“It’s almost like you’re walking (in) a video game when you’re actually playing the tournament. It doesn’t feel like it’s real grass. You don’t believe it is. You don’t see it anywhere else. It’s my favorite place in the world to be, to play golf.” So says 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth about the tournament that traditionally ushers in the start of the “real” golf season.
As this year’s Masters will be my first trip to the world’s most exclusive golf event, it’s the perfect time to consider the past, present and future of a competition that is surely on the bucket list of every golf fan on the planet.
For a start, let’s take a step back to look at what was originally called the Augusta National Invitational when it was established in 1934. We sometimes forget that the Masters bears little resemblance to any other professional golf tournament. Firstly, the field is small. Instead of 156 players lining up who would have slogged through various qualifiers around the world (like the two open majors), there are only between 90 and 100 golfers invited to Augusta.
Secondly, unlike the other four majors, there has never been a change in the venue. The Masters has always been played at the Augusta National course. The two co-founders, Bobby Jones—probably the world’s greatest ever amateur player—and Clifford Roberts—his friend, an investment banker, administrator and still club chairman “in memoriam” since his death in 1977—invited their friends to the tournament. In those early days, they were the best American players. They once lobbied the USGA to hold the U.S. Open at their course, but the summer heat in Georgia was too much of a problem.
There were no majors in the 1930s, but the Masters would become one of the four top tournaments in the world once golfers from outside America’s borders regularly drove down Magnolia Lane after World War II. Gary Player established the Masters as truly a world event when he became the first non-American champion in 1961.
The third and most obvious change from other tournaments comes during the presentation ceremony for the new champion. Instead of a trophy, the winner puts on the famous green jacket, a tradition that began in 1949, the year Sam Snead won for the first time. In fact, the presentation jacket is usually one borrowed from a current member who’s the same size as the winner. No one could produce a custom-made green jacket that quickly.
For all those reasons, if any golf promoter tried to create this tournament in the 21st century they would be laughed out of court. But all these little eccentricities are what make the Masters so special. It’s different, and that’s why we love it. Plus it’s how we know golf season has begun.
Another element of Augusta that causes so much chatter and envy is the beautiful scenery. Built on a former indigo plantation and plant nursery, the flowering dogwood and azaleas make pictures from the course so distinctive. Each hole seems like a scene waiting to be painted in oils. The beauty of the scenery is almost always matched by the glory of the golf with each champion requiring a unique blend of power and accuracy from their driving plus absolute precision around the fast greens.
The greens always grab everyone’s attention because their speed makes the course so hard. First-timers are often startled by the difficulty of putting at Augusta. It’s hard for the average amateur to understand, but some course ratings experts have tried to put the whole thing in perspective. In 1991, two leading course raters set the real par at 76.2 rather than the 72 on the scorecard. It’s the greens that cause the rise in the real par. However, stimp meters—green speed measuring devices—are not allowed anywhere near the course to keep the greens a mystery.
It’s quirky, it’s unique and it’s well-loved. It’s also hard to find a professional golfer who doesn’t boast about taking part in the Masters. Masters contestants underline appearances at Augusta on their resumes just like they do when making either the U.S. or European team because it’s so important to them. It’s such a sense of achievement to receive a Masters invitation through the post. Suddenly, they are one of the chosen few.
In terms of the future, the Masters will never change because the club committee runs the whole show and answer to no golf institutions, while TV companies fall over each other to sign a check to broadcast the action. The world watches Augusta each year, and the committee has made sure player invitations include the best golfers in countries like China and Japan thus ensuring its commercial prospects for years to come from television fees.
I’m feeling pretty good about making my debut at Augusta in 2017—and not just for the fact the color green suits me—because, in terms of who’s going to win this year, it could be one of the most open fields for a while. There is always a list of favorites. This year it includes recent champions like Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson; plus Jason Day is not No. 1 in the world for nothing. Justin Rose has come close on a couple of occasions, and Rory McIlroy returns for another attempt at completing a major grand slam. He has already won the Open Championship, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Then there’s Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the hottest player over the last few months.
But my instincts say that there will be another, more surprising winner like Danny Willett of England who came through last year without the burden of media expectations. Two men to look out for, one from each side of the Atlantic, are Brandt Snedeker of the U.S. and Thomas Pieters of Belgium, both still without a major title.
Snedeker has been decent at Augusta on several occasions and managed eight top 10 finishes in the various majors, plus he’s a good putter and showed some form at Pebble Beach in February. Pieters, meanwhile, was a Ryder Cup revelation last year—he scored four points from five matches—and is super long off the tee. If he’s going to fulfill his tremendous promise, then this is just the tournament where he needs to do it.
A couple of things will be particularly memorable about the 2017 Masters. Firstly, there will be no Arnold Palmer for the first time since 1955 and, secondly, this may well either be the start of the latest Tiger Woods comeback or the real beginning of his complete decline. Certainly, there is no way any golf fan—or patron, as they say in Augusta—should miss this year’s Masters.
Ross Biddiscombe’s two acclaimed golf books—Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected and Cruel School—are available in hardback, paperback or e-Book formats on Amazon.