Mastering the Majors, round one. The Masters.
Golf goes viral or at least mildly contagious four times a year, when a Major Championship is under way. Inside the clubhouse, golfers stop talking about their own never-ups and downs for a few days, and move on to the subject of Lee Westwood’s putting and Peter Alliss’s latest hilarious bon mot.
Outside, in the real world, golfers can show off their knowledge without fear of being considered a bore. Ian Poulter’s trousers, Darren Clarke’s tobacco and Bubba Watson’s menu choices take on new fascination, and anyone claiming to know about them may be invited to speak at fashionable social events.
The Majors are the four championships universally acknowledged to be more important than all the others that go on all over the world week after week; year in, year out. Instead of playing in separate tournaments in order to win more often and maximise their income, all the best players come together for the Majors, and Major wins measure the lasting stature of a golfer, much to the annoyance of Colin Montgomerie who won everything else but for some reason never quite closed the deal at a Major. Golf being what it is, a game of chance, this is just bad luck, but journalists and armchair champions enjoy picking through the deep character flaws revealed by not winning. The Majors are all held in America or Great Britain, the ratio of 3 to 1 in favour of America symbolising the special relationship.
The Majors all take the same rather dull form: 72 holes of grinding strokeplay, over four days from Thursday to Sunday. At the half way stage competitors who are too far off the lead to have any hope of winning are allowed to give up and enjoy their weekend by a process known as ‘The Cut’, leaving the rest to struggle on until the marathon finishes on Sunday evening.
Extra holes must be played in the event of a tie, arrangements for the ‘play-off’ varying from one Major to another. This might sound the most exciting possible outcome, but in fact nobody likes a play-off. The result is usually an anti-climax, because one player has taken drink on the assumption that defeat or victory was in the bag before the other player missed a short putt or holed out from a bunker. The play-off mucks up TV schedules, wrecks budgets and ruins commentators’ travel arrangements. Everyone gets distinctly tetchy, and the player who takes the blame for the play-off attracts harsh criticism for fluking or choking.
Spring is in the air – in Georgia it is, anyway – when the sporting year kicks off in early April for the first Major, The Masters, which is unique in being the only Major not to have been nearly won by Colin Montgomerie. It is also the only Major that always happens in the same place: Augusta, a country club for rich conservatives near Atlanta, when the azaleas are out. This makes great television and the best possible publicity for a club which has not the slightest intention of admitting visitors.
“Look,” Warren Buffett and his fellow members seem to be saying to us hapless outsiders, “and see how beautiful our club is. Wouldn’t you just love to come and play a round of golf here? No you can’t.” For all they know, we might be black or gay or female or in favour of gun control.
Equal rights is a popular topic around the time of the Masters, and committee members at places like the Royal & Ancient and Muirfield keep their heads down while the Honorable Company of Atlanta Rednecks fields the flak. Never let it be said that they fail to move with the times. Why, they gave up insisting that all players must be white and all caddies black as long ago as 1982, and cleverly elected a token black member before Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods came along to claim honorary membership (by winning the Masters). After much angry debate, they have recently bowed to the shrill voice of women’s journalism by admitting two lady members of proven conservative credentials. By virtue of gender and skin colour, Condoleezza Rice is a double-headed token, a win win for Augusta.
Impress your friends with your knowledge of Augusta’s annual Champions Dinner, where the champion chooses the menu. In a Desert Island Dishes format, he reveals himself through his choice of food. The Champions Dinner hit the headlines when Tiger Woods won his first Masters soon after his first outing in long trousers, prompting a former champion and gourmet to say ‘please God, not KFC.’ Of course this was meant in a respectful, good natured and not remotely racist way. It just happened to be misinterpreted as racist by those who heard and gleefully reported it. Woods showed his maturity by choosing something quite different. Play the Champions Dinner game, by matching the menu choices to the golfer.
A Leek soup; B shepherd’s pie; C caribou; D cheeseburger and strawberry milkshake; E wienerschnitzel; F haggis. G fish & chips and The Daily Mirror
1 Tiger Woods; 2 Bernhard Langer; 3 Nick Faldo; 4 Sandy Lyle; 5 Nick Faldo (again); 6 Mike Weir (clue: he’s from Canada); 7 Ian Woosnam
There have been many fine shots played at the Masters, but none to eclipse Gene Sarazen’s albatross in 1935 – a 4-wood from 235 yards. This masterfluke forced a 36 hole play off the next day, and if anything like it ever happened again, the commentary team would want to know why.
Sandy Lyle also played a good bunker shot en route for victory, but most spectators derive more pleasure from disasters, finding consolation in the miserable Masters experiences of Greg Norman and other collapsibles.
Duffers the world over celebrate former champion Billy Casper’s round of 106 shots in 2005. This would have been officially the worst ever Masters round had Casper not torn up the card and headed for the airport in disgust. Many of his fellow professionals would have walked in after taking 14 at the 16th, if not before.
The most exciting bit of the Masters is Amen Corner, a title attributed to the famous golf writer Herbert Windbag, who had the brilliant idea of naming the most difficult part of the course after a dangerous crossroads in Tooting. The crux of Amen Corner is the short 12th, a lake hole where Tom Weiskopf once reduced his caddie’s load by half a pound and raised the water level by several millimetres in running up a 13. There but for the grace …. Amen.
When the Masters finally ends, the old champion invests the new champion with a dark green member’s jacket. Question: how does Augusta know what size to make the jacket when a big fat golfer is coming up the last hole tied for the lead with a pipsqueak of Gary Player dimensions. Answer: Augusta has 300 members, and there is bound to be one whose jacket fits.
And how does the investiture take place when the champion successfully defends his title? Jack Nicklaus managed to invest himself by taking his jacket off, putting it back on again and shaking his hand vigorously as if desperate for a large scotch. In the same situation Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods got a club official to be Jeeves.
(Answers: A7; B3; C6; D1; E2; F4; G5)