Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 12, 2020

Silent Sunday At Augusta

“April, come she will.” So Paul Simon told us more than half a century ago. The lyrics he wrote for Art Garfunkel to sing cast the fourth month as a time “when streams are ripe and swelled with rain,” and that has been true enough this year here in New England, as spring struggles to supplant the dark and cold of winter. The 3rd hole of one local golf course sits hard by I-95, visible to motorists racing north and south, on their way to somewhere else. At week’s end a narrow stream bisecting the fairway of the par-4 had overflowed its banks, turning the turf for five or ten yards on either side into a bog.

Yet in other years, with just one or two dry and sunny days, that links, always one of the first to open, would see golfers making their way around its routing. Deprived of their beloved game through the depths of the dead season, those happy players would scarcely mind getting their feet wet in pursuit of their Titleists. This is not any other year, and in the season of the pandemic venerable Sagamore, home to public golf since the days when a young rhymin’ Simon was writing his first songs, is, like all other area golf courses, closed until further notice.

Speeding by that empty course feels so keenly like a lost opportunity, yet the truth is that no matter the circumstances or the year, in this part of the country any early April rounds always count as a bonus, though that in turn just makes this Sunday all the harder. For what golf fans everywhere look forward to on the second Sunday of April, especially those not yet able to play themselves, is the final round of the Masters, golf’s annual assurance that a new season has arrived.

CBS and ESPN, the networks that share broadcast rights to the tournament, tried to fill the void by showing memorable final rounds from previous tournaments, beginning Wednesday with Jack Nicklaus’s win at age 46 in 1986 and culminating today with last year’s victory by Tiger Woods – the single greatest achievement in the history of sports according to an overwrought CBS announcer Jim Nantz. The networks’ effort has been admirable, even with Nantz’s hyperbole on Sunday, but watching replays is like going to an especially popular movie several weeks after its release – one is likely to already know the outcome. Still, replays of actual tournaments are better than the gimmicky offerings of other major sports, like the NBA and WNBA stars competing remotely in the playground game of HORSE, or the broadcast of video game stock car races being played by NASCAR drivers. One can easily tell the latter is a simulation since the stands are full.

The videos of previous closing rounds have at least given viewers the visual treat that is April at Augusta. For one weekend each year golf fans, whatever their personal views, forgive the barons of the ever-so-private club on Washington Road in Augusta their history of segregation and sexism and set aside any discussion of the slow reluctance with which the club has acquiesced to having a membership that even remotely reflects American diversity. The focus instead is on the immaculate fairways and blinding white bunkers, the towering pines with branches swaying in the breeze, and the riot of color from azaleas, camelias, dogwoods, and assorted flowering fruit trees that serve as backdrops to holes that are recognizable to even casual golf fans. For those living where fairways have only just started to turn green the Masters is a reminder of the natural beauty one can find on a golf course.

But this tournament is also about the drama that is inherent in all our games, and the absence of a live event takes most of that away. It was long-time announcer Ken Venturi who first opined that the Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday, and decades later his thought often remains apt. So much can happen on Augusta National’s inward half. A player can string together five birdies and an eagle, as Nicklaus did in 1986, charging up the leader board and overtaking Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, and Tom Kite. Or someone with a seemingly commanding lead can drop six shots to par in the space of just three holes, making bogey at both the 10th and 11th before rinsing not one but two balls in Rae’s Creek at the short but diabolical 12th, as Jordan Spieth did in coming undone in 2016’s final round. And the constant soundtrack to the unfolding drama is provided by thousands of spectators, or patrons as the club insists, their loud roars at great shots mingling with the echoes of dismayed groans at best laid plans gone awry.

It all builds toward the final climb up the steep hill to the 18th green. That is where Ben Crenshaw sobbed in the arms of his caddie Carl Jackson, having won the 1995 tournament just days after serving as a pallbearer at the funeral of his mentor and coach Harvey Penick. It’s where in 2003 Phil Mickelson took a leap for the ages, even if he did only get about four inches off the ground, after finally winning the first of his five majors at the age of 33. And it’s also where Norman airmailed his approach wide right into the gallery in 1996, one last miserable shot at the end of a horrid final round 78 that turned a six shot lead over Nick Faldo into a five shot deficit to the Englishman in the most epic collapse in Masters history.

Perhaps fans will get that live drama again this year, just much later. The current plan is for the tournament that is usually the harbinger of a new golf season to be the final major of 2020. If the proposed mid-November dates hold, gold and russet autumn leaves will provide the color instead of springtime blossoms. But how the course will play at that time of year, and whether the usual sea of patrons will be lining the fairways and ringing that final green on Sunday are just two of the many unknowns right now. In another ballad, written three years after the one cited at the top, Simon admonished us to “preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” This year that song by the troubadour from Queens has taken on new meaning. For fans of golf, and every other sport, old memories will have to do, for the making of new ones must wait.

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