This year too, the weather produced a visually less colourful edition of the “toonamint”, the azaleas having come and gone before the eyes of the world turned to Augusta, GA. But the golf ultimately proved to be ample compensation, albeit the scoring was, for the first couple of days at least, strangely pedestrian. No matter, with the most creative golfer on the planet coming through to win, there was still plenty to savour and ponder.
1 The Course Over the last 15 years or so, golf at the highest level has been perverted by balls that fly much too far when struck by elite players using drivers with heads the size of frying pans. Increasingly despairing efforts have been made to keep even the best courses relevant. Fairways have been narrowed. Longer and deeper rough has grown and grown. Trees have been planted. Green speeds have increased to almost farcical levels. And tees have been moved back, sometimes to distant places normally deemed out-of-bounds (see the Old Course, St Andrews). Last week at Augusta National – with all of the above already in place – the rain-soaked course was further “shortened” by fairway grass that was deliberately cut from green to tee. What was designed to be “hard and fast” became soft and slow. Sadly, the original intent of course architect Alister Mackenzie has been all but lost, his masterpiece disfigured horribly by the collective incompetence and subsequent inactivity of the game’s rulemakers. So golf’s Mona Lisa wears a moustache – all because of a ball that goes too far.
2 The Winner
In the battle between art and science that rages within professional golf, the former has long been trapped on the ropes. True virtuosos such as Seve Ballesteros and Lee Trevino once roamed the links, but no more. Plodding is the way of things for the vast majority, the result of equipment that renders the shaping of shots all but obsolete. Where identifying a player after one swing was once the easiest of tasks from 400 yards away, that same feat today, with few exceptions, is all but impossible from a distance of 30 feet.
Thank goodness then, for the true eccentric, a goofy extrovert who cries at supermarket openings and plays exclusively through feel and imagination. Thank goodness for Bubba Watson, who reminds us with his every shot that golf in its purest sense is an art form to be savoured, not a lifeless organism to be studied in a test tube. Although, it must be said, the pink driver has to go.
3 Tiger Woods
If this Masters did one thing, it provided further – and some might argue, definitive – evidence that the 14-times major champion has been holding hostage the game he once dominated. The time has come, in fact, for golf to stand up and holler: “We don’t need Tiger any more.” For this was a tournament notable for the heartening number of shots struck by players who truly mattered, a state of affairs unimaginable five years ago.
Think about it. All kinds of names and faces and nationalities got themselves into contention, at least briefly, over the weekend. And none of them was wearing a red shirt on Sunday. When it comes to major championships, golf has rarely been so competitive.
4 The BBC Coverage
By all accounts, Michael Vaughan, the former England cricket captain, is a nice enough lad. He certainly knows his cricket. But what he does not know is a) interviewing and b) golf. Yet there he was, front and centre, asking questions of players not long off the 18th green. Actually, to call his various utterances “questions” might be stretching the truth just a tad. More often than not it seemed, the hapless Vaughan simply made a short statement before thrusting a microphone into his latest victim’s face. “Great finish.” “Good playing.” “You must be happy/frustrated/disappointed.”
Why golf has to suffer such insults – Gary Lineker was just as bad – is another question that has long gone unanswered. Even a passing acquaintance with the game is apparently enough to propel a reasonably famous face/sportsman into a telecast. Yet Ken Brown and Peter Alliss have never received invitations to sit with Alan Hansen on Match of the Day. Funny that.
5 Bones and Lefty
Boy, can this pair talk. It never ends, the stream of generally pointless verbiage that passes between Jim MacKay and Phil Mickelson. It’s comical though, especially when the wind drops. Phil, in common with so many leading professionals, has apparently forgotten how to gauge the strength and direction of even the strongest breeze. Trees can be bending at 45-degree angles and still the three-time major champion feels compelled to consult with his yakking bagman: “Can you feel it Bones? Can you?” “Yes, Phil, it’s blowing left-to-right.” Please guys, give it a long overdue rest.
6 Billy Payne’s Press Conference
The Augusta National Golf Club does not have women members. Not one. And “membership issues” are not things the club chairman wishes to discuss under any circumstances. Which didn’t help when, after listening to William P Payne, pictured left, argue for what he called “the growth of the game”, the assembled press pack started asking questions. How, they wanted to know, could the game grow if certain clubs, ahem, continue to exclude people simply because they don’t have a penis? And why is it that one Virginia M Rometty (president of IBM, one of three primary Masters sponsors) has not been invited to wear a green jacket and thereby feel pretty damned important – in her own mind at least.
It wasn’t pretty. Look up the word “squirm” in the dictionary and there is a picture of good old Billy-Bob sitting at that podium. Over and over he repeated his outdated and increasingly sad mantra: “We do not respond to questions on membership issues.” To which the obvious response should have been, “But this is not a question of membership, sir, this is a question about your blatant hypocrisy.”
7 Lee Westwood
If there is any doubt about the identity of the world’s best golfer tee-to-green, then this latest performance from the 38-year-old Englishman – his sixth top-three finish in the last ten majors – must surely see off all challengers. The great shame, of course, is that his work with the shortest club in his bag doesn’t come close to matching his virtuosity with the longest. If it did, the identity of the next dominant player would be obvious to all.
8 Ryo Ishikawa
The young Japanese did his green-jacketed benefactors no favours with a lacklustre performance that saw him miss the 36-hole cut by four shots. Favoured with a special invitation that had nothing to do with golfing ability and everything to do with sucking up to Asian television companies, Ishikawa’s less-than-mediocre play must surely have embarrassed those who so blatantly and shamelessly diminished their beloved tournament in pursuit of the mighty dollar. Bottom line: green jackets love greenbacks.
9 Rory McIlroy
He arrived amid much fanfare and expectation. Despite not having struck a competitive shot in three weeks, he was the man who would slay the apparently rejuvenated Tiger. Yet he left almost unnoticed, off for another two-week break from the tour. Which makes one tournament appearance in six weeks for the US Open champion. When Rory said he wasn’t going to repeat his too-busy schedule of 2011, he wasn’t kidding.
10 Louis Oosthuizen
Never mind how he pronounces his name. Never mind that he prefers family and farming to golf. Never mind that he plays with an unaffected air of insouciance and no little panache. This is the guy with the best swing in golf, one even better than Francesco Molinari’s, one his coach, Pete Cowen, calls “pitch perfect”.
And of course he hit “the” shot of this or pretty much any other Masters. Using a 4-iron from 253-yards out – further evidence that distance is out of control – the 29-year-old Springbok made an albatross two on the 575-yard second hole. Or, as America likes to say while abandoning any semblance of logic, a “double eagle”. Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that golf courses are supposed to be green.