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."
As peerless as the gifted Tiger Woods may be today, one can still make a solid argument that no golfer has dominated his era more completely than Jones did. In 1930, he became the first and only player to win all four major championships in the same year (he captured the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateur; since then, the PGA Championship and the Masters have replaced the two amateur tournaments as majors). When Jones accomplished this extraordinary feat, a deft sportswriter christened it the "Grand Slam." (Another, less artfully, declared it the "Impregnable Quadrilateral.") Between 1923 and 1930, Jones won 13 of the 21 majors in which he competed. His main rivals, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen, never won any U.S. or British Open in which he played. And most astonishingly, Jones did all this as an amateur, spending only about 3 months a year traveling to and playing in tournaments.
After winning the Grand Slam, Jones retired from competitive golf at the age of 28, perhaps feeling he had nothing left to prove. Unlike most of today's pro golfers, he had a life beyond the sport. Jones was a prominent Atlanta attorney. He had a degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, and also earned an A.B. in English literature from Harvard for good measure--back when an English degree from Harvard still meant something. He then proceeded to pass the bar exam after just one year at Emory Law School.
But Jones still managed to contribute to the game he loved. Besides helping create the Masters, he filmed a series of groundbreaking instructional films for Warner Brothers in the early 1930s, designed the first matched set of steel-shaft clubs for Spalding, and wrote several classic instruction books. A weekend duffer seeking to improve his game could do a lot worse than watch Jones's films, which are now available on videotape. Jones's golf swing, though perhaps not technically ideal by today's standards, was a thing of grace and beauty, and his books, also still available, are superior to 90 percent of the golf books now cluttering store shelves.
"As a young man, he was able to stand up to just about the best that life can offer, which is not easy," wrote the New Yorker's Herbert Warren Wind, "and later he stood up with equal grace to just about the worst." The worst, in Jones's case, was a rare spinal and nerve disorder called syringomyelia, a crippling disease that made the last two decades of his life a gradual and painful descent into paralysis and death. According to another famous (and perhaps apocryphal) story, when asked late in his life how he coped with the disease, Jones replied stoically, "We all have to play the ball as it lies."
As Jack Nicklaus, Jones's successor in the pantheon of golfing greats, once put it, "The essence of the man might well have been that he embodied the spirit of golf more than anyone who ever played the game." You could say the same thing about the wonderful tournament he created. Throughout its history the Masters has exemplified careful change guided by a deep reverence for tradition--which, in a sporting world increasingly characterized by crass vulgarity, is the essence of golf's greatness. That's why I'll be glued to the TV this weekend, and if I'm lucky, I'll manage somehow to finish my 1040s by Monday, too.
Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.