As a sporting connoisseur, there aren’t many major sporting events that I won’t watch, or at least pay attention to. Even if I’m not a big fan of the sport itself, the biggest fixtures on their calendar always bring with it a sense of importance and intrigue. I’m not a massive snooker fan, but I’ll watch bits of the World Championship and follow it closely. I, like almost everyone else in Britain, can’t really claim to be a tennis fan but I’ll watch Wimbledon every year without fail. I’ll even watch parts of things like the London Marathon and the Ashes, even though neither sport is remotely interesting, in my opinion, to watch.
The pinnacle of these one-off must-see sporting events, though, is for a sport I actually enjoy. The Masters golf tournament is one of the four major championships in the year, but there’s so many little traditions and significances that makes it, at least in my eyes, the master of them all. It’s the first of the year, invites an exclusively small number of players to compete and is amongst the most challenging of tournaments to win every year. There’s nothing quite like The Masters in golf, or any other sport either.
I like golf; or rather I play golf and enjoy it when I’m doing well on the course. It’s a game of very specific skill that takes a fair bit of technique and effort to play properly and play well. I think more than that, though, it is a game of psychology. With so much time going by between shots, you have almost too long to mull over that wayward drive, plan your escape route from the bunker or figure out how to make that putt for a birdie. Coping with all of this, especially when the golfing gods seem to be up against you, is the crux of the sport. I think the best thing about golf isn’t just hitting the shots and playing the holes though – it’s about spending time with the people you are golfing with. Being out on course for four hours or so, you have plenty of time to chat with your companions about anything and everything and not just necessarily the sport. If it’s a nice day, golf courses are a fantastic way to get a taste of the outdoors as well. Don’t listen to Mark Twain when he tells you that golf is “A long walk, spoiled”. It may be a long walk, but the game just serves to compliment it.
The Masters typifies all the things that make golf great to me. To start with, if there was one course in the world where I’d like to have a swing through it would undoubtedly be where The Masters is held each year. Augusta National is perhaps the most stunningly beautiful golf course in existence – with the sun almost always shining down on those 140 hectares of heaven in Georgia, USA. The almost fluorescent colour of the grass, the alabaster-white sands of the bunkers and the impossibly vivid flowers around the course make Augusta look artificial – but it is, against all odds, real. It’s the most magnificent setting for any sports event in the world.
But beneath the gorgeous exterior of the course lies a monster. It is consistently one of the hardest golf courses that the pros have to play all year, making them look distinctly average as relatively few of them manage to shoot under par. This makes The Masters something of a lottery each year, as even the game’s best players at the time can make a complete hash of things that leaves them out of contention. There are so many parts on the course that have a reputation of being the devil to a golfer’s chances of winning a major. Amen Corner, including the 11th green, 12th hole and 13th tee – is one of the toughest stretches in golf, with three of the most treacherous holes on the course all in the scope of one grandstand. Golf’s current darling Rory McIlroy knows all too well about this, as a few years ago his form collapsed in the Corner in the last round of the tournament to let a lead of a few strokes evaporate into only a top 15 finish. I’d love to play Augusta National, but I have no doubt in my mind that it would be one of the most challenging experiences of my life as well as one of the most memorable.
The Masters holds such a mystique in golf because of the number of remarkable moments that have taken place on its’ holes over the years. Rory McIlroy’s was a story of failure a few years ago, but there are so many stories of fantastic success as well. Jack Nicklaus winning the tournament at the grand old age of 46 after years of waning success in 1986; Tiger Woods blasting his way on to the golf scene with his win by 12 shots in 1998; Tiger’s chip at the 16th in 2005 and Adam Scott ending years of Australian heartbreak at The Masters by winning last year are some that instantly come to mind. These moments are ingrained in a golf fan’s mind when watching the tournament. They are obviously just as ingrained in the thoughts of the players as well, who walk through this theatre of golf with the weight of history surrounding them in the trees by their side as they bid for success. Some players cope with the pressure and others crumble. There’s no telling whether it will be the serial winners of the game or the newbies that will come out of the weekend with the coveted Green Jacket, awarded to the winner. The Masters never fails to provide a completely different conclusion that is exciting and unexpected.
The competition is always fierce and unpredictable from year to year; there’s only very rarely a time when a golfer walks on to the 18th green knowing that victory is assured. There’s something magical about the way The Masters unfolds in its’ last round that I don’t know if you could comprehend if you haven’t seen it. There’s a saying that nothing in the tournament is settled until the back nine (final nine holes) on Sunday and because I live in the UK, The Masters always concludes late on Sunday night/early on Monday morning – and that just adds to the tension and excitement of things. Going to bed would mean missing the thrilling conclusion, a fact that always weighed heavier on the mind when I was younger and had school the next morning.
Competition might not mean as much if you don’t have anyone to root for, but with golf it’s not too hard to back a horse that you want to go all the way. Whether it’s because they’re from your country, play with a smile on their face, are young or old, or anything else – there’s always someone that you want to win. I always find myself willing on someone’s putts while wishing their competitors find the bunkers or streams on their way to the green. Seeing non-Americans win in four of the last six years against the backdrop of the hooting and hollering crowd made me happy. Even if you aren’t interested in the golf, you can definitely still be interested in the simple tournament that they are playing – with the winner taking it all and the losers left in obscurity.
It’s hard to get the same feeling of playing a sport from just watching it, and I’d concede that golf is often one of the worst examples of this. However, watching The Masters is the finest golfing experience you can have from sitting in an armchair.
As I write this, with only the final round on Sunday to go, Bubba Watson and Jordan Speith are currently in the lead on 5 under par. Watson was the champion two years ago, and Speith is a newcomer of only 20 years old. Seeing these two play out the tournament battling each other hole-for-hole would be exciting enough, but there are also 15 players within five shots of the lead. If Watson or Speith were to both put a ball in one of Augusta’s many streams that lead would instantly fall to three at most. Absolutely anything can happen over 18 holes of golf. Tonight’s Masters finale is shaping up to be just as intense as any other.
I can’t think of a single night of the year where I’d rather devote the last few hours of the day to watching a sporting staple conclude. The Masters is the most beautiful jewel in golf’s crown, and proves its worth not as a fuddy-duddy pass-time but as a true sport that takes both physical and mental endeavour to win.