It’s 20 years since Tiger Woods wowed the world by winning the Masters by miles and turned things upside down: a black man winning a golf tournament in Georgia with a white man on the bag. Hallelujah. It’s hard to exaggerate how important that was to an awful lot of people. And yet it’s still hard to persuade people that golf is a mixed game in every respect, a game for everyone whatever their race, religion or athleticism (or lack of it). Of course, the most fraught mix of all – women and men – is still not entirely resolved everywhere, so golf remains a work in progress. Wouldn’t it be boring if everything were perfect?!
The young Tiger was far from perfect on his opening nine holes at Augusta in 1997 and went out in 40. Maureen, who’d been walking with him, decided that he’d been over-hyped and piddled off to watch someone else. It was not one of her better decisions. Tiger creamed a 2-iron (remember those?) off the 10th tee to set up his first birdie of the tournament and he was off and running, running away from everyone, for the next ten years and more. In the Guardian last Saturday, Richard Williams, himself a master of his craft, recalled that shot as the crucial moment and Tiger agreed in his new book Unprecedented, The Masters and Me, written with Lorne Rubinstein.
I think that was the year there was no floral colour at Augusta – nature is still a law unto itself – and the place stank because of the stuff that had been put down to give the appearance of a little bit of green. Fortunately, TV doesn’t bother with scent but conditions were not easy and one of my all-time favourite Tiger shots was his third into the 15th, not sure which round. I think he’d driven into the trees and had to poke the ball out, so he had a very tricky pitch from a severe downhill lie, off a less than perfect surface, over the water to that hideously tilted green. He caught the ball just right and because of the slope he ended on one leg and you knew from the way he held the pose that he loved the shot.
When asked about it afterwards, he couldn’t disguise his delight, dropped his dead bat responses and enthused with the passion of a man who just loves what he does (facing the press excepted!) The one sure way to get Tiger to take off his mask was to ask about a particular shot and then he couldn’t help himself: he’d forget the sarcasm and the suspicion and reveal a bit of the person.
Tiger may or may not be at Augusta this year. Let’s hope he goes to the champions’ dinner and enjoys the chat and the camaraderie, promotes the book and celebrates his past triumphs, despite yearning to be out there competing. The sneaking suspicion is that his body has had it, that he can no longer compete at the top level, no matter how strong his will but who knows? We’ll find out in the fullness of time.
My favourite Masters memories include watching Seve intimidate a rookie rules official at the 10th into giving him a free drop, only for his playing partner Ken Green to wander over and object. Michael Bonallack, then secretary of the R&A and a rules man of some authority, was summoned, ambled across the fairway, barely paused in his stride, took one look, said, “Play it Seve,” and carried on. Seve played it.
Then there was the clandestine little ceremony, further into the trees a little nearer the 10th green, as we scattered a friend’s ashes in a lovely spot framed by dogwood, with a good view of the green and some glorious azaleas (the weather had been kind that year and the place was blooming). Officially, we were not allowed to do such a thing but who knows how many people are dotted about a very special place, enjoying the peace and quiet, interrupted only for a few, heady days every April?
I’ve played Augusta National only once and made two pars, at the 3rd and the 16th, which was better than I expected and probably more than I deserved. The greens, even at pre-tournament speeds and with advice from a local caddy, were not for the technically challenged! We also played the par 3 course, which was delightful and had lunch in the clubhouse. Eternal thanks to Billy Morris, who was our host.
John Redmond, who worked for the Irish Press, now defunct, was less fortunate. On his only trip to the Masters, he did have the luck to be drawn out of the hat to play the course on the Monday after the event but it had been manky weather all week and I remember waking up in the middle of the night on Sunday/Monday, hearing the rain hammering down and thinking “Oops”. Sure enough, the course had had enough and Monday’s golf was off. Bummer. Not sure that John ever has had a chance to play.
If you get the chance, do go. It’s not as perfect as it’s painted – how could it be? – but it’s worth the detour.