AUGUSTA, Ga. — The three greatest golf tournaments in the world — the British and U.S. Opens and the Masters — have an outsized emotional impact on almost every player. Tournaments they dreamed about since childhood, often feared as adults and where their fondest hopes can be realized or crushed open them up to spontaneous introspection, philosophizing and humor.
As soon as they come into the large, packed press rooms at these majors, they can’t stop talking, telling tales as if these mass gatherings are the one — and perhaps only — place to give an honest picture of who you are. It’s a golf tradition that is as palpable as it is vague — and never mentioned. It just happens.
International players seem to take truth serum before they talk about their chances in the British. Americans tend toward the confessional at every U.S. Open site. But the Masters takes the wonderful cake. Every player, from the tiny to the mighty, from every continent, assembles here each April to blubber, chuckle, commiserate and reveal themselves as if the podium were a psychiatrist’s couch.
Almost invariably, this candor, this release of private pain or pride, the memories of old friends or great golf battles, shows everyone in their best light. If they did it every week, you would change channels — just more pathetic reality TV. But because it is rare and genuine, you await Masters week for the waves of honesty almost as much as the golf. Only examples do justice to the phenomenon.
After shooting the lowest 36-hole score (64-66 — 130) in the history of the Masters on Friday, Jordan Spieth, 21, talked about the thrill of standing ovations at every green and his deep desire, unlike last year when he crumpled on Sunday, to hold himself together emotionally for two more days and “close” like a champion.
But Spieth, who shocks his elders with his maturity, also talked about his 14-year-old sister, Ellie, who has special needs, and how he talks to her every other day and imagines how much she is enjoying watching the TV coverage of his success.
“She’s the funniest person in our family,” he said, smiling thinking of her. “It’s humbling to see her and her friends and the struggles they go through each day that we take for granted, where it seems easy for us and it’s not for them.
“At the same time, they are the happiest people in the world,” he added. “And when I say ‘they,’ I speak to special needs kids. My experience with her and with her friends, it’s fantastic. I love being part of it, helping support it.”
Ernie Els, who stands in seventh place, met Ellie Spieth last week at a PGA Tour event in Houston. “Met her, met Jordan’s parents,” said Els, who has an autistic child. “They have an [emotional] link to autism. Jordan’s a special kid.”
Spieth is also starting to get involved with helping the Els for Autism Foundation.
Players often free-associate from their own past experiences to the challenges facing younger players. Augusta has always driven Els batty. It seems built for him, yet he’s 0 for 20 here. Instead of begrudging Spieth his early success, Els is mentoring him.
“Jordan really learned a lesson here [last year]. He got it. He saw that his [angry] behavior is not befitting him,” Els said. “He’s smart enough he’s already got a handle on it.” Then Els said, “Obviously this game will drive you crazy. Ask me.”
And off Ernie went on a heartfelt description of his 10-year slump here after a brutal loss to Phil Mickelson in 2004. So, Ernie, have you been fighting the aftereffect of that loss for a decade? Such questions are seldom answered. Well, except here. “Definitely, must be,” Els said. “I was trying to wipe it under the carpet that I wanted this one so badly for so many years. You get fed up with yourself.”
On Friday, Ben Crenshaw played his last round at the Masters. Lots of wet eyes. Coincidentally, Els played his first Masters round with Crenshaw. “Ben was so gracious, so nice,” Els said. “He said, ‘You know, you’re going to win this tournament. . . .” The whole room broke up laughing at the irony, including Els.
“It didn’t quite happen,” said Els, 45. “We are kind of running out of time here, so really enjoy what we’ve got left. Nothing lasts forever.”
They should just put a box of Kleenex next to the mike.
Charley Hoffman, a 38-year-old with three tour victories, is so obscure he was given the earliest tee time Thursday, right behind Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, who hit ceremonial drives, then called it a day.
“I actually got Jack and Arnie’s autograph. I was sort of scared. Should I ask them? Should I not ask them?” Hoffman said. “Gary walked away. I thought, ‘I’d better get Jack and Arnie before I lose it all.’ ”
Have a nice conversation? “Oh, no, I got in and out of there as fast as I could,” Hoffman said. “My mind wasn’t really on golf. I was watching those guys.”
So relaxed, oblivious and in possession of a yellow Masters flag with two signatures on it, Hoffman shot the two best rounds of his life, circumstances considered — 67-68. Yes, he’s in second place at the Masters.
No one escapes the floods of emotion here. It’s connected somehow to the huge gaps in age, the sense that the Masters never changes, yet generations come here young, play for decades, then literally return here within sight of the grave. “I can’t believe I’ve played here 44 times,” Crenshaw said. “Shoulda quit long ago.”
But some habits are harder to kick than nicotine.
At the champions dinner here Tuesday night, Palmer, 85, was given an award. He got up to speak and couldn’t, too choked with emotion, perhaps sensing in the moment a kind of lifetime summation he hadn’t quite expected. “You could hear a pin drop,” Nick Faldo said. “One of the most powerful things I ever saw. He said, ‘Jack, help me out.’ Then he just sat down.”
By Thursday morning, the old Big Three were in a much different mood, regaling the press room. “Arnold had the strongest hands I’ve ever seen on a golfer,” Player said. “One time, he comes to South Africa. We go down a gold mine — 8,000 feet down. We’re brought in a room, must be a billion dollars worth of gold in there. They bring out one gold bar that we’ve watched them pouring.
“The [miner] puts it on the table with two hands. He says, about 20 of us there, ‘Anybody that can pick this up can have it.’ Arnie says, ‘Ask him if I can try.’
“I said, ‘I’ve got a friend here from America. Can he try?’
“He goes, ‘Sure.’
“Arnold picks it up,” Player said, indicating an effortless one-handed lift. “Guy’s eyes were this big.
“He says, ‘I only work here.’
“Arnold says, ‘You did work here.’ ”