John Huggan: Up and down at Augusta

THERE’S no doubt that spending a week at the Masters is a must-do for any serious golf fan – or journalist.

Especially when viewed for the first time, the opening major of every season – the game’s so-called “Rite of Spring” – is a wondrous thing to see. And, say what you like about the green-jacketed membership – and this column has, more than once – it is hard to imagine any other group of officials running a smoother operation. Yes, some of the more pedantic rules are irritating – let me put my iPhone on silent and use it as a tape recorder, as I do the other 51 weeks of every year – but for all who aspire to tournament administration it is an education like no other. But nothing is perfect. So here are just a few observations on what aspects of the “toonamint” are good, bad and everything in between at Augusta National in the second week of April.

1) The green-jacketed members

Outwardly oozing with southern hospitality and bonhomie, the men (and two women) entitled to wear the most famous garment in golf are, beneath the surface, a calculating bunch. While they adhere to a strict code of etiquette, the thought of all the money they are quietly amassing is never far away. Any organisation that can buy up a nearby neighbourhood and turn it into a car park used only one week of the year is clearly awash with cash.

Verdict: Mostly good, but with a big asterisk attached.

2) Speed of the greens

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It’s a relatively new phenomenon at the Masters – look at a video of, say, the 1975 tournament and it is obvious the players are “hammering” putts – but it has now reached the stage of being a little silly. In an era when slow play is such a problem, some of the greens at Augusta are just too fast.

Putting “stiff’ from distance is at best unlikely, which leads to more marking, more missable second putts – and more time on the course.

Verdict: Bad.

3) Course set-up

Aside from the greens, how Augusta National is presented for play is in many ways a model for courses around the world. For one thing, there is hardly any rough, so little time is wasted looking for balls. For another, the fairways are wide but still ask strong questions on every tee. The reward for proper positioning of the drive is huge, the disadvantage suffered by a relatively poor tee shot is subtle rather than offensive. There isn’t much mindless hacking out on this course.

Verdict: Great.

4) Caddies in white boiler suits

In this day and age, it is surprising that such a practice, so resonant of a Deep South hopefully gone forever, has been allowed to continue. Servants (“the help”) in uniforms – even if, these days, they are not all black – is a throwback to a time golf and society would surely rather forget. It’s distasteful, really.

Verdict: Very bad.

5) Identifying the best player

Inevitably, there have been a few duds over the years – Charles Coody, George Archer and Zach Johnson spring to mind – but the list of Masters winners is impressive indeed. Just about every great player over the last 75 years or so has won here: Hogan; Snead; Nelson; Palmer; Player; Nicklaus; Watson; Ballesteros; Faldo; Woods; Mickelson. Among the truly great, only the names of Els, Norman and, maybe, Price are missing. But hey, there are exceptions to every rule.

Verdict: Very good.

6) Crowd behaviour

It is regularly written – mostly by those who have clearly not ventured out on to the course too often – that the Masters galleries are “the most knowledgeable in the game”. What rubbish. Sad to say, the huge crowds do seem to contain a large number of people who are either completely ignorant of golf or xenophobic in the extreme. Sometimes, they are both.

The mind goes back to the day when the guy standing next to me identified two-times Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal (a proud Spaniard) as “Joe Marie Olliebubble from Mexico”. And, far more egregiously, the time when Ian Woosnam had to be restrained by playing partner Tom Watson, such was the level of abuse emanating from the grandstands.

Verdict: Very bad in places.

7) Price of souvenirs/food/parking

This is where the green jackets really distinguish themselves. Every year, this observer is impressed by the affordability of the Masters merchandise. Everything is reasonably priced and good quality. And the parking is free. No attempt is made to gouge the paying public.

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The R&A could learn a thing or two in this regard. The food and souvenirs on sale at the Open Championship tend to be over-priced and of inferior quality to anything on sale here. Apart from the pimento cheese sandwiches of course. Yuk.

Verdict: Very, very good.

8) Course length

Like almost every other “championship” course in this technologically misguided era, Augusta National is now a lot longer than it used to be. In 1993 the course measured 6,905 yards. Ten years later it was 7,290 yards long. And today it is 145 yards longer than that.

Which is fine, or at least understandable, given that the R&A and the United States Golf Association seem incapable of controlling how far elite players can these days hit golf balls. But, as has happened so often elsewhere, the effect on Augusta National has been to transform (not in a good way) the challenge presented to the players.

In other words, the ability to hit really long drives (a talent which should of course bring some advantage) now carries with it a disproportionate influence on eventual success. The short game magician that was Jose Maria Olazabal won two Masters titles but, even at his peak, he would have no chance today. Disappointing.

Verdict: Bad, but not Augusta’s fault.

9) Television coverage

It must first be acknowledged that the Masters does a great job in limiting to four minutes per hour the commercial interruptions that make so much of American golf all but unwatchable every other week of the year. But, yet again, it could be better still, at least in the area of quantity. Last week, Augusta National chairman Bill Payne had this to say about the deliberately restricted coverage of the Masters: “We have through time expanded a little bit. And we know everyone wants more.”

Which is where he should have stopped. If they know everyone wants more, why not give it to us? What could possibly be the problem with providing a few extra hours of viewing to a public hungry to see it?

“One of the tenets that we hold to most dearly is that it is limited,” continued Payne. “It makes it a little more special.”

No, it doesn’t Mister Payne. All it does is make it more frustrating. So let’s see more of your terrific product.

Verdict: Good, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

10) Monty on Sky

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Oh my goodness. Where to begin? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how to make him end? Sadly, the former Ryder Cup captain seems to see his “commentary” as an excuse to talk about himself. As a man who never won the Masters and hasn’t played in one since 2007, or even made a cut at Augusta since 2002, you’re neither relevant nor timely, Colin. Move on.

Verdict: Predictably self-indulgent.