Before the traditional Green Jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin at Augusta National, CBS ran a montage of players over the years reacting to a question about winning the Masters. The response was universal, a long exhale with a faraway look in their eyes. It’s enormous from a golf standpoint. A major championship, endorsements and a signature win.
But winning the Masters is much more than that.
When a player wins the U.S. Open, it’s an achievement. Much is made of the qualifying process and the USGA’s protection of “par” on the golf course. You’re the best player in America as the U.S. Open champion. At The Open, they declare you the “Champion Golfer of the Year” and from an international standpoint, no title is more recognized. You beat all-comers. The PGA is an accomplishment, winning among your peers, almost a throwback to the days when not every best player turned pro and played what became the PGA Tour.
At the Masters, it’s emotional.
It’s the only major that’s played on the same golf course every year. In fact, it might be the only significant sporting event that uses the same venue annually. The World Cup travels, so does the Super Bowl. The Daytona 500 is always at Daytona, obviously, but it’s stature and appeal outside of NASCAR fans is limited.
When the Augusta Invitational started in 1934, it was an idea that Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones had to bring together the best players just as the weather began to break in northern Georgia. Writers traveling from baseball spring training in Florida would find it convenient to stop off in Augusta to cover the golf. Editors in the northeast weren’t put off by the stopover, as there was limited extra expense. Horton Smith’s win in ’34 wasn’t overly celebrated. But as is widely know, Roberts and Jones understood that putting on a golf tournament and having people know about your tournament were two different things. Through the reporting of the iconic sportswriters of the time the Augusta Invitational became the Masters. Herbert Warren Wind dubbed the 11th, 12th and 13th at Augusta “Amen Corner” after a blues tune he knew from the ’30’s. Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle gave some mystery and verve to the tournament as eyewitness accounts were reported breathlessly by the major newspapers of the era. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead playing and winning showed it was important.
But it wasn’t until Arnold Palmer showed up and started winning did it get emotional. That’s how Palmer played and he transferred that emotion to Augusta National and the Masters. Although he won four times, it’s the near misses that are as easily remembered in Palmer’s career at Augusta and the emotion those evoked. As television emerged as a vehicle to bring golf to the masses, TV executives like Frank Chirkinian knew Arnold was telegenic and projected that emotion right through the screen and into our living rooms. (By the way, Chirkinian also invented the “under” or “over” par scoring for television we still use today.) And it didn’t hurt that TV could bring beautiful pictures of a golf course to the millions still saddled by snow and bad weather throughout the country.
As Jack Nicklaus emerged as the best player, the emotions at the Masters still centered on Palmer as the crowd favorite. He brought a visceral connection among the fans at the Masters as he tried to hold off the then unemotional and methodical Golden Bear. Unlike previous golf “rivalries” where you had your favorite and were polite to their competitors, Palmer fans didn’t like Jack and let everybody know. Arnold evoked an emotional response even when he didn’t win.
I say Nicklaus was unemotional, but Jack burned with a competitive fire that centered on winning and beating Palmer. He didn’t show it much, that wasn’t his personality, but being around the two it was obvious they had a deep friendship but also a competitive nature that never abated. Until recently, Jack was the most un-sentimental champion I had ever met. Even when he won his sixth Green Jacket in 1986, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Jack started to embrace the emotion of Augusta National publicly. Tom Watson is kind of the same way. Johnny Miller once said, “Golf champions aren’t chummy,” and maybe he’s right. It’s such an individual game that it breeds and inner strength among the best players.
Sometimes the emotions of nearly winning are equal to those of winning. It’s so demanding as a golf course and as a competition and it is such a big deal that the best players of their era just don’t win at Augusta. Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Tom Kite, David Duval, Ernie Els and others are supposed to be Masters Champions. Their runner-up finishes are legendary. Art Wall, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer, George Archer, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, Larry Mize, Mike Weir, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Danny Willet, distinguished players but not household names, even in the golf world, have Green Jackets.
Winning the Masters usually brings an emotional response not seen anywhere else.
Ben Crenshaw cried both times he won. Phil Mickelson’s amazement at winning could only happen on 18 at Augusta. Sergio Garcia dropped his face in his hands after beating Justin Rose last year. That doesn’t happen at a regular tour even or even the other three majors.
It only happens at Augusta.