John Huggan: Highs and lows among Augusta azaleas

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama tees off among the azaleas but, though they're undoubtedly pretty, Augusta's fairways don't offer much variety. Picture: David J Phillip/AP Photo

Japan's Hideki Matsuyama tees off among the azaleas but, though they're undoubtedly pretty, Augusta's fairways don't offer much variety. Picture: David J Phillip/AP Photo

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Augusta has charm but not all is blooming lovely in the Masters garden

IT’S always the same, but always a little bit different. While the Masters is the only one of golf’s four majors to be played in the same place at the same time every year, the green-jacketed hordes driving the youngest of the quartet always come up with a few subtle changes just to keep everyone on their toes.

‘The Par-3 used to be fun. But it’s the ‘cute’ kids, everywhere. Count me out’

This time round, for example, this observer is convinced that the practice green in front of the clubhouse is smaller than it was 12 months ago. Certainly, the gap between the edge of the putting surface and the back of the first tee seems narrower.

Some things never alter, of course. Heaven forbid any member of the press corps should carry a mobile phone set to silent outside the media centre (a Danish television guy was ejected for doing so on his way in this week, before anyone was even on the golf course). And there will be no running or sitting back for a snooze by any fan – sorry – patron. But feel free to spend as much money as you wish in the merchandise facility.

Anyway, amidst all the nonsense – and nonsense it is – this Masters has produced its usual number of highlights and lowlights for this long-time attendee (first visit 1989). Here’s the best four of each.

HIGHLIGHT

As an unabashed sucker for a bit of not-too-schmaltzy nostalgia, I’ve always been a fan of the Thursday morning opening ceremony. This year the former “Big Three” of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player did their usual honours, with Palmer’s presence especially poignant. At 85, Arnie went as far as getting a cortisone shot that would allow him to make just the one swing. Which was more than enough. This is a tribute to past greatness that has always been a credit to the Augusta National club.

LOWLIGHT

Whenever you hear the hoary old line that the crowds at the Masters are amongst the most knowledgeable in the game, try very hard to suppress a giggle. Many patrons, sadly, have little idea what is going on. They certainly have no clue when it comes to players who happen to hail from somewhere other than the US of A. Sometimes, the level of ignorance is quite staggering. But even worse is the dark shadow of xenophobia.

The mind goes back to 1992 when Australian Craig Parry’s caddie was reduced to tears because of the appalling last-day treatment meted out to his man over the course of 18 holes in the company of eventual champion Fred Couples. One year earlier, Ian Woosnam was headed into the gallery before his playing partner, Tom Watson, held him back. In 1999, Jose Maria Olazabal’s march to victory up the 18th fairway was greeted by something close to stony silence. Nothing much has changed, believe me.

HIGHLIGHT

Holes-in-one are a common occurrence at golf tournaments. They happen almost every week. But it’s still a thrill to see one, as I did on Tuesday last week. The perpetrator was American James Hahn, who aced the famous 12th hole. It was only a practice round, but his obvious excitement spoke volumes. The Masters is a special event. The 12th is a special and historic hole. And Hahn, whatever he goes on to achieve in his career, will always have a special memory.

LOWLIGHT

There was a time when the Wednesday afternoon Par-3 Contest at Augusta National was something to look forward to. It was great fun. The players enjoyed themselves. The huge crowds did too. And the club joined in by setting pin positions at the bottom of convenient slopes so as to almost guarantee holes-in-one (Jack Nicklaus made one this year; Camilo Villegas recorded two).

But here’s the thing. What was once a celebration of all that is good about golf has now become an almost unwatchable and unedifying spectacle. It’s the kids. Everywhere you look, “enchanting” and “cute” little moppets are bouncing around with their miniature bags and clubs. They all get to have a putt or a shot or two. And it takes forever. Count me out.

HIGHLIGHT

Dan Jenkins, in case you didn’t know, is a bona-fide legend in the realm of American sports writing. Before the now 85-year-old Texan came along and changed the way things were done, golf journalists, in particular, were an overly reverential lot. Jenkins is exactly the opposite, as anyone who has read any of his many books will testify.

Anyway, this year was Dan’s 65th Masters. Think about that. The poor man has spent one-and-a-quarter years of his life in Augusta, Georgia. A true legend.

LOWLIGHT

Every year, the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, one William Porter Payne – “Billy” to his chums – holds an eve-of- Masters press conference. And every year it provides a fascinating insight into just how the club and the tournament work. Or it would, if Mister Payne actually divulged anything of substance. Which he routinely does not.

This time round, however, Payne’s half-hour on the podium lurched into an area beyond parody. With a straight face, “mister chairman” spent almost 20 minutes paying tribute to the 17th hole’s “Eisenhower tree” that is no more in the wake of an ice storm last winter.

Minutes later, Payne brushed off questions about the 40th anniversary of Lee Elder becoming the first black man to play in the Masters. Paying tribute to Carl Jackson, the club caddie who is retiring after being on two-time champion Ben Crenshaw’s bag since 1976, got equally short shrift. Priorities sure are funny things at Augusta National.

HIGHLIGHT

Speaking of Crenshaw, the 1984 and 1995 Masters winner took his leave of the “toonamint” this past week. The more churlish may argue that he should have gone earlier – the 63-year-old Texan shot 91-tk – but that is missing the point. One of the great things about any Masters is the presence of the past champions, who are given lifetime exemptions.

Crenshaw earned his place and provided some of the event’s most memorable and genuinely emotional moments. His tearful 1995 victory came only days after the death of his long-time mentor and swing coach, Harvey “Little Red Book” Penick. So it is appropriate that Crenshaw be allowed to enjoy his participation and even more appropriate that he should leave only when he feels the time is right. He deserves nothing less.

LOWLIGHT

No course is ever presented more immaculately than Augusta National. Everything – tees, fairways, greens, bunkers and ponds – are pristine; nothing has even a hair out of place. And the flowers always look nice, if you’re into horticulture more than golf.

But this perfection has little or nothing to do with the game Scotland gave to the world. Not real golf, anyway. One of the great fascinations of the ground between tee and green is surely its inherent unpredictability and randomness. Eliminate both to the extent that we see every April and something is lost.

For example, wouldn’t it be fun, just now and then, to watch the game’s leading exponents hitting shots from something other than perfect fairway lies? That would surely allow the more talented to separate themselves from their more one-dimensional competitors. Hey, just a thought.

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