Golf: Glories of old masters

Robert Green finds that Augusta is where the men of history can fight back
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The Independent Online
ON the eve of the Masters, Tom Watson, aged 48, five times Open champion, once winner of the US Open, and victorious at the Masters in 1977 and 1981, confronted golf's burning issue of the moment. "Could you talk a bit about the younger players?" he was asked. "Do you mean Ernie Woods?" he replied.

But as the likes of that hybrid, and Lee Mickelson and Justin Duval, prepare to usurp the meek and inherit golf's earth, Augusta National remains one place where nostalgia shares the spotlight with youth and need not feel embarrassed. Tiger Woods may have created more records than the Rolling Stones in demolishing the field by 12 strokes last April, but no one is seriously suggesting it is time for anyone who is within 10 years (either way) of Mick Jagger to quit the golfing stage. The future may belong to Woods, Ernie Els and the rest of the sport's glittering cast of 20-somethings, but at the Masters, the past is very much part of the present.

The proceedings begin with a trio of older champions - Sam Snead (85), Byron Nelson (86) and Gene Sarazen (96) - ceremonially driving off from the first tee. They no longer complete more than one hole, let alone nine as they used to, but they are an integral part of the tradition. This year, Snead fulfilled the task even though he had been in hospital on Tuesday night, suffering from nausea and dizziness.

Several Masters patrons probably felt their own faculties had gone awry later that morning when 66-year-old Gay Brewer's name turned up on the leaderboard, 31 years after he had won here. His level-par 72 made him the oldest man to shoot par or better in the tournament. His score was good enough to put him in the fourth-last threesome on Friday, along with one of the celebrated young Turks, David Duval, just one match in front of the Tiger. "I come here just to try to make the cut," he said, although an 86 on Friday meant he didn't.

But Jack Nicklaus did. Nicklaus, now 58, has won six Masters, spread over 23 years. In his third victory, in 1966, he beat Brewer in a play- off. On Tuesday Nicklaus's phenomenal accomplishments were acknowledged on his 40th consecutive appearance with the dedication of a plaque between the 16th and 17th holes.

Asked for his personal highlight, his response was immediate. "It would have to be '86." Over the first three rounds, he set about trying to update that. "I've just got to make a few more putts," he said. It is likely that no one listening believed that would do anything other than add a fond footnote to his unsurpassable achievements in the major championships, but with Nicklaus you always sense that his own propaganda finds a receptive home within his own mind.

That 1986 Masters was the one Seve Ballesteros lost when, two shots clear of the field with four holes to play, he drowned his 4-iron approach to the 15th. On Friday, Ballesteros played with Watson. Like Watson, Ballesteros has won two green jackets, the last in 1983, when his playing partner in the final round was Watson. Such recurring themes are a perennial part of Augusta's attraction.

There wasn't much attractive about Seve's golf in the second round. A nine at the 15th accounted for four of the seven shots that went astray in his 79. He missed the cut, as did Watson. In less than two years, it's the senior tour for Tom. "I've seen the writing on the wall," he said. "I see these young kids blowing it by me."

It was also in 1983 that Gay Brewer last made the cut. On Thursday, while Brewer was defying his age, Seve turned 41. Age catches up with us all. It even will with Tiger Woods. But as it is, and will be, with Nicklaus and Watson, Ballesteros and Brewer, it probably won't stop him coming back here when winning isn't so much a dream as a reminiscence.

Robert Green is editor of Golf International magazine