All this talk about fitness on the PGA Tour – I’m not sure if I’m buying, selling or stuffing another donut down my neck. Steven Bowditch is the latest winner who appears to live just a short iron away from a pastry shop. Along with Kevin Stadler and Patrick Reed, that makes three chunky champs on the so-called flatbelly circuit in the last two months.
Meanwhile, the Dude in the Red Shirt, a workout junkie, has a bulging disk in his back and is questionable for the Masters. It reminds me of when I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, the one year ultra-buff Reggie Jackson sort of played for the Orioles. Jackson was constantly missing games with a pulled hamstring, while Boog Powell, all two tons of him, was out there every day at first base.
So please, don’t tell Bowditch that I think he needs to try a gluten-free diet. He might be a tad heavy, but he also looks strong enough to throw me a couple hundred yards into a rock-filled creek. Besides, if Bowditch can add another 10 pounds, who knows? He might win again.
THE BEST SPORTING event on earth. A tall claim, for sure, but I’ve covered Super Bowls, a World Series, several Final Fours and a few Wimbledons, and from this seat in the press box, nothing compares to the Masters. More than the ultimate golf tournament, it deprioritizes commercial sensibilities to showcase competitive drama and pressure performance with hardly an ounce of compromise.
These days, no other fixture on the athletic landscape can even think about making that statement with a straight face.
Beyond its righteousness, the Masters consistently delivers a product that piques the highest levels of public interest. Among serious golf fans, it is by far and away the king of Monday morning water-cooler buzz. It annually draws a much larger viewing audience than the other three major championships, reeling in perhaps two or three million people who won’t watch 15 minutes of golf the rest of the year.
This enormous mainstream reach is one reason Augusta National rarely deviates from its formula for success – but certainly not the only factor that contributes to the tournament’s popularity. Here are my 10 best explanations as to why the tournament is so beloved, why it has long been an American treasure and will continue to be for decades to come.
10. The club runs the event. Officials from each of the game’s governing bodies serve the Masters in various capacities, but the fellas in green jackets make all the decisions. Tournament policy, competitive parameters, the price of an egg-salad sandwich – no element of the operation is overseen by a non-member. When a bunch of millionaires set aside their egos and pool their minds for a common cause, good things are likely to happen.
9. Timing is (almost) everything. No question, the second-week-in-April slot is oceanfront real estate when it comes to hosting a big golf tournament. Not only does it symbolize the birth of spring for much of the U.S., about eight months have passed since the previous major. Like children right before Christmas, everyone’s champing at the bit.
Another point worth nothing: almost every Tour event ends early Sunday evening, but the Masters optimizes that window as opposed to, say, the NCAA men’s basketball final, which doesn’t begin until after 9 p.m. in the east. Baseball’s postseason games also go until midnight, and let’s face it, you lose a significant portion of your audience when you run that deep into darkness.
8. A tradition unlike … Probably more of an on-site factor than one that affects viewership, the Masters has always enjoyed playing up its rich history. Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner, Wednesday’s Par-3 Contest, Thursday morning’s ceremonial tee shots by the honorary starters – all play a significant role in the tournament’s unmistakable identity. A marketing expert could pontificate for hours on the value of such branding.
7. Location, location, location. It’s the only men’s major played on the same course every year, leading to a familiarity factor (among contestants, patrons and viewers) that cannot be overstated. Only in tennis and auto/horse racing do the biggest events remain stationary. In those sports, the actual competitive ground doesn’t stage the product to the same effect as Augusta National.
6. Mystique + Beauty = Appeal. Nobody does “less is more” better than the green-jackets. You only get to see the place for one week each year, and because it’s so aesthetically stunning, it assumes a heaven-on-earth type of quality. That same mentality transfers nicely to the operation of the Masters. Decisions are made in secrecy, details can be scarce, and very rarely do members feel obliged to explain the club’s rationale on such matters. The less we all know, the sexier it can actually appear.
5. Strong bladder required. With virtually no commercial interruptions from 5 p.m. on, the Masters stands alone in its commitment to Joe Sixpack. The viewer at home is made to feel every bit as important as the spectators on the course. Moreover, the televisual presentation is controlled by the club to the point where the Masters looks and sounds like no other golf tournament. It really is all about the golf. Easier said than done, so to speak.
4. Mashed potatoes? Fat chance, bro. Long regarded as the toughest ticket in sports, the Masters is played in a controlled but enthusiastic environment where the patrons know how behave. It’s not quite yahoo-free, but it’s pretty damn close, as the club has remained both obsessive and extremely protective about its method of ticket distribution over the years.
Loudest roar I’ve ever heard on a golf course? Final round in 1998, when Jack Nicklaus, who was only 58 years old at the time, had gotten three or four holes into a ridiculous front-nine charge. It’s not quite the tea-and-crumpets crowd you might think. These folks love their little white ball.
3. The second nine. A better collection of golf holes simply does not exist, but on Sunday afternoon, that brilliant layout becomes a cathedral of magic. Stuff happens. Higher powers intervene. Echoes reverberate through the Georgia pines, and champions emerge amid a fresh batch of memories. The 12th hole might be the best par 3 ever built; it is immediately followed by the best par 5 on the planet.
Every hole can play a starring role, although one might deduce that the 11th, 16th and 18th have produced the most history. Risk vs. reward, guile vs. glory, man vs. the moment. The Masters doesn’t actually start on the back nine Sunday, but it has always been a real good place to floor the gas pedal.
2. Storylines galore. A bit of a companion to the previous item, I’ll admit, but think about it. So many things could have happened to prevent Jack Nicklaus from winning his sixth Masters in 1986, but from Seve Ballesteros (at the 15th) to Tom Kite and Greg Norman on the final hole, it all fell into perfect place. Larry Mize with the impossible chip a year later. Fred Couples’ ball doesn’t trickle into the water at the 12th in 1992 …
Phil Mickelson in 2004. Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Angel Cabrera’s drive caroms out of the woods in 2009, but he falls in a playoff to Adam Scott last year. At Augusta National, truth and fiction often become indistinguishable. We call it theatre.
1. Icons rule. The three most influential golfers of the last 60 years are Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Their combined total of 14 victories speaks volumes in regard to the tournament’s unparalleled credibility, making Augusta National the place where the best who ever lived come to prove it. Palmer’s dynamic presence was most clearly defined by his Masters triumphs. Nicklaus turned back time in perhaps the greatest major ever played and raised the bar to a height where it remains untouched.
Woods will likely continue his quest to clear that bar next week, but regardless of where the future takes him, his 12-stroke victory in 1997 launched the most powerful display of dominance the game has ever seen. Great things don’t always happen at the little ballyard in Georgia, but they do happen there more often than anywhere else.
I’LL ADMIT TO having a pretty good laugh when I saw Pat Perez and Kevin Na grouped together (with Daniel Summerhays) in the final round of the Valero Texas Open. Perez, as you’ve surely noted, has a reputation as one of the Tour’s quickest and most emotionally demonstrative players, although he clearly has turned down the dial on his temper in recent years.
“Calmer because I know where the ball is going,” he texted me Sunday night. “I finally understand the laws of ball flight.”
As for Na, he is slow and a bit bratty on occasion, which led to my amusement regarding his playing with Perez. I am happy to report, however, that the two men completed 18 holes without incident; although, neither played well (a combined 9 over) in the second-to-last group and were out of contention early into the back nine.
So I just had to ask: Did Na drive Perez nuts?
“He is getting better,” came the report. “At least he tries. That [Tour rookie Andrew] Loupe is the worst I’ve seen.”
Just what pro golf needs: another guy who hits it 325 off the tee, then takes 12 practice swings with a wedge. But enough on that. I’ve known Perez for about 12 years, since he burst onto the scene in 2002 and almost won at Pebble Beach in the fourth start of his own rookie season – and produced more buzz for slamming his club and cussing than he did for finishing solo second.
Golf Digest sent me to the Canadian Open later that year to do a story on the guy, and as I recall, that first half-hour with Perez was unusually awkward. He was so abrupt and forthcoming with his opinions that I had to ask him several times if he was serious.
We did the interview while he played a practice round by himself at Angus Glen GC. At one point, Perez stepped into a bunker 6 or 7 feet below the putting surface and parked a half-dozen consecutive sand shots within 2 feet of a pin he couldn’t possibly see. At that point, I realized that it wouldn’t be a lack of talent that stood between Perez and stardom.
Stardom is still waiting, although Perez is quietly having a very good 2014, so to speak, finishing T-2 at Torrey Pines in addition to five other top-20s. He attributes his work with TrackMan expert Joe Mayo, something of a golf-swing physicist, for the improvement, which I found intriguing, so I asked if we could end the texting and actually talk on the phone for a few minutes.
“Just sat down for dinner,” Perez responded. “Call ya after.”
Stardom isn’t the only one still waiting.