Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Favorite Week in Golf…

…is Masters week. I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to attend the US Open five times, the PGA Championship twice and the Masters once (I still hope to make it to the British Open someday). Each “Major” has it own character, its own atmosphere. The US Open always seemed extremely serious to me, perhaps because of the rather grim gentlemen in those dark blue USGA blazers who run the event. They take their golf very, very seriously—they even call the event an “examination” of the best players. How fun is that: Let’s all go watch an examination! The golfers seem more on edge right from the first tee the first day.

The PGA? It always seemed like simply an amped-up version of the typical event on the PGA Tour. The fans are more focused on the golf and less on partying perhaps, but it never seemed quite as formal as the US Open. Not quite as much pomp and circumstance. The PGA always seemed a bit underrated in terms of fan interest. I had a great time at both PGAs I attended. The PGA has over the years typically had a more geographically diverse roster of venues as well, although in recent times the US Open has opened up to different courses beside the usual Eastern seaboard based rotation of Baltusrol, Oakmont, etc. If you go way back in time to the 1930’s you can see that the PGA was once played at the course in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I grew up and one my first golf trophy (one of at least two)—Bluemound CC. Gene Sarazen was the winner that year.

Then we come to the Masters. All I could manage to say the first time I stepped foot on Augusta National was WOW! The best way I can describe the Masters is that it is as though a kindly old, and extremely wealthy, gentleman has invited you to his magnificent estate, and offered you the most gracious hospitality imaginable. All that he asks is that you behave with dignity and don’t litter the grounds. In fact they have a small army of custodial workers who pick up everything but the fallen leaves from the dogwood trees.

My Augusta adventure began inauspiciously because my secretary had booked me into a really horrible hotel in a small town not far from Augusta, the kind of dump where you can’t quite place the odor embedded in the carpet and the locks on the doors look they might fall off any minute. I ventured to the diner across the street from the hotel, and when they served me chicken fried steak with “mystery gravy” about the consistency of the paste we used in middle school art class, I decided to get back on the road and find another hotel. This wasn’t the elegant Masters experience I had in mind.

The closest I could get was a place in Columbia, South Carolina, but the accommodations and food were much better. That worked out fine except for the long commute across the Georgia border and over to Augusta National.

So late Tuesday afternoon I found myself walking the hallowed grounds of Augusta. The practice round was over for the day and I walked the back nine pretty much by myself, encountering only the occasional groundskeeper putting the finishing touches on the verdant masterpiece. That was an incredible experience, so thrilling it is still fresh in my mind years later—and that was before the tournament even started. So you can imagine how exciting it was on Thursday when the tournament actually began.

Experiencing that magnificent course, where all those legends were made, was as memorable as any of the golf I watched that week. It finally occurred to me after the tournament was over on Sunday, and the crowds began to leave, that Augusta National is the star of her own show each year, and unlike some of the Hollywood stars, her radiance never fades. She draws the crowds, just as much as the golfers themselves.

That’s why Masters week is my favorite week in golf.

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