Let's start with Bobby Jones, a pretty good place to start.
“On the golf course,” the father of the Masters wrote, “a man may be the dogged victim of inexorable fate, be struck down by an appalling stroke of tragedy, become the hero of unbelievable melodrama, or the clown in a side-splitting comedy, any of these within a few hours.”
How do you like those odds?
As write-ups of most Masters Sundays go, you could copy and paste old Bobby, add a few minor details and just about leave it at that. Come for the azaleas, stay for the mental torture.
Jones built the club at the height of his personal celebrity, so he could play golf in private. It was conceived as a sanctuary. It opens itself, but on its own terms. No mobile phones, no whooping and hollering, no mash potato.
It is a Southern belle, dolled up to the nines, but you better mind your manners. It’s mint juleps on the veranda but the welcoming smile is a warning. The genius of the Masters is that all that beauty has a heart of darkness.
Those who have been there use the language of fairytales. You turn off the Washington Road, past unprepossessing suburbs and down-at-heel strip malls and you are through the looking glass. Alice in Wonderland. Narnia.
They say it is even better than on television, the colours more vivid, the birdsong (piped through speakers, supposedly) richer, the tree-lined fairways more sumptuous. And everywhere gentility is an assault, propriety in your face, golf’s preoccupation with rules and behaviour in excelsis.
There can be no sporting event whose sense of place is so complete and intrinsic and self-consciously maintained. Wimbledon, perhaps, but even they put on a bloody great roof. There’s even a Masters theme tune, the plinky-plonky ‘Augusta’, easing you back into the magical kingdom after the crassness of the commercials.
For one week each year, Augusta National is the chocolate factory and we’ve all got the golden ticket.
Into this place march the dogged victims of inexorable fate. Reach back into your memory for Masters Sundays gone by. You will find green jackets and glory, Tiger’s chip and Phil’s shot from the pine straw, Jack Nicklaus rolling back the years and Sandy Lyle from the bunker, Bubba’s hook shot from the trees, Tiger’s comeback. You will remember the April evening shadows falling over the warm glow of success and the obsequious business of the Butler Cabin.
Then go deeper. Come with me and you’ll see a world of pure imagination, but stay away from the chocolate river. Greg Norman in 1996. Rory McIlroy in 2011. Jordan Spieth in 2016. Even Arnold Palmer threw away a seven-shot lead on the back nine in 1966. A four-time champion, Arnie didn’t wear that blow-up in any great way, but he never won at Augusta again.
Neither did Norman, or, so far, McIlroy and Spieth after they fell into the abyss. Who knows how it scars?
There is no silence like that which accompanies a Masters Sunday collapse. The patrons whisper their gasps. The birds still sing and the flowers still bloom but they suddenly seem to do so less in sweetness than mockery. The air is taut with pain and humiliation as the watery talons of Rae’s Creek claim another victim. How many on any given Masters weekend do the sirens lure onto the rocks?
Spieth led by five strokes heading down the back nine when he hit trouble on Amen Corner. The previous year he’d won the Masters, the US Open, came second in the PGA and fourth in the Open. The kid was making it look easy. Come on, have a wobble. Give us a thrill. What happened was almost exquisite in its cruelty. A young man’s soul stretched on the rack until it snapped. The cocky young colt suddenly a lost little boy. You felt guilt, pity and awe. Into the heart of darkness.
This is golf, of course. The moral lesson around every dog-leg. The sweet ping of a drive followed by the tragicomic duff into the water. The good walk spoiled. The exposing of flaws.
Augusta is golf, only more so.
More than that, though. You can’t take the Masters from the South and you can’t take the South from the Masters. Augusta’s obsession with preservation, manners and heritage is in keeping with the Southern sense that things were better, back before, you know…
Augusta National sits among deprived African-American neighbourhoods. Its exclusiveness means something different to them than to the rest of us, our noses pressed longingly against the window. Did Clifford Roberts, Jones’s co-founder and long-time Augusta chairman, really say “as long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black” as has been attributed? Golf, only more so.
There is a reckoning for America’s original sin. It is now customary for every lead-in to the Masters for commentators to grapple with its troubled history with race and that of the sport whose zenith it represents. This year’s honorary starter is Lee Elder, who, in 1975, became the first black man to play at the Masters. Like back then, people are wondering what took them so long, but they don’t like to be told what to do.
If Augusta is a genre, it is Southern Gothic, that strand of storytelling that juxtaposes the genteel, idealised image of the Antebellum South with the horror that lies within. The Masters is an allegory, in which big talking Yankees come to town planning to show the good ole boys a thing or two, and then something terrible happens.
That’s the fascination about when Bryson De Chambeau rocks up promising to smack the old course into oblivion. They don’t like that talk. You need to show some respect. Mind your manners. Just ask Tiger. He conquered Augusta at the age of 21, but when he sinned, they flayed him with their sanctimony.
On they to march to their inexorable fate. How lucky they are.