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Masters and Jones

The Masters really is an event unlike any other. And its patron saint, Bobby Jones, was a gentleman golfer, the likes of which the world may never see again.

12:00 AM, Apr 12, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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EVERYONE HAS AN OPINION about which event truly heralds the arrival of spring--baseball's opening day, the cherry trees blossoming in Washington, Easter Sunday. But for me, and doubtless for golf nuts across the land, it isn't really spring until the Masters golf tournament arrives in mid-April, assuaging the bittersweetness of what T.S. Eliot called "the cruelest month." (Perhaps he foresaw the agony of filing one's taxes at the last minute . . .)

The folks who put on this greatest of golf shows (which began its 66th installment yesterday) have gone to extraordinary--some would say absurd--lengths over the years to give the event a quasi-religious aura. From the deliberate absence of corporate advertising on the course, to the strictly limited commercials and the cliched, dewy soundtrack of the subdued CBS broadcast, to the long-established traditions--the annual champions' dinner, the green sport coat presented to the winner, the pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches devoured by spectators--the Masters is a golf tournament like no other.

Central to the Masters' legendary status is the site of the tournament, Augusta National Golf Club, which has become a shrine for golf fans. The lucky ones make pilgrimages to Georgia to witness the drama of the famous stretch of treacherous holes known as "Amen Corner," and enjoy the sunlight filtering through the dogwood trees to speckle on blooming azaleas and glass-smooth fairways and greens. Built on the sight of what was once the South's largest nursery, Augusta National offers vistas that swell the heart of even the most hardened golf cynic.

Given the tradition-rich nature of the Masters, the golf world is buzzing this year over some changes to the tournament. One welcome change for those of us who will probably never see the Masters in person (they stopped taking names for the ticket waiting list in 1978) is that CBS will finally be allowed to broadcast coverage of all 18 holes during Sunday's final round, instead of just the back nine.

More controversial, though, are the changes made to the course--rather drastic ones, by the conservative standards of Augusta National. A number of holes have been lengthened considerably and altered in other subtle ways, in an attempt to compensate for recent equipment advances that have threatened to make the course obsolete as a challenging layout for a major championship.

Some conspiracy buffs claim this was done solely to thwart the dominance of Tiger Woods. (As the usually sensible former NBA star Charles Barkley ranted in an interview with Sports Illustrated last month, "They're lengthening the course for one reason: to hurt Tiger. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters six damn times, and he was hitting it past everybody else, and they never made a change. What they're doing to Tiger is blatant racism.") These people simply don't know what they're talking about. In fact, lengthening the course makes it even tougher for all the players who lack the length and shot-making ability of Tiger Woods and his most talented rivals, such as Phil Mickelson and David Duval. At any rate, the players themselves seem to approve of the changes, which preserve the course's essential character while restoring some of the old "shot values"--for instance, by bringing back into play bunkers and other hazards that had long ceased to be threats.

Besides these changes, 2002 is significant for the Masters because it also marks the centennial of the birth of Bobby Jones, the golf legend who co-founded the tournament and helped design the course at Augusta National. As mythic sports figures go, Jones is to golf what his contemporary Babe Ruth is to baseball. But unlike Ruth, whose on-field heroics contrasted with his rather sleazy personal life, Jones actually deserved his reputation as a gentleman's gentleman, both on and off the links. The best-known illustration of his integrity was when he insisted--over the objections of rules officials--on giving himself a one-stroke penalty for accidentally moving his ball at address during the 1925 U.S. Open. When praised for his honesty, he replied, "You might as well praise me for not breaking into banks. There is only one way to play this game."