Up to Par: Recalling the shots

Golf Digest contributing editor reflects on ‘more trips to the Masters than any man deserves.’

When friends learn you’ve been lucky enough to attend the Masters, they tend to tell you about it, even if they’ve never been.

“The grass….no weeds, right?”

“Much hillier than you can see on television, right?”

“How about those pimento cheese sandwiches? You’ve had a few I bet?”

But after 25 Masters, without benefit of a single pimento cheese sandwich, thank you, the moments that resonate are different – small moments sometimes, but great players always.

It was a Friday in 1997, the year that a 21-year-old named Tiger Woods would break out, when I stood on the fourth tee, far away from Woods’ massive gallery, watching another player who had won young at Augusta 17 years before: Seve Ballesteros. Seve had had a poor first round and would need a great one to make the cut. Waiting for the group in front, his playing companions and their caddies chatting and laughing, Seve did something I’d never seen a player on No. 4 do. He walked 20 yards to the very front of the tee box, and looking through cupped hands, stared at the green 200 yards away. The pin that day was front left, I think, on the little extension of the green between the bunkers, a tongue that the difficult fourth sticks out at the greatest players in the world. He was studying putts. Here was a two-time Masters champion, a Hall of Fame member, still trying to find an edge. It was so Seve, of course, but for me, it was all about the Masters, too – how even the greatest players want desperately to be part of its weekend.

I love hanging out on the front – I’m sorry, first – nine. It’s less crowded and includes, from No. 3 to No. 7, a collection of the most amazing and difficult greens in the world. I always figured that if you watched players navigate those holes, you had a sense of who would survive. Back when they didn’t televise that side of the course, it was my way of knowing how things might play out over the weekend. The fifth, Magnolia, is my favorite. Forget the length they’ve added this year; its amazing green will always be its defense. Imagine the most cluttered, clothes-strewn dorm room floor you’ve ever seen. Now lay over it the smoothest, most perfect grass in the world. Now putt.

Being contrary in other things as well, Monday has always been my favorite day at the Masters, a day when you can get close to players who generally have their guards down. One Monday, a friend and I followed Jose Maria Olazabal on the front nine as he played a relaxed but spirited match against Miguel Angel Jimenez. Ollie was clearly winning and in great spirits. (Commentators will go on and on about the importance of ball striking at the Masters, but I always thought mood was almost as much of a factor. Ornery doesn’t get you very far at Augusta). At the end of the day, my friend said, “Well, who are you picking?” I deferred to colleagues at Golf Digest who were much closer to the players, but couldn’t help adding: “Maybe it’s only because we followed him today, but Olazabal really seems to be playing well.” It was 1999. Six days later, Ollie won his second green jacket.

The Par 3? Not a huge fan anymore. As my son would say, “way too people-y” over there. I fondly remember the days, though, when you could walk across the sandy parking area to a tiny ticket booth, pay $15 for a ticket to Par 3. It was $10 on Monday or Tuesday to watch all the golf you wanted. When Tiger arrived, that had to end. After tickets became limited, I invited a friend and business colleague to attend on a Monday. I think he felt a bit insulted, and said he’d rather see the real competition. He missed Ollie that day, and I don’t think ever made it to the Masters.

I’m blessed to have seen Sam Snead hit his last Thursday tee shot in 2002, just a month before he died, and to have seen Seve and Jack and Tiger, and to have overheard some of the greatest sports writers in the world – Dan Jenkins, Furman Bisher, Dave Anderson, Dave Kindred, John Hopkins, among many others – talk about them in every accent under the sun.

Which reminds me of my most memorable Masters, in 1988. Through the great Glasgow writer John Huggan, who worked at Golf Digest then, I’d gotten to know some of the folks around Sandy Lyle, liked him a lot, and was rooting hard for him to win when he led by two going into the final round that year. After 10 holes on Sunday he’d extended his lead to three over Mark Calcavecchia and Craig Stadler. Things looked good. Which they often do at Augusta when a nightmare ensues. Lyle bogeyed No. 11, put a ball in Rae’s Creek at 12, making double, and looked so stunned and lost that, as with most players over the years who have done what he had just done, appeared to be finished. Calcavecchia, ahead, birdied No. 13 to take the lead – for good, most of us thought.

There are no “fans” at the Masters, they tell you, but from the moment Lyle’s ball went into the water on 12, the gallery revealed itself to be resoundingly American. For those of us pulling for Lyle, and for Sandy himself, the tournament had become an away game at Duke. Nevertheless, he fought back, and fought back again. He birdied 13, missed both an eagle chip and the comeback birdie attempt at 15, then birdied the 16th to tie the lead. Calcavecchia was in at -5. Standing on the final tee, Lyle needed a par to force a playoff. Which was when, miscalculating, he drove his 1-iron into the fairway bunker from which reaching the green is a rarity. You know the rest. He hit the most beautiful 7-iron over that lip, made the ten-foot birdie putt that followed, and won. It remains the grittiest six holes I’ve ever witnessed.

Pretty serious stuff sometimes, the Masters, but not always. One Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago, standing in the sunshine near the 12th tee, I heard this conversation, recalled in its entirety, between two green-jacketed Augusta members overseeing something or other and talking about another sport.

“You got one in the ‘Duhby’ this year?”

Long pause.

“Nope.”

“Well, gawsh, you didn’t a have one in the ‘Duhby’ last year!”

“Nope.”

End of conversation.

Only at the Masters.

  • ­Bob Carney is Communications Director of the Connecticut State Golf Association, a Contributing Editor at Golf Digest, and a longtime fan of the Masters.

CORRECTION:

In the print version of the March/April 2019 issue, Lake Oconee Living mistakenly attributed the illustrations accompanying this story to another artist. These illustrations were created by Lee Heffernan. We regret the error.

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