For a small kid growing up in Cork in the 1970s, the big American sporting occasions, like the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and even the US Masters represented a whole world of awe and inspiration.
Quite apart from their sheer commercialism, production pomp and pageantry, they provided a once in a year opportunity to witness the larger than life superstars that we read and heard so much about, competing on the highest stage all the while showing a level of athleticism far beyond what our minds could appreciate.
Coming from a small conservative country, it was an era where it was all too easy to be intimidated by the towering achievements of the American greats like Muhammed Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Mark Spitz and Billy Jean King. Even Secretariat, the horse, seemed to possess a status reserved most normally for deity.
One of my outstanding memories of those early days was watching the great Severiano Ballesteros triumph for the first time around Augusta National in 1980. At that time, there was limited coverage of the Masters (back nine holes only), but what we did see resembled nothing like I had ever witnessed before.
Ballesteros’s victory, the first of any European at the Masters, was a coming of age in so many ways for professional golfers on this side of the pond because in victory he demonstrated not just courage but more flair and shot-making ability normally reserved in our minds for the Americans. To those enviously watching on, it forever proved that these perceived larger than life characters, like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, were in fact beatable. And once the tide turned there was no turning back.
The same could be said today about this week’s venue Augusta National. Where once your fertile mind gave it an almost unmatchable status, the advent of modern technology has in many ways normalised our appreciation of it.
That said, the Masters is still the year’s first major and Augusta one of the prettiest courses on the planet. It maintains some traditions, like the presentation of the green jacket and the opening tee shot ceremony, that are sentimental and pleasing on the eye.
Augusta is also one of the very few venues left where patrons are well-informed, attentive and respectful, something which we are beginning to appreciate more and more these days, but I feel that much of its charm has been lost over the past couple of ‘Tiger-proofing’ decades as the course frantically tried to stay relevant to a professional code that was too ruthlessly competitive to appreciate any real sentiment.
Bobby Jones’s belief was that the course should always be played from the fairways and through the greens but his era of feel and shot-making ability has long since passed. With it has also gone many of the characters of the game, replaced instead by data-minded robots who take more notice of angles of approach into greens than hitting fairways. Armed with their intricate high-tech GPS data yardage books, players now trust science more than intuition to solve their problems.
As a result, much of the mystique we once associated with Augusta has been normalised by brilliant multi-media technology and even players who are cloned to think of this week as just another tournament in another venue.
At least that is what the sports psychologists would like them to think, but the Masters is no ordinary tournament. It is a major championship and the opportunity for the likes of Rory McIlroy to win a career grand slam.
So, this week really matters and anyone in the hunt coming down the stretch Sunday afternoon would do well to heed Bobby Jones’s mantra. Control the ball from the fairways and educate yourself on the greens. Science may well have its role to play in your performance but intuition and creativity should never be abandoned, especially as you try to navigate the swirling winds around Amen Corner. Contenders will have to keep their composure on a course built to constantly ask questions and frustrate.
The real sadness of all of this ‘normalisation’ that has taken place in the Masters over the past couple of decades is that the old caddies, the Da Vinci code breakers on the course, are now gone from the tournament, replaced by millionaire bagmen. In their eyes they know that the players still need their years of experience, even if the players don’t want to use them. That still smarts and the irony of it all is that it all began when Tiger Woods started dominating the game.