Welcome back, golf.
This is the week the sport blooms again, although seven days later than usual because the arbiter of the athletic calendar-television-said so. No matter that Tom Watson has won $146,966 since January, or that nine other pros have earned at least $64,000 each.
No matter that hackers and hustlers in the Sun Belt never stop belting balls, although Christmas morning does bring a few off the fairways. Everything before this week either has been training or anticipation. Deane Beman was right-his TPC is the toughest test in golf.
But golf each year begins with the Masters.
The Masters is arguably the one time all golf stops to reconsider itself-where it has come from, where it is, where it is going. It might be a time to pose one reasonably steady 90-shotter's idea for making the game more pleasurable-at every level.
The scared turf of Augusta National-and every other course beyond the par-27 pitch-and-putts-needs a wailer's wall, one private place on each nine where a golfer can escape for a few moments and, bluntly, raise a little hell.
No other sport attacks the mind with such passion. No other sport has fewer alibis. Hogan calls golfers "the dogged victims of inexorable fate." A colleague, Ben Gieser, calls golf "a devil's game."
Surely, no other sport builds so many Three Mile Islands in our minds-and then offers no safety valves. Baseball and basketball, bowling, auto racing and even tannis encourage public tantrums. Football allows the players to vent their anger on each other. Hockey gives them weapons.
Only golf and politics, as Mr. Muskie discovered, penalize open emotion. Minor-league cussing, a thrown club, or one simply tossed a few yards, brands the public-course and country-club player a social outcast, unfit for civilized company.
The touring pro gets fined.
The going rate in the PGA for a flipped wedge is $150 to $200. So, said Larry Ziegler, whose temper rages as wildly as anyone's on tour, "we look around, see if any of the officials are looking, and quickly slam a club into the turf."
Tom Weiskofp is said to get remarkable distance everywhere on the course, above and below ground. Ziegler once was fined "for threatening a guy I was playing with," perhaps the ultimate in professional exasperation.
Has anyone ever played with someone who did not seem desperately in need of at least a mild blowoff sometime when shot after shot went sour?
In Pennsylvania, I once played with a man slightly longer than a one-iron and slightly wider than a tee who seed the ultimate in self-restraint. He could not have been as consistently terrible as he was that day, and yet he would mutter only, "Oh, dear," and cheerily chase each misdirected shot.
The "Oh, dears" must have exceeded 150. But there were reasons for his outward good humor. The course was devloped and run on a religious theme. It is closed on Sundays and is undoubtedly the only course in the world where a pond is called "The Sea of Gallilee," a stream is known as "The River Jordan" and scripture greets one at the 17th tee.
So players learn to control tempers more than slices there in any circumstances, not quite certain what will follow a loud cry toward the heavens. Also, I later learned that the master of the "Oh, dear" had been a preacher.
Mental pressure should not be eliminated from golf. There must be a negative, after all, something to counter the lush surroundings, generally agreeable company and the fact that nobody gets hurt.
But must the pressure be never ending? Must it beat on you like a three-wood during those times when every tee shot finds a divot, and every three-foot putt avoids the cup?
These wailer's walls need not be elaborate, merely a few boards set off behind a green where on could bury a club in peace. Or send it upward, toward the gods of golf. The USGA, in a fit of compassion, might also allow for a 15th club in our bags-an anger-iron, to be struck against anything but humans and a golf ball.
Northwest Park, the most diabolical-and alluring-public course in the area, should offer wailer's walls just after the fifth hole and just after the 13th hole. Anyone who has needed a cannon to reach No. 2, a cannon to reach No. 4 and a cannon to reach No. 5 frequently is tempted to turn the cannon on himself.
With the white tees pushed back to the limit at No. 13, unseen hecklers seem to gather near the top of each backswing and scream: "Betcha can't make bogey." When that two-footer for five rims the cup, they yell: "Told ya so." Even the saints would seethe.
Augusta National has two dandy locations, just after the fifth hole and just after the 12th. It will not be unusual for even the masters this week to make a bogey no No. 4-and then make another bogey when they misjudge their second shot and three-putt No. 5.
Holes 10 throug 12 on the back side are wicked, especially in the wind. And there is an out-of-the-way spot to the side of the 13th tee where a man could have a wonderful-and wonderfully private-mad and return refreshed to the attack.
So what if tradition argues against that sort of respite. So what is Bobby and Cliff failed to think of it. They should have. CAPTION: Picture, Bob Byman, left, and Jack Nicklaus point out possible pin locations as they practice for Masters at Augusta National. AP; Illustration, no caption