If you don’t have a personal demon to exorcise, as Phil Mickelson did when he brought his 0-for-46 streak in major championships to Augusta in 2004, or a career-long quest to complete, as Adam Scott did in 2013 when he ended decades of frustration for Australian players, then you may not have the extra emotional gear to earn a green jacket.
When Mickelson finally won that first major title, he leaped in the air and landed in a goofy squat like a 6-foot-3 frog prince. Then he smooched his wife, scooped up a child and loudly told his whole interior truth: “Daddy won! Can you believe it?"
In golf, a globe-hopping circus in which the same 150 competitors see one another many weeks a year, the whole field knows all the story lines — who is in disfavor with the gods, who has their blessing.
The two greatest Masters in my time, 1986 and 2019, reached their pinnacle not because of the golf, splendid as it was, but because of a common theme. The two greatest careers ever, of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, were considered finished — not by a season or two but by perhaps five years.
Yet, at 46, Nicklaus won his sixth Masters, shooting a final-round 65. The last hour, he cried between shots “four or five times” from joy at the cheers and from his rare lust for fun in competition. Woods, at 43, won his fifth Masters with the shattered body of a 60-year-old, a swing rebuilt four times and a personality in at least its third configuration.
Such 600-page narratives take decades to build. Sometimes those story lines we tell ourselves — and that the whole golf world comes to know — arrive with extra and burdensome weight, too.
Greg Norman, who never won a major tournament in the United States, stands for them all. Before the Great White Shark blew his six-shot lead on the final day of the 1996 Masters, he already was the most star-crossed of golf’s top players. How much do 331 weeks as the world’s top-ranked player matter when you have seen three or four major championships swiped from you by ridiculously wonderful — but, let’s face it, fluky — shots?
On the first hole that Sunday in 1996, as Norman stood over a six-foot par putt, a fire engine went past, then a bird started squawking and, finally, a jet went over.
“Is that a mockingbird?” I asked Dan Jenkins as we stood by the ropes.
Norman missed the putt.
“It is now,” Dan said.
By the time Nick Faldo won, beating Norman head-to-head by 11 shots in the final round for his third Masters championship, he spoke for millions when he told Norman: “I don’t know what to say. I just want to give you a hug.”
A course in advanced psych
Masters memories, dogwood- and magnolia-scented or not, should never deny the ratio by which pain always predominates. Blame Bobby Jones. The greatest player of his time, with degrees in law, literature and engineering, Jones built his masterpiece golf course with architect Alister MacKenzie so it would maximize both cheers and tears.
“Bobby Jones has won every Masters,” players say, with awe and respect but maybe with some resentment, too.
Every hole has razor’s-edge decisions. One size never fits all. Can you, at this instant, execute this precise high-risk, high-reward shot under these conditions in your current state of mind and position on the leader board? Or is this the time to aim away from the flag and the trouble? Over and over, golfers must decide, “Go or no?” And to win, many a successful “Go” is required.
And that’s just to get to the greens, which seem to be mastodon graveyards covered with ice.
In 1978, my first Masters, Hubert Green, the reigning U.S. Open champion, missed a three-foot birdie putt on the last hole to blow a chance to meet Gary Player in a playoff. Much later, three scribes saw Green walking back alone in the dusk to the 18th green with one ball and his putter.
“Got to know,” he explained. “Did I misread it or mis-hit it?”
The former was forgivable; the latter would be haunting.
Green then did his ritual and drained the putt.
“Mis-hit it,” he murmured.
Ever since, I have remembered that as the Masters Moment, repeated annually: “I’ve got to know.”
Know the truth, that is, about yourself as the world watches.
Eleven years later, on a rainy day, I watched the playoff between Faldo and quality journeyman Scott Hoch.
Hoch, with a tap-in to win, backed away from his putt. “Jesus, hit it,” begged Ben Crenshaw, standing next to me in the clubhouse. As Hoch continued to circle and pace, Crenshaw put both hands to his face in empathetic fear and said, “Oh, my God.”
Hoch, little known until the world learned his last name rhymes with “choke,” missed the shortest putt that, to this day, ever squandered a major.
“It’s a good thing I don’t carry a gun,” Hoch said afterward. “It’s going to hurt, knowing all … the immortality and all that other stuff that comes with these majors. I’d have been sharing that. Between my brain and my hands, the message got crisscrossed."
Golfers evoke more sympathy from me than other athletes because all the things that break are inside. No one even knows what they are, much less how to fix them.
Four years ago, Jordan Spieth led the Masters by five shots on the 10th tee. He had led or been tied for the lead entering the fourth round of all four majors in 2015, winning the Masters and U.S. Open. Spieth, a slender, strategic artist and putting genius, was cruising toward an almost unimaginably great career.
War has conventions and laws about the limits of cruelty. Golf, unfortunately, does not. As Jones intended, Spieth bogeyed Nos. 10 and 11 to set up a complete nervous-system meltdown of a quadruple-bogey 7 at the deceitful 12th.
As Spieth left the last hole, cameramen jumped in for the close-up.
“Just not in the face, if you guys don’t mind, please,” Spieth said. “Just not right now in the face.”
He was 22 years old.
I’m not sure whether I cried. I know I wondered, “Will he ever be the same?” He hasn’t been, exactly. But he won the 2017 British Open. (Hoorah!)
A big reveal
Almost all golfers, except the very greatest, seem haunted by the ghosts of the players they think they might have been. The most important inches in golf aren’t the divot at impact. It’s the space between your ears, an area that expands to galaxy width on Augusta’s back nine as everything that has ever been said about you — or by your own subconscious — becomes an uninvited playing partner. Watching the ensuing drama — played out in a kaleidoscope of subtle, joyous or infuriated expressions — is a huge part of what makes Sunday at the Masters such fabulous television.
If you haven’t been mocked as dopey for not knowing what day of the week it is like Bubba Watson or shamed for your 40-pound tummy like Craig Stadler or dismissed as a hometown boy with no chance whatsoever like Larry Mize, then you’re probably not going to have the requisite fire in your stomach to finish the job Sunday.
Sometimes being undersold, even insulted, helps you bend a miracle shot out of the pine trees to win a playoff like Watson or ignore a Masters collapse early in your career that left you sitting sobbing in Amen Corner like Stadler or hole a ridiculous 140-foot chip shot in the shadows of Amen Corner to break Norman’s heart (again) like Mize.
After Mize’s chip-in, I passed two locals sitting by a pine tree. They weren’t talking about Augusta-born-and-raised Larry but his dad: “I suspect if old Charlie Mize hadn’t had a heart attack by now, he’s never going to have one.”
No one could enjoy the irony of being an everyman interloper into this shrine of privilege more than Stadler who, when at USC, was told to stop wearing jeans and sandals to play his matches. So he switched to loafers. After he won the 1982 Masters in a playoff, he retold a friend’s gag that when he was leading on the back nine, “some guys in the clubhouse were stitching two green jackets together.”
The Masters’ most glowing element may be the way it spotlights the game’s sportsmanship. In 2013, a steady rain turned to a downpour just as Ángel Cabrera faced a mid-iron shot to the 18th green, needing a birdie to force a playoff with Scott. With the best Masters shot I have seen, he nailed it to 30 inches for a birdie.
On the second playoff hole, Cabrera kept the pressure on with an approach to 15 feet on the tough 10th. Scott, carrying Norman and 50 years’ worth of other fine disappointed Aussie golf stars on his back, drilled his approach to 10 feet.
Cabrera, knowing what the shot meant to a continent, gave a big thumbs-up across the fairway, and Scott gave him one right back. Cabrera missed; Scott made.
The price of mastery
Nicklaus’s win in 1986 always will be my favorite Masters because he let the public and media get to know him, in depth and in his failures. He gave analytical news conferences, and he also would take forever to change his spikes in the locker room while swapping stories with reporters — in a different voice, close to his real voice maybe. He was as admirable and as open as any athlete I have met. That carries weight. The worst 10 moments of any life would shame any of us if made public. But Nicklaus tried to keep his handicap as low as possible there, too.
But Woods, a far more complex subject and man, has given me my most vivid Masters memories, the ones I probably never will stop mulling and reframing.
In his first Masters as a pro in 1997, at 21, he already was the betting favorite. But he shot a 40 on the front nine of the first round. At the ninth, he hooked his drive so far left that it ended up in deep needles in a pine grove, a few feet from me. There was a delay on the green. Woods went into a deep crouch — more than just like a baseball catcher; almost into the fetal position. He put both hands over his hat, encircling his whole head and face in his arms. He stayed there, unmoving for several long minutes, everything pulling inward, until the green cleared.
Then he stood up, shot a 30 on the back nine and won the Masters by 12 strokes.
“I wasn’t the pioneer. Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Teddy Rhodes paved the way,” said Woods, who spoke to Elder on the practice range before the final round. “I was thinking about them and what they’ve done for me as I was coming up the 18th fairway. I said a little prayer and a ‘thanks’ to those guys. They are the ones who did it for me."
Just four years later, the best golf this planet has seen was the Tiger Slam that culminated with the 2001 Masters. I covered three of the four. Nothing I have ever seen approaches that run for dominance of an entire sport. Woods’s level of excellence — built on a lifetime of fanatic, unbalanced, steel-cold glimmering willpower — was a feat that expanded the world’s idea of human possibility. I never expect to see anything as mysteriously powerful up close again. And in hindsight, I am not sure that I would wish it on anyone, either. But great artists, scientists, poets, musicians, generals, magnates and others who deflect history — even if just a little — reside in a place they barely try to explain or share with us. They can’t.
Consider this because I couldn’t get it out of my head at the time: When Woods holed out to win the 2001 Masters, imagine that all five events — the 2000 U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship and 2001 Players Championship (the so-called fifth major) and Masters — were one huge combined event. What would the leader board look like? Of those who played in all five, Woods would lead Ernie Els by 66 shots and Vijay Singh by 59. They’re the best.
When his slam was over, that’s when Tiger started to cry. He pulled his cap over his face, so he could have a few moments of public privacy. Like that moment in the trees beside the ninth fairway four years earlier, Woods showed a hint — not that we understood it well enough then — that he was not an imperturbable young god but a gifted man who had driven himself relentlessly to his very limits, for his own glory of course, but at physical and emotional risk.
“I’ve cried after wins. I’ve cried after defeats. But I’ve never had that feeling before — all day — [of being] so attuned to each and every shot. When you focus so hard, you forget everything else,” Woods said. “Then I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ My emotions started coming out. … And I started losing it a little bit. I put the cap over my face, so when [Mickelson] finished putting out, I could shake his hand.”
Who could imagine that, just a few years later, Woods’s private life, public image, mental health, marriage and reputation could unravel? Who would guess that, just as he regained his form and standing in the game, his overworked, surgery-ravaged vertebrae and knees would betray him until, finally, every part of his golf game disappeared? And he was left with little but a quest to get back — just once, at least — that seemed hopeless, desperate and sad.
Someone remind me whether he made it.
The Masters — nah, we’re not missing much this Sunday. Look back if you wish: There’s plenty to enjoy again. That will have to serve until the next time they open the gates of Magnolia Lane and we return to visit a place where anything might happen — and almost always does.