A number of years ago, I had the great fortune to get to Augusta National for the US Masters. Although only a spectator, I found myself drooling with excitement as the iconic venue had long been a favourite of mine.
Back then, the course was more mystical, in that we rarely saw much of the front nine on TV, but that didn’t matter, because Augusta in my mind’s eye was always about the back nine anyway. How wrong I was.
As I walked the course, studying the terrain and the shots it demanded, I immediately understood that Augusta National is in fact an architectural masterpiece!
The vision of the great Bobby Jones and course architect Alastair McKenzie resulted what is probably the most stunning arena in all of sport.
While beauty and presentation form the backdrop, it is the iconic design, full of shot selection conundrums, which captures all the headlines.
No other venue on Tour comes close to Augusta’s tournament blueprint. As the only course in the world to annually host a major championship, Augusta’s allure is that it also is the only course that presents itself the same way each year. For those prone to error on the ever-ending number of risk reward holes on the back nine, it can be absolutely penal.
Where else do you so regularly hear the appreciative roars echoing up the valley on the Sunday of the Masters? It’s an adrenaline rush like no other and, strangely, out of kilter with an otherwise serene and beautiful setting.
On Sunday, Augusta National again produced a fitting finale to the first major championship of the year. While fans would have hoped for more competition from the rest of the field, it was obvious from as early as the sixth hole that the outcome rested between two men, Sergio Garcia the fiery but immensely talented “nearly” man and the ultra-cool Justin Rose, already a major champion, but both seeking to secure a first Masters title.
As contests go, this was raw drama, as two great friends tried valiantly to land the blow that would demoralise their rival. Where first, Garcia had the momentum, it dramatically shifted to Rose early on in the back nine.
It was amazing to see both players so completely immersed in the moment. From the 13th onwards, there was a major momentum shift on almost every hole, with both friends acknowledging each other’s good play, much to the appreciation of the galleries.
With Garcia’s putting stroke beginning to break down over the closing holes, you feared for his chances, but whereas the Garcia of old would have folded by the 18th, quite remarkably this time, it was he who had the chance to have the final say in regulation time. A miss-read putt was again a crushing blow to his confidence and it was not hard to envisage his mind flashing back to his Open Championship play-off loss to Pádraig Harrington in 2007.
Who knows what the impact the intervention of his fiancé had on a dejected Garcia, as he walked to sign his card, or why Rose chose to take off the sunglasses for the play-off, but one small error from Rose, followed by a fully committed second shot by Garcia, was all that separated two great warriors in the end.
Heartbreak followed by ecstasy! Sport can be cruel, but in Garcia golf has another worthy champion who finally determined his own destiny.
In terms of the other performances, we also learned that Europe is now blessed by the two emerging talents in world golf in Thomas Pieters and Jon Rahm. I was hugely impressed by both players’ rookie Masters performances.
Pieters, in particular, looks very much at home on the biggest stage and has the game and high ball flight to excel around Augusta. Last week was another stern test of his credentials and, though he made some silly ball placement errors on the greens, the manner with which he attacked the course down the closing stretch bodes well for his future in the game.
The same can be said about Rahm who, despite an ugly finish, had a strong tournament. These are heady times for Rahm, who will see his eventual collapse as something of a setback, but much like his compatriot Garcia, will learn to cope with the fickleness of sport.
Rory McIlroy must also reflect on the best way to arrive at major championships in peak form. Too often over the past number of years we have seen poor scheduling or injuries hamper his progress. While still one of the best in the world, on form, the depth of the talent pool emerging as major championship contenders is growing, so he needs to up the ante to give himself the best chance of adding to his four major championships. Last week was an opportunity lost for both McIlroy and the injured Dustin Johnson, but the show will “go on” and Augusta, as always, will be ready to bare its teeth to those looking to don the famous green jacket.