Golf’s glo­ri­ous cult: the Masters

Au­gusta Na­tional is long on golf his­tory, short on per­spec­tive

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - BILL PLASCHKE

It’s a won­der­ful event run by dudes rooted in weird­ness, Bill Plaschke writes. In the end, thank­fully, it’s still about golf.

AU­GUSTA, Ga. — It is golf ’s church, a place where aza­leas and pines form the stained glass that tow­ers over hushed con­gre­gants as they pay homage to golf­ing gods pur­su­ing a brightly colored robe.

It is also golf ’s cult, a place were the only thing in shorter sup­ply than cell phones, which are banned, is per­spec­tive. On Wed­nes­day, the eve of the 79th Masters, the crisply starched jack­ets of Au­gusta Na­tional again re­vealed the para­dox of their pur­suit, this be­ing a won­der­ful event run by dudes rooted in weird­ness.

Billy Payne, the club chair­man whom many peo­ple around here call “Mr. Chair­man” — like he’s a mem­ber of Congress or a dic­ta­tor in­stead of a guy who runs a golf club — talked about two an­niver­saries in two very dif­fer­ent man­ners.

In honor of the first an­niver­sary of the loss of the Eisen­hower Tree, a famed 17th-hole land­mark that was felled by an ice storm, the club un-

veiled a richly ap­pointed me­mo­rial fea­tur­ing a glassen­cased slice of the ac­tual tree trunk.

“Many months in the mak­ing to mit­i­gate against nor­mal shrink­ing, crack­ing and twist­ing,” he said proudly.

How­ever, in honor of the 40th an­niver­sary of Lee El­der be­com­ing the first African Amer­i­can to play at the Masters, they did not un­veil a me­mo­rial or throw a party or even in­vite El­der to play in Wed­nes­day’s par-three con­test, much to his dis­may.

In­stead, they threw him a few tick­ets.

“We only honor an­niver­saries as they re­late to the win­ners of the tour­na­ment,” Payne said, adding, “We were de­lighted, de­lighted to make sig­nif­i­cant cre­den­tials avail­able to he and his fam­ily.”

That’s the Masters in a boiled and salted nut­shell: a loblolly pine re­ceives more en­dur­ing recog­ni­tion than a cul­tural pi­o­neer.

Yet, mil­lions will watch it, and reams will be writ­ten about it, and there’s no apolo­gies nec­es­sary be­cause, af­ter for­mer cham­pi­ons Arnold Palmer, Jack Nick­laus and Gary Player hit hon­orary first-tee shots at 7:40 a.m. Thurs­day, it will be all about the golf.

For all its con­tro­ver­sies, the Masters typ­i­cally ends up be­ing about the golf. For all the de­served shots it ab­sorbs from the en­light­ened world out­side its gates, the Masters is still re­mem­bered for the shots that oc­cur on its na­tional mon­u­ment of a golf course.

Re­mem­ber Tiger Woods’ hang­ing Nike-im­printed birdie chip on the 16th in 2005? Phil Mick­el­son knock­ing it off the pine straw and be­tween two trees on the 13th in 2010? Bubba Wat­son wrap­ping it around the trees on the 10th to win a play­off in 2012? And that’s only in the last 10 years.

“The golf course, it gives me goose bumps ev­ery time you come down Mag­no­lia Lane,” Wat­son said.

How much does this place hum­ble golfers? Wat­son is the de­fend­ing cham­pion and a two-time win­ner, yet when asked this week about a re­cent poll in which he was es­sen­tially anointed the most dis­liked golfer by his fel­low pros, he acted like a chas­tened school kid.

“I take it as, I need to im­prove as a man,” Wat­son said.

Wat­son is just one of the story lines in a tour­na­ment that, ini­tially any­way, will be dec­o­rated in per­haps the most en­dur­ing story line in sports in the last 20 years.

Woods is back, and it’s all go­ing to be about him, at least for the first two rounds. Be­cause of nag­ging in­juries through­out his break­ing-down body, Woods hasn’t played com­pet­i­tively since Feb. 5, and played only 47 holes the en­tire sea­son. There is some thought that he has rushed his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion just to show up at his fa­vorite tour­na­ment, and that he doesn’t have a chance. Woods claims he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think he could win it for the fifth time, and first time in 10 years.

You’re tired of his act and you don’t want him here? Fine. How ex­cit­ing was it last year when he didn’t show up? Do you even re­mem­ber last year?

Woods will ini­tially over­shadow Rory McIl­roy’s at­tempt to be­come only the sixth player to win a ca­reer Grand Slam, and the pos­si­ble debu­tante ball for streak­ing 21-year-old Jor­dan Spi­eth — “I won the Masters when Jor­dan was still in di­a­pers,” Woods said — and the Masters re­turn of Dustin John­son, who re­cently was away for sixth months be­cause of per­sonal prob­lems he says were re­lated to al­co­hol.

Then there is the nice yet cu­ri­ous story of two-time win­ner Ben Cren­shaw, 63, who has an­nounced that his 44th Masters will be his fi­nal one. It’s nice be­cause Cren­shaw will be hon­ored af­ter play­ing his fi­nal hole. It’s cu­ri­ous be­cause his long­time Au­gusta cad­die, Carl Jack­son, won’t have it so easy. Jack­son, who has been loop­ing for Masters golfers for 53 years, in­clud­ing 39 years with Cren­shaw, will be forced into a re­tire­ment he doesn’t want.

Jack­son has said he would like to re­main in­volved in the tour­na­ment once Cren­shaw leaves, but the green coats have made it clear there is no place for him here.

“We don’t have life­time mem­ber­ships,” Payne said, adding, “We don’t have life­time ad­mis­sion for em­ploy­ees af­ter they leave the em­ploy of the club.”

If only he were a tree.

Chris Carl­son As­so­ci­ated Press

BILLY PAYNE , chair­man of Au­gusta Na­tional, says club rules didn’t al­low for hon­or­ing Lee El­der, the first African Amer­i­can to play in the Masters.

Erik S. Lesser Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

TIGER WOODS con­grat­u­lates daugh­ter Sam af­ter she putted on the eighth hole dur­ing the par-three con­test at Au­gusta Na­tional.

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