Hawk's Nest: 10 reasons why we love the Masters

By John HawkinsMarch 31, 2014, 2:45 pm

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.

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”