,” Stephens said one year. “Basically, that’s the first (not front) nine.”
One year a reporter asked Stephens if he watched the Super Bowl ever year.
“The fourth quarter,” Stephens said without missing a beat.
Payne, who ascended to the chairmanship in 2006 at the relatively young age of 58, (succeeding Hootie Johnson) began to expand TV coverage almost immediately. Now, even the par-3 tournament is on television.
On Thursday morning, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will begin the tournament with the ceremonial opening tee shots. It will be bittersweet because, for the first time in more than 60 years, Arnold Palmer won’t be here. Last year, at 86, Palmer was too wobbly to take his turn on the first tee. After Palmer had announced he would attend the ceremony but wouldn’t attempt to hit a shot, Nicklaus begged him to reconsider.
“Arnold, people will be happy if you putt the ball off the tee,” Nicklaus said.
“I’m good Jack,” Palmer replied.
Nicklaus and Player both fought tears as they teed it up with Palmer sitting on the side of the tee watching them. It was one of the more genuine moments you’ll ever see in sports—especially these days.
Palmer died last September. The tributes to him have been pretty much non-stop. Chances are there will be a moment of silence for him on the tee in the morning.
And then the tournament will begin. There are, as usual, a plethora of storylines. There hasn’t been any golf played that REALLY matters since October 2nd, when the U.S. beat Europe to finally win back the Ryder Cup.
That’s six months of buildup and anticipation. Dustin Johnson has become the world’s most dominant player since his U.S. Open win in June—he’s won five more times since, including his last three events. Rory McIlroy is trying to complete the career Grand Slam. Jordan Spieth will attempt to flush the ghosts of a year ago when he went to the back nine Sunday with a five shot lead and went bogey-bogey-quadruple bogey, his chances drowned (twice) by the tiny 12th hole. Jason Day, the world’s number one player at this time a year ago, will hope he can escape thoughts of his mother’s ongoing battle with cancer inside the ropes. Phil Mickelson will go for a fourth green jacket; Bubba Watson a third.
And someone like Danny Willett might very well win. Willett was the last player to arrive here a year ago—flying in Tuesday night after he and his wife decided he should go and play a week after the birth of their first child. He shot a superb, five-under-par 67 on Sunday to beat Spieth and Lee Westwood by three shots. He was ranked 12th in the world going into the Masters, but only golf geeks knew who he was.
Jon Rahm could be this year’s Willett. He’s only 22 and has been a pro for less than a year. He’s already won on the tour (San Diego) and has proven he can compete with the big boys without blinking. He’s the anointed successor in the Spanish line of great players from Seve Ballesteros to Jose-Maria Olazabal to Sergio Garcia.
Will he win this year? Probably not—only Fuzzy Zoeller (in 1979) has won here the first time he played a Masters since Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen won the first two times the tournament was played in 1934 and 1935.
But, by sundown on Sunday, someone will slip on the green jacket, first in the awkward, televised Butler Cabin ceremony and then on the putting green during the actual awards ceremony.
The buildings may change at Augusta National along with the parking lots and the traffic patterns. But the Masters is always the Masters. Which is a good thing.
John Feinstein’s latest non-fiction book is, ‘The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry.’ A New York Times bestseller in hardover it is now available in paperback. He is also the author of, ‘Last Shot,–Mystery at the Final Four,” winner of the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult Category. His book on the 2016 Ryder Cup, ‘The First Major,’ will be published in October.