A Tradition Unlike Any Other
Issue   |   Wed, 03/26/2014 - 02:06

Each year as spring rolls around, sports fans are treated to the greatest month in sports. As the frozen tundra we call home becomes habitable, students across campus emerge from hibernation to play in or attend sporting events.

With the nadir of winter quickly disappearing, sports nationally begin to heat up as well. April marks the end of the NBA and NHL regular seasons and the beginning of the leagues’ playoffs. The chaos of March Madness concludes with the Final Four (go Wildcats!). College hockey’s Frozen Four takes place the following weekend (unfortunately didn’t get my bracket in on time). The MLB season also finally gets under way (one of these years has to be the Braves’ year, right?).

April brings with it what is, in my opinion, the greatest day in sports, Sunday at Augusta National. Beyond the objective truth that golf is the most enjoyable sport to watch while recuperating from a rough night at the Socials, the Masters provides a pure, traditional, and now rare, experience that displays the real values of sport.

Upon passing through the gates of Augusta National, ubiquitous golf shirts and sundresses mass along the path past world-famous golfers tweaking their game on the driving range, past the crowded club store by the elegant clubhouse and its meticulous flower arrangements. A glimpse of the imposing leaderboard soon unveils a vast green expanse of rolling hills, towering trees and glassy water.

61 magnolia trees line the 330-yard long road to the clubhouse. Beside the clubhouse is an oak tree approximately 150 years old. With several species of pines growing along the course, every hole at Augusta National is named after a plant or shrub, in what seems to be an homage to the natural beatuy.

The scene taking place before you is a relic harkening back to another era altogether. In a time when companies seamlessly integrate advertisements into all entertainment, ads on the golf course are noticeably — and refreshingly — absent. As the NBA moves towards sponsored jerseys like those worn in soccer and the WNBA, the Masters goes as far as the clubs, balls, and clothes equipped by the players.

Cigar smoke slowly wafts its way into the clouds. Cellphones are forbidden within the club’s gates. Tickets, rather than being sold, are handed down from generation to generation. Masters’ merchandise is exclusively sold at Augusta National in Georgia. Bustling stalls around the course sell the best pimento cheese sandwich on Earth accompanied with sweet tea of course. Fold-up chairs brought and set-up by fans designate seating assignments on any given hole. The inherent Southern charm — or maybe the cigar smoke — is intoxicating. The tournament truly is a tradition like no other.

The Masters stands out in that the monetary prize is quickly forgotten. Without delving too deeply in clichés, winning the Masters, the iconic green jacket, the inscription in the trophy and the lifetime invitation means more than winning the pot. However, defeat can be staggering; a second place finish once held so much promise (counterfactual thinking…thanks, Sanderson).

The tournament drips with history, both euphoric and painful. Looking out over the course, you can see it all play out. In 1986, Jack Nicklaus striding up 18 en route to becoming the oldest six-time champion at the age of 46. Tiger breaking the long-standing scoring record in 1997 with a 12-stroke win at age 21 to become the youngest player to win a Masters. Anthony Kim’s record 11 birdies in the Friday round from 2009. A Nike logo (I didn’t say there was no advertising) stares at you for an eternity before dropping into the cup.

But every ying has a yang. Rory McIlroy, leading by four strokes on Sunday in 2011, delivered the worst round in history by any golfer leading the field after Saturday. In 1996, Arnold Palmer only needed a bogey on 18 for the win. It’s hard to expect anything less. The fortitude to overcome the history in each hole is far beyond me.

Suddenly, the crowd parts, and Miguel Angel Jiminez’s hair brushes your shoulder; he puffs on his cigar. Rory, some young gun you read about waiting in line, passes by with Kim. He turns, waves, asks how it’s going when you call out. The tee box clears as fans follow Tiger towards his second shot.

The tournament provides an imperfect manifestation of the idealized amateur competition, along with tradition and this intimate atmosphere. Bobby Jones founded the Masters as an amateur golfer. In a nod to amateur golf, winners of the most prestigious amateur tournaments are invited to compete and stay in the Crow’s Nest atop the clubhouse. On Thursday and Friday, the U.S. Amateur champion is given the opportunity to play alongside the defending Masters champion.

However, modernization did not reach Augusta National quickly, and some offensive traditions held on for too long. Prior to 1982, golfers were required to use the club’s caddies, who were always African American. The club now accepts both black and female members.

Though not without its dark spots, the gentleman’s game is capable of delivering unbelievable moments. In 2012, I drove across I-20 from Atlanta to Augusta with four friends. As we sat at Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon and the day looked like it could end with a playoff, we decided (not my idea) to set up our chairs on 10 once the final pairing played through. The sudden death playoff goes back and forth between the 18th and the 10th until a winner emerges. We waited for the crowds to move on before we placed our chairs in the front row and began to pray.

Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson both finished the day ten under par. Sitting at the 10th hole with no phones, we spat out our own analysis of distant crowd noises. Eventually, once a mob of people formed around us, it became clear they had tied the first hole.

American Watson, dressed in all white, was the definitive crowd favorite, while he South African Oosthuizen was an outsider. After what seems like forever, a murmur arises from the crowd. Bubba appears, headed into the woods, and Oosthuizen is in the fairway.

Again, forever. The tin of the shot grabs the crowd’s attention. Shortly after, the ball falls softly on the green. Bubba managed to hook his shot 90 degrees (again, objectively true — it literally bent midair). The crowd went wild, and I went crazy (Hi Mom, I’m on TV). After tapping in his par putt, Bubba wept.

Once you pass back through those gates, you re-enter the 21st century. After we left, I had about 50 texts from people that had been watching. I was on 60 Minutes (kinda), right behind Bubba.

It’s refreshing to leave the world of constant information to take on a single moment at a time. Put down your phone because someone else will capture the moment for you. Beginning April 10, you can find me in my bed or on the couch rooting for not only McIlroy but also for something entirely more important.