With the season's first Major, the US Masters, now on our doorstep, Bill Elliott looks back on the history and how European golfers once dominated at Augusta
Seems like last week since I first drove into town, but truth is that much has changed in those 35 years. Superstar golfers have come and gone as has the Berlin Wall, significant journalists too. President Obama, an enthusiastic golfer himself, is in the White House these days but in 1980 the only black guys at Augusta National Golf Club were either hauling clubs round, serving drinks or clearing tables. Few amongst us thought anything strange about such a state of affairs. Times have pleasingly changed for the better.
The course too has been altered radically in tone and length. Sometimes this has meant that the recent Sunday excitement has been a bit muted as players nervously pondered the extra length over a back nine that can cripple as easily as it may enchant, but always there is at least the hovering suggestion that something special may be about to happen. And occasionally it does, at least often enough to keep the legend alive.
For the big majority of you the Masters is about a weekend set aside for serious television viewing and a late Sunday night before the reality of Monday morning kicks in. For me, it has been about renewing old friendships, visiting old bars and in between these missions wanderingdown once more to the centre of the green cathedral otherwise known as Amen Corner.
A journalist called Herbert Warren Wind came up with this tag for the lowest part of the course where Rae’s Creek meanders like a particularly indolent snake coiling itself around the 11th, 12th and 13th greens. Wind, an old-style and rather arch American, wrote elegantly for the New Yorker magazine – a long-time haven for all things elegant and intellectual and quite often blazingly smug – and it was he who summed up the difficulties of this three-hole stretch by suggesting that any sensible player muttered ‘amen’ if he got out alive or at least didn’t drop too many shots during this exiting process.
There really is no finer place to watch sublimely gifted golfers anxiously pitting their wits against Dr Alister Mackenzie’s masterpiece, and although I won’t be there this year and I’ll miss it, I won’t miss it quite as much as once would have been the case. Of course, the Masters is still a must-see event if you haven’t been, but these days the hype is a little overblown for some of us who preferred the older, ever so slightly rougher and certainly calmer-round the-edges Augusta that we first encountered. That’s life I suppose. Rose-tinted glasses always improve the view, especially when azaleas and dogwood are involved.
What is beyond dispute is the thought that the Masters has done more than merely puff out its chest over the last several decades, during which period it has routinely rewritten the rules as to what constitutes an important golf week. How and why the Masters was elevated to its present position as one of the game’s four cornerstone weeks offers a masterclass in self-promotion. Some might call it illusion over reality.
There are many factors in play here. Principle amongst these is, as ever, timing – the Masters heralding spring as effectively as an Easter Egg on a supermarket shelf and perhaps slightly more profoundly. Throw in a spectacular course, the advent of colour television, Arnold Palmer’s suggestion 50 years ago that it was indeed a Major event, the whole Bobby Jones heritage shtick and some very, very smart marketing men who happened to be members and you had an irresistible force that relentlessly lifted this quiet and exclusive corner of Georgia into the global consciousness.
The rest of us may only admire the vision and bravado of Augusta National’s driving members. Clearly, this club was never a sow’s ear to begin with, but somehow the custodians of those Green Jackets have leapfrogged over the silk purse stage of development and turned the Masters into one of sport’s holy grails. A bit sleight of hand maybe, but brilliant nonetheless.
Before the great makeover in the sixties, the Masters was, yes, relevant but not actually hugely important. It was mostly an exclusively American institution and only the most serious of the game’s aficionados around the rest of the world took that much notice of it. Many of our stars, such as Henry Cotton, routinely declined invitations to attend because it was too far and too expensive to travel and the prize money was not that much. At one point the interest level sagged so low that young soldiers from the town’s Fort Gordon training camp were allowed free entry just to add some bulk to the crowd.
It hasn’t been like that for decades now. People who know nothing about golf – and could not care less – desperately want to attend the Masters and they are willing to pay big bucks for a ticket and a room, any room, in the overcrowded town for that week in April. It is now a world event, an aspirational place to see and definitely a place to be seen.
Even before we developed our own inane celebrity culture, the Masters was being celebrated. Claiming you’ve been to a Masters is an acceptably proud boast and one that encourages real envy in a clubhouse or pub; claiming you’ve actually played the course ups the ante and establishes you as something of a mover and shaker in this daft, impressionable world. All good, expensive, daft fun, of course.