Roger Angell, the baseball writer who died last year, once described the reappearance of newspaper box scores as a kind of spring flower—a lovely image from a lost time. At least we still have the Masters. Right?
The Masters! The Old South golf tournament where the prices of the pimento cheese sandwiches have been frozen since Ike’s second term, and nothing really changes except the name of the winner.
Does that sound familiar?
The winner, in his green coat. The caddies, climbing up the hill on 18, casting their long shadows late on Sunday afternoon. The fans–quaintly called patrons at Augusta National–lining the course’s emerald fairways in their pink-and-blue finery.
They might as well be carrying signboards for the rest of us: Spring is Officially Here.
And then there is a harsh reality, as if we need any more of it. At least as we enter the tournament, this year will be different. Wars are brewing in golf. Wars, in golf! The last bastion of sporting civility!
This is not what Bob wanted.
Bobby Jones, a great amateur golfer from a hundred years ago, created the Masters in his own image. He wanted the tournament to celebrate spring, golfing camaraderie, and the co-mingling of amateurs and professionals. A show for fans.
From its founding in 1934 through 2022, the tournament was all those things. It was Arnold throwing a visor in victory, Big Jack stalking on a dozen Sunday afternoons, and all that relentless brilliance from Tiger Woods. It was golf in all its gentlemanly grace.
But this year, as we anticipate the ceremonial first shots played by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tom Watson early Thursday morning, the game is trapped in a chaotic swirl. A new competing golf league, LIV Golf, has dropped about billions into the professional game through its Saudi backers. If MBS’s goal here was chaos, it worked. A couple of hundred pros, wrapped in their polyester Tourwear, have been scurrying about in an unseemly effort to catch these big checks falling from the sky.
Former Masters winners, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, and Sergio Garcia, signed on with LIV Golf for guaranteed millions. On Tuesday night, they’ll be supping at a Champions Dinner with other winners who have pointedly not jumped ship from the PGA Tour, including Tiger Woods, defending champion Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, and Hideki Matsuyama among them.
That group is holding on to professional golf’s most fundamental economic value: no guaranteed anything. Keep what you kill.
That is just one foundational difference between the two leagues, and the golfers aligned with each one. Golf doesn’t do conflict well because it has so little practice at it. But more conflict is coming.
The USGA and the R&A, golf’s two global governing bodies, are floating the concept of a tournament ball that would go marginally shorter than the existing ball. It makes all the sense in the world (to this reporter), but the manufacturers, most especially Titleist, will likely fight this proposal as they sell distance. The professional golfers who have contracts with Titleist will likely do the same.
Let’s not even get into Erica Herman, Tiger’s former girlfriend, and the lawsuit she filed against Tiger, seeking to get out of her non-disclosure agreement. It’s all messy, tawdry, not-at-all golfy.
And yet I have the feeling that by the time the tournament starts with Messrs. Nicklaus, Player, and Watson on the first tee, all will be forgotten, at least temporarily, and the tournament will take its rightful place on millions of TV sets across the country and the world.
That’s because, in the end, the Masters has always been more than a golf tournament. It’s more than a sporting event, more than entertainment. It’s theater. It’s transporting.
Few people understood the Masters more profoundly than the late Frank Chirkinian, who produced the first Masters telecast on CBS in 1956–and then produced 40 more. Chirkinian saw the Augusta National course, with its heaving greens and dark ponds, as a stage. He saw the players upon it as actors. He saw the tournament itself as a play in three acts.
To Chirkinian, the first two rounds of the tournament, on Thursday and Friday, comprised Act I. In this first act, the players and the golf course go courting.
He saw the Saturday round as the second act. The leaderboard takes shape. Backstories are told. The plot thickens.
Chirkinian’s third act was Masters Sunday when we watch to see who will win–and who will die trying. Unscripted theater. Live TV. There’s nothing like it. Golf at its best.
There are no mulligans, foul balls, or second, takes in a tournament like the Masters. Your dimpled golf ball just sits there, sunbathing on a blanket of fresh grass. A player has one chance to get it right. We lean in on the seams of our Barcaloungers. We care because they care.
When a golfer stood over a critical putt, Chirkinian used to tell his announcers to stop talking, and the only sounds we heard at home came from chirping birds in Augusta’s pines. The silence was like a spreading hush in our living rooms, just as a theater grows deadly silent in the denouement of the third act.
So here it is. The Masters. Spring. You can almost smell the Georgia pines through your flat screen. The curtain rises.
Eventually, the curtain will drop again in Sunday’s gloaming, and this moment of golfing chaos will, unfortunately, resume. But in the meantime, as always, we’ll get a four-day break like no other.
Michael Bamberger, a senior writer for the Fire Pit Collective, is the author of new book, The Ball in the Air: A Golfing Adventure.