Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Masters

For golfers, today begins the tournament known as the Masters, one of the four "majors" in the sport and the Holy Grail of American golf. It is the only major to be played at the same venue every year, the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. Some may think of the Masters, and golf in general, as elitist, and maybe at one time that was a fair assessment. The man who demolished that image, and who opened up the sport to blue-collar duffers was the great Arnold Palmer. Arnie walked out of the coal mines of Pennsylvania and reshaped the character of the game, lifting it out of the realm of country club snobbery to the fairways of public golf courses everywhere. Were it not for people like Palmer and the great Jack Nicklaus, who encouraged minorities to take up the game by refusing to play in tournaments where discrimination was practiced, there would be no Tiger Woods today. Homage must also be paid to early African-American players like Charlie Sifford, Calvin Peete and Lee Elder who endured humiliating treatment in their fight to pave the way for those who would follow.

Back to the Masters. One of golf's all-time greats was amateur Bobby Jones. In 1930, Jones won the British Amateur on the Old Course at St. Andrews, the British Open at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England, the U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club in Minneapolis and the U.S. Amateur at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, PA to capture golf's Grand Slam. In 11 of the last 12 Open Championships he played, nine U.S. Opens and three British, he finished first or second. Incredibly, at the age of 28, Jones retired from competitive golf except for playing yearly at the Masters. Jones was far more than a golfer. He earned a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech , then completed a BS degree in English Literature from Harvard. He later entered Emory University to pursue a degree in law, passing the bar exam after his first year of law school.

Looking to provide a service to golf by hosting a tournament, Bobby Jones and his friend Clifford Roberts decided to hold an annual event beginning in 1934. Roberts proposed the event be called the Masters Tournament, but Bobby Jones objected thinking it too presumptuous. The name Augusta National Invitation Tournament was adopted and the title was used for five years until 1939 when Jones relented and the name was officially changed. A mutual friend of Jones and Roberts recommended a 365-acre property called Fruitland Nurseries. Upon seeing the property from what is now the practice putting green, Jones said, "Perfect! And to think this ground has been lying here all these years waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it."

The Masters is a unique event in that is is organized and operated by the private Augusta National Golf Club. The club is not beholden to sponsors, television networks or anybody else. In 2003 a lawsuit was brought by feminist Martha Burke to force Augusta to accept women members into the all-male club. Augusta chairman William "Hootie" Johnson touched off a firestorm when he issued a strongly worded statement denying Burke's request. "We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case," Johnson said then. "There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet." Whether you agree with the policy or not, I found it refreshing to hear Johnson say basically: Its our club and we will run it as we see fit, so piss off.

Neither does the Masters kowtow to TV pressure, and allows only two minutes worth of commercial messages in every televised hour, a dramatic departure from other televised events where you get more like 20-25 minutes of commercials. You can buy a hot dog and a beer for four bucks at the tournament because the club does not believe in ripping off people who attend the event. Augusta National donates considerable money and expertise to poor countries around the world to help grow the game of golf and make it available to youngsters who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to play. When Tiger Woods had a chance to hold all four major titles by winning the Masters, the club invited Lee Elder to attend as a tribute to black golfers who had paved the way. They did it not for publicity about which they care little, but because it was the right thing to do.

I am a golf nut and the Masters, with its rich history, and incredibly beautiful but difficult golf course is something special to me. The event echoes with cheers for past winners like Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Gene Saracen, Palmer, Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and yes, Tiger Woods. In an age where the likes of Plaxico Burress, Roger Clemens and Jason Williams are sad representatives of their sports, I am proud to be part of a sport that (Tiger Woods' recent shenanigans not withstanding) emphasizes honor and sportsmanship. Golfers call penalties on themselves when they break a rule, sometimes costing themselves a tournament. Nobody else witnesses these infractions, but the players know what the centuries-old traditions of the game demand of them. So go Augusta National, tell them all to go to hell and keep doing it your way.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

Are we out of the woods with Tiger?

Jim Pantaleno said...

Not yet...his golf game may be back but his family woes still need to be dealt with. I hope he's sorry and learned from the experience.