The Masters

This is the week of the Masters, one of the greatest golf tournaments of the season, and I, for one, am excited. It was founded by Bobby Jones, the American golfing legend on the right, and was first held in 1934. My younger readers may wish to stop and reflect that this was before cell phones and the Internet; in that era golfers didn’t keep score using an app on their smartphones, rather they used a paper scorecard and an odd tubular device called a pencil.

There are many competitive events for amateur and professional golfers played during the year, and the Masters is considered one of the most important ones, which are referred to as the “major” tournaments. These days we think of the four majors as the US and British Opens, the PGA and the Masters, of which the Masters is the youngest. (The oldest is the British Open, which was first played in 1860.) There is more prestige for a golfer to have won a major tournament than one of the lesser events. Part of this is because of the historical significance, since as we’ve seen some of these golf tournaments go back 150 years, and the major tournaments are typically played on the best and most difficult golf courses. Part is because of the degree of the internal pressure involved, from those damn little voices inside a golfer’s head. And part is because of the presence of the best players in the game breathing down your neck, the external pressure of great competition.

Then there is the issue of money, millions of dollars. While some tour events offer more prize money than some of the majors, the prestige from having won a major translates into more sponsorship money and more bragging rights in the locker room. (Ladies, no blushing, please!)

As of this writing Jack Nicklaus, born in 1940, is the king, the all-time leader in major tournament wins. Nicklaus won 18 majors spanning 25 years: 6 Masters, 4 US Opens, 3 British Opens, and 5 PGA’s. Many golf historians think his record of 18 majors is unbreakable. The greatest golfers in history, such as Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, have each won “only” 11 or less, so in comparison, having won 18 majors is staggering. Many top golfers play for years before winning one, and obviously many more have never won a major tournament, or even any tournament at all. We call these golfers “teenagers.”

No one has ever won all four of the professional major golf tournaments in one calendar year. This holy grail has been named the “Grand Slam.”

The professional golfer with perhaps the greatest chance of catching Nicklaus is Tiger Woods, who so far has won 14 majors: 4 Masters, 3 US Opens, 3 British Opens and 4 PGA’s. He won his last major, the US Open, in 2008. Woods seemed on a collision course with destiny, if we apply our friend mathematics in a simplistic way. If it took Woods roughly 12 years to win 14 majors, then it should take about 3.5 more years — meaning in around 2011 or 2012 — to win the 4 additional majors he needs to catch Nicklaus. We might conclude this if we  make all sorts of naïve assumptions.

Instead, Tiger Woods found himself on a different collision course in 2009, when his Cadillac Escalade — one of the dumber vehicles ever invented — ran into a tree and other impediments while evading his wife, on whom he had been cheating.  He has now gone some 20 tournaments without winning, his career stalled like the monster SUV he crashed. He had won an astonishing 71 tournaments — including majors — over a 14-year span. So averaging about 5 wins a year, one would expect that in the last year and a half, he should have won 7 or 8 events, of which at least one would have been a major. However, he has played in about 20 tournaments since his imbroglio (Italian for major screw-up), and he has not only not won a single tournament, but in only one of the events he entered did he finish any higher than 20th. He’s way behind schedule.

But enough about Woods, let’s talk about Bobby Jones. We mentioned earlier that nowadays the Grand Slam consists of the four most important professional golf tournaments of a given year. Back in 1930, Jones stunned the world by winning the earlier version of the Grand Slam. Back then, as now, some events were tougher challenges and more prestigious than others, and those four special tournaments were: the US Amateur and the British Amateur, and the US Open and British Open. An “open” tournament is one which anyone can enter, both amateurs and professionals; one must simply qualify. As you may well imagine, these are the most prodigiously difficult tournaments to win because all the best players show up. Notice that back then, that august group of four tournaments included two amateur events, which means that professional golfers would not have been able to play. This casts an interesting light on Jones’s career, since he retained amateur status through all those years, and yet he beat, in “open” tournaments, the best professionals of the day!

He would have won a great deal of money had he been designated a professional, but he chose to remain an amateur. As an amateur, the rules were very strict in that he was not allowed to collect prize money. On the one hand the professionals he beat suffered from a loss of face — losing to an amateur would do that — but on the other hand they welcomed the first place money, even when they came in second.

Another interesting sidebar is that in 1930, both amateur events were what is called match play, in which the gladiatorial contest is man against man, and the winner is determined by who wins the most holes. The other kind of event, which we see most often today, is called stroke play, in which each golfer plays (usually) four rounds of golf, and the lowest score wins. Some consider match play to be a real pressure cooker, and a more rigorous test than stroke play.

Bobby Jones won his first major tournament, the US Open, in 1923, and ended his competitive golf career in 1930 with a total of 13 majors: 4 US Opens, 5 US Amateurs, 3 British Opens and one British Amateur. It is very impressive that over that span of years, he entered 21 major tournaments and won 13 of them, for an incredible 62% winning percentage. No one else has come close.

As you can see, any discussion of the history of major tournaments and grand slams is like comparing apples and oranges, since in some cases amateur events and match play are involved, and in other cases professional events and stroke play.

Jones retired from competitive golf after his amazing year of 1930, but continued to play somewhat more relaxed rounds with his father and old friends. He never lost his considerable passion for the game, and sought other outlets, other ways to contribute to the game that had given him so much. That opportunity arose in his grand slam year of 1930, when he discovered a decrepit, overgrown horticultural experiment gone awry, dating back to the Civil War, in Augusta, Georgia.

Fruitlands Nurseries had been a successful provider of exotic fruit trees and flowers for many years, but had suffered a downturn and neglect. Like many great people who see things others can’t, Bobby Jones saw the 365 acre property, and imagined a great golf course. With a little financial help and a similar helping of golf course design savvy from one of the greatest golf course architects, Jones’s dream turned into reality, and the old nursery became Augusta National Golf Club. This course, Augusta National, is where the Masters has been hosted since 1934.

One of the reasons for the tournament’s uniqueness is that it is always held at the same course. It is considered one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. (You should watch the tournament on the biggest high-definition TV screen you can find.) Other major golf tournaments like the US Open and the British Open are held on different golf courses each year. (It might be more correct to say that the British Open — or simply the “Open Championship” in the UK — is held on a course selected from a finite rota or set of links style golf courses every year. Links style courses are those that lie along the sea shore, so that the weather plays a key role.) It is this continuity and rich history of the Masters that renders it so special, a hallowed ground for golfers.

My wife and I have a tenuous but precious link to Bobby Jones. In 1958 he went to St Andrews, Scotland, where he had both won and lost life-changing tournaments at the Old Course, the most famous golf course in golf history. By that time he had been suffering from syringomyelia, a serious disease that dissipated his spine, and turned a vigorous athlete into a hobbling and delicate old man way before his time. He was to be the non-playing golf captain of an American team of amateur golfers competing in an international event.

Before he left for Scotland he had received a letter from the town’s clerk, who asked if Jones wouldn’t mind accepting an award while he was there. Jones inferred that this award was to be like so many other keys to the cities he had graciously received from towns big and small over his illustrious career. It turned out that the honorary title, Freedom of the City and Royal Burgh of St Andrews, was far more rare and special, and had been bestowed upon only one other American — to Benjamin Franklin, in 1759. Keep in mind that St Andrews is roughly one thousand years old…

The award ceremonies, featuring an emotional speech by Jones — which forces me to use at least six kleenex every time I read it — were held at Younger Hall.  The large and grand building, part of the University of St Andrews campus on North St, is where I met my wife.

It was the fall of 2006, the morning of the orientation for foreign post-graduate students. I was in a quiet, private mood, and so instead of joining the boisterous crowd in front of the entrance, I was across the street. What happened next was one of the weirdest things to ever happen to me.

In the crowd I noticed a girl with really nice blonde hair. Friends who have known me for a while would have said, right off the bat, that this was strange, because I love red hair. (One day I’ll tell you more.) She was in the crowd with her back to me; all I saw was her hair.

Then, a little voice said, “Go talk to her.”  I swear, it’s the truth.

I thought, “OK, I’m in Scotland now, nothing stopping me from recreating myself, and there’s nothing wrong with talking to her.” As I started to walk across the street, the massive doors to Younger Hall opened, and the crowd began to pour in. I thought, “Huh, I’ve lost her.” A few moments later and I was in the large room, looking at a multitude of metal folding chairs, many with butts on them. After a quick scan — and I can remember it like it was this afternoon — I saw her maybe 25 feet away from me. There was one empty chair next to her. So I sat down. I took a couple breaths and introduced myself. A moment later the principal of the University (the UK version of the president) came out onto the stage, and welcomed us.

Then he said, “Look around. One out of three of you will meet your future spouse here.” At that point I took another quick look at her, and thought, “Nah, she’s too young, and she’s out of my league.” Later, she told me that she glanced at me and thought, “Not him. He’s too old!”

The next fall, I proposed to her at Edinburgh Castle, in Scotland’s capital city, and we married a year later in Hingham, Massachusetts. She promised to love and obey, and to caddie for me when I play at Augusta National.


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