Masters-bation 2007

In Memoriam: Eddie Robinson. Not only a great coach, but a great leader of men and an inspiration to athletes of all colors. Normally I wouldn’t throw something like that in here, but a column for Tailgate Crashers seems to be an appropriate place for it.

When the calendar turns to April, golfers’ thoughts turn to northern Georgia and a piece of land that Bobby Jones felt would be perfect for the golf course of his dreams. He made it, and the best in the world started to come for four days in Golf Nirvana. His little invitational tournament came into the public mind in its second year, when Gene Sarazen hit what is still regarded as the greatest shot in golf, his four-wood for double eagle. Over the last seven decades, the Masters has become the world’s most notable golf tournament. It has the strictest requirements to enter, and its list of winners includes the greatest to ever play the game. Everyone who knows the game knows how to play Augusta National, every single nuance of every shot from every position on the course. It’s not an act of rote memorization, it’s a gesture of love, for the course and the game.

The Masters is different from every other major in two respects: 1) It’s played on the same course every year, unlike other majors and 2) it’s pretty much the one course that majors are played at that you are never, ever going to play. It’s been said that virtually the only way a golfer is ever going to play Augusta is to qualify for the Masters. It’s dead easy to get a tee time at the Old Course. You can play Pebble Beach any time if you’re willing to take out a second mortgage to afford the tee time. You can get on any of the private courses that hold majors if you know a member. But Augusta? No way. Not even knowing a member helps. Hell, Masters winners are simply Honorary Members of Augusta, and they can get bounced (although doing so would be considered bad taste by the button-down rich rednecks who populate the member rolls). They were forced to make Dwight Eisenhower a member because he expressed a desire to play there, and no one wanted to alienate a president. It’s still a point of controversy that they have no members that don’t possess a penis. It’s the most exclusive course you can imagine outside of the ones on Hobe Sound. The only way for Joe Average to enjoy Augusta is to watch the coverage on TV. And, until rather recently, that was restricted too. They took a long, long time to put cameras at Amen Corner.

And that’s another facet of Augusta that appeals. Every golfer knows the lingo there. Amen Corner is 11 through 13, and everyone knows Rae’s Creek wanders through there ready to bite the unwary or those who risk too much. Every hole name is known. Every “course adjustment” is mourned as some sort of desecration. Augusta National is as sacred as Mecca is to Muslims and the Vatican is to Catholics. It’s where one of the forms of True Golf lives.

The course does tend to overwhelm the tournament at times. It’s easy to forget that there are a bunch of golfers competing for a title. It doesn’t have as nifty a cognomen for the victor as the Open Championship winner being crowned “champion golfer of the year”. It doesn’t have a classic trophy like the Claret Jug or the Wanamaker Trophy. But that green jacket is the ultimate sign to the golf world that you Belong. You are in the Elite. Masters winners can compete in the tournament as long as they’re breathing, unlike the Open with its relatively new “retire at 65” rule. And many of them take advantage of that. It’s an honor and privilege to play there, and your place in the Winners’ Locker Room is there for you no matter how old you are, and your plate at the victors’ dinner is ready to be loaded. This year, it’s a full-out barbecue courtesy of Phil Mickelson. It’s an improvement over two years ago, when he served lobster ravioli.

Even the Honorary Tee-Off is considered an incredible gesture. This year, Arnold Palmer has honors. He resisted doing this until Byron Nelson had gone to the Great Nineteenth Hole In The Sky. And it’s appropriate that he do so. Only three men alive have four green jackets hanging in Augusta’s storage room*. Of the other two, Jack’s not ready yet (he still hasn’t had the Memorial renamed after himself, a temptation that Arnie finally gave into this year), and the other is…well, we’ll talk about him later.

* – Even the jackets have a protocol. The winner is allowed to wear it anywhere for the year he reigns as champion. Then, it goes back to Augusta, and the person is only allowed to wear it while actually in attendance at the course. The only person to ever violate this was Gary Player, and they let him do it because, hey, he’s Gary Player.

So, what does it take to actually be able to hit a ball on the first tee on Thursday? The rules for getting into the Masters are slightly simpler to understand than quantum mechanics. Basically, you need to have been a previous winner, have won another major in the previous five years, won the Players’ Championship the previous three years, be ranked in the top forty of the previous year’s money list, be ranked in the top fifty of the World Golf Rankings at a certain point, won one of the big amateur tournaments like the US Amateur, the British Amateur, or the US Public Links, or dress really nifty like Camilo Villegas (making his first start this year). They’re planning on reverting the rules so that winners the previous year on the PGA Tour can get in (a big, big black mark this year since John Senden didn’t otherwise qualify), which will make things even more complex.

It must be mentioned that although this is the first major of the year for men, it isn’t the first major. That was last week’s Kraft Nabisco for the distaffers, who aren’t allowed to play Augusta. We aren’t going to see a super-teen like Morgan Pressel take the victory at Augusta, mostly because no teenagers qualified. However, there’s a very good chance that you will see what happened at the Nabisco, where everyone around Pressel collapsed, starting with Lorena Ochoa at 17 on Saturday. Augusta does that to a person. But collapses are spoken of only in whispers here. Greg Norman in 1996 is the prototypical example. Nick Faldo doesn’t even talk about the fact that he shot a 67 in that final round to win, and Faldo talks about anything and everything, as anyone who’s watched coverage of any tournament he’s in the booth for knows. So, there will not be a soul-searching flood of second-guessing should someone screw the pooch on Sunday like there was at last year’s US Open.

If you’re a casual viewer of the game, you might wonder who to watch (at least when CBS decides to focus on them). Here’s a short list of people who are considered favorites:

Tigger: Duh. Let us count the ways that he will win:

1) Everyone’s already giving it to him and looking forward to Oakmont and a second Tiger Slam.

2) He and Lefty have been trading off green jackets and it’s his year. Press photographers love this idea because they can just reuse the green jacket ceremony photos from 2005.

3) It’s the tenth anniversary of his coming-out party. If he’s in contention on Sunday, you’ll hear this mentioned about eight billion times. If he’s not in contention, there will be so many flashbacks to 1997 that you’ll think he is.

4) It’s the first major since Elin announced she was pregnant. This is a positive bit of motivation, unlike last year, when Tigger pressed because it might be the last major his dad would see (which turned out to be the case).

5) He’s coming off a win at Doral, and there’s a very short list of courses he loves more than that one. Augusta is on that list.

6) He’s Tigger. Enough said.

Phil Mickleson: He is the defending champion here. He has won this tournament twice. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that thanks to his mammoth brain fart at the US Open. His problem is that he seems to be reverting to the Old Lefty, winning everywhere except the majors. It’s doubtful that he can keep his streak of three straight years with a major alive. Because of what happened at the Open last year, he’s been dissected by people who write about golf for a living down to the molecular level. He always tends to choke when the scrutiny is on him, and despite a win earlier this year, it’s still happening because he’s combined that win with disappointing results. Expect him to blow his chances on Saturday.

Vijay Singh: His problems with his putter seem to be finally solved. Opened the season with a victory at Kapalua and has been in there week after week. He’s won at Augusta before, and he’s always involved on the weekend in some capacity. It’d be a big surprise not to see him on the first page of the leaderboard on Sunday afternoon. He’s my pick of the Anyone But Tigger Bunch. You don’t bet against the man with more wins after the age of 40 than any golfer in history.

Ernie Els: It looks like he’s finally recovered from his 2005 knee surgery. He’s had good results worldwide this year. His problem is the expectations of the public. He’s been tabbed as a prospective Masters winner since before he won his first US Open. That was thirteen years ago. He’s been close since then, but he’s had problems on the weekend. Either he shoots himself out of it on Sunday, or he shoots himself out of it on Saturday, then scrambles for a great Sunday round that falls short.

Jim Furyk: Almost an answer to a trivia question at this point: who is the Number Two player in the world? He of the quirky swing just doesn’t seem to have luck in the majors, other than his victory at the 2003 US Open. If he finally breaks through with that elusive second major, it’s not going to be here. He’s got the game to cash in at Southern Hills later this year, though. So watch him, but not too closely, otherwise you’re going to miss out.

Geoff Ogilvy: Your reigning US Open champion has been having a good year so far, coming within one match of repeating at the Accenture Match Play. His problem is that too many people are seeing him as a fluke champion due to the multiple self-destructions that occurred at Winged Foot. He’s been trying to overcome that image, but it’s been sitting on his mind, and you can tell. He seems to have lost a little confidence in his swing, especially on his approach shots. He’ll do well here, but not well enough.

Henrik Stenson: Last year, Ogilvy rode his Accenture victory to a major. Can the man Ogilvy lost to in this year’s finals do the same? Maybe, just maybe. The guy’s got a superb all-around game, enough to handle any layout. If anyone can break Europe’s drought in this tournament, it could be him. Watch him when the camera’s on him, though. He’s got one sweet swing. If a Euro wins this, it’s going to be Stenson or one of the next two guys.

Jose Maria Olazabal: HoThayCanYouSee owns two green jackets. He knows how to win on this track, and his game has returned to form after so many years of injuries. He’s got one last run in him. Besides, he’s always fun to watch.

Luke Donald: The Englishman From Chicago has been knocking on the door for the past few years. Was on a roll at the PGA last year until Tigger Happened. Like Stenson, his all-around game has very few flaws. The problem is that he just can’t close. However, his results make him worth a long look.

Sergio Garcia: He’ll be in Georgia, where spitting into a cup is considered an art form.

Adam Scott: He rocketed up the favorites list when he won in Houston last weekend. Everyone remembers how Lefty rode his bitch-slap of the field at the BellSouth last year to a win at Augusta. But he’s under pressure from two directions: 1) proving that he’s truly the Next Great Aussie and 2) proving that his victory at the Players’ a few years ago wasn’t a fluke. He’s a Top 5 player now, and he’s under the same presumption among golf fans that Furyk had when he first reached that level: convince us.

Paul Casey: Everyone’s high on him, but I’m really not that convinced yet. Yeah, he had a great Ryder Cup, so he knows how to act under pressure situations, but he doesn’t have the track record in the majors to crown him just yet. There’s a British Open in his future, though, maybe as soon as this year depending on what psychotic torture test Carnoustie provides this time.

Trevor Immelmann: With the Goose’s descent into hell after blowing the 2005 US Open and Ernie’s injury problems, he’s now the best South African player in the world. However, there’s a gigantic spectre haunting Augusta when it comes to guys from South Africa. It’s that of one player, or rather Player. His major breakthrough will not come here. Watch for him at Southern Hills, though.

Charles Howell III: Call him Thurston, call him Trip, call him a winner after five fallow years of close calls. There may be no golfer on tour right now who’s hotter. It’s great to see the Impossibly Thin One cash in and start shutting people up about unfulfilled potential. However, at the Masters, he tends to choke, big-time. It’s the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd that does him in. He’s from Augusta, it’s been his lifelong dream, etc. This year, though, we have a test case to see if it’s just him: Vaughn Taylor, another Augusta native who’s hothothot right now. If Taylor chokes, then maybe the pressure comes off of Trip. Again, he’s going to win a major sooner or later. Watch him at Oakmont; its layout is perfect for his game.

Now it’s time to make myself look like a complete fool and attempt to predict stuff. If this even comes remotely true, you know that I’m going to be insufferable next Tuesday. So, what does my crystal ball say?

Winner – Tiger Woods

Yes, yes, I know. Doesn’t take much of a crystal ball to predict that. But the feeling is just too strong about this one.

Winning Score – -11
Margin of Victory – Three strokes
Runner-Up – Chris DiMarco

Hey, it happened in 2005. It can happen again this year.

Be sure to enjoy the coverage of the tournament on TV, unless you’re one of the incredibly lucky people who actually got a ticket and can witness this at first hand. I’ll be back for the Players’ Championship next month. Until then, address the ball and follow through.