To David Toms, the American golfer who this week dared to criticise the Augusta National for the way it runs the Masters, I doff my Freddie Couples-style visor. Toms was not lambasting the changes to the course as every Tom, Jack and Tiger has done, but challenging the tendency of the men in green jackets to operate like feudal barons, with lesser beings - up to and including the players - made to feel grateful for the right to set foot on the immaculate green turf, and commensurately anxious lest they tread on the wrong spot.
"It's just one thing after another," said Toms, of the many strict regulations with which the competitors must comply. "It's like CIA stuff. It's just uncalled for."
Undoubtedly he had a point, and it was brave of him to express it. Like those feudal barons, the masters of Augusta do not take kindly to criticism, and if they decide that they don't like the cut of someone's jib, then no matter who he is, he won't be invited back. Toms could win the US Open, finish top of the money list and still spend Masters week 2007 sitting forlornly on the banks of the Savannah River with his fishing rod.
"The Masters is strictly an invitation tournament sponsored by a private organisation," says the Augusta spectator guide. "The qualification regulations are the principal means of determining the player invitation list, but such eligibility under these regulations does not oblige the Tournament Committee to issue an invitation."
I wonder whether someone gently pointed out this passage to Toms, who did a certain amount of backtracking following his CIA crack, anxiously pointing out that he is a simple Southern boy who reveres the Masters, Mr Hootie, sir.
Whatever, the comparison between Augusta bigwigs and feudal barons holds in several ways. There was something impressive about the autocratic hauteur with which the barons ran their estates, ditto the way the green jackets run the Masters. For example, this column cheerfully joined the chorus of disapproval of the Augusta chairman, Hootie Johnson, for disregarding the opinions of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, among other former Masters champions, who suggested that the lengthening of the course was to the tournament's detriment. And yet, to find Woods, Couples, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Jose Maria Olazabal all jostling for position on the leaderboard last weekend, was to be reminded that perhaps Hootie was right and the rest of us were wrong.
It is no accident that the Masters, more than any of the other majors including and perhaps above all our own Open Championship, has consistently produced great champions. Since 1999, only Mike Weir has come from outside the very top rank. The succession of winners reads: Olazabal, Singh, Woods, Woods, Weir, Mickelson, Woods, Mickelson. In that time, the Open has been won by relative journeymen in Paul Lawrie, Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton.
Moreover, as a spectator at Augusta, which I was last weekend, you have to be very jaded not to feel a sense of privilege. From the moment you turn on to Washington Road, the discordantly ordinary thoroughfare which leads to one of golf's most sacred venues, it is clear that entrance to the Masters is a hot ticket. Every 50 yards or so there are scalpers - the American word for touts - and most of them are buying rather than selling.
For a four-day ticket with a face value of $175 (£100), there are golf nuts cheerfully prepared to pay upwards of $3,000 (£1,713). During last Saturday's five-hour thunderstorm, I conveniently took shelter in a bar on Washington Road where I got chatting over a gallon of Budweiser and a ton of chicken wings with Ted from North Dakota, who had paid $1,500 for tickets on Thursday and Friday and was now content simply to sit across the way. Did he think he had paid over the odds? "Not even by a dime," he said.
So, I must doff my visor not only to Toms but also to Hootie and his big fish, who by so devotedly nurturing the hard-won status of the Masters as the most rarefied of sporting events are indeed guilty of what might be called green supremacy, and yet, without the green supremacists of Augusta, golf would be a poorer game. Literally so, in some ways, because the spectators - quaintly known as "patrons" - are so anxious to cash in on the privilege of being there that they beat a path to the club shop to buy anything bearing the distinctive Augusta logo: a map of the United States with a golf hole in its south-eastern corner. I spent $425 in there, and most baskets were a sight fuller than mine.
Last year, indeed, a staggering $28m was spent on such merchandising, and the club coffers are so swollen that whenever the powerful women's rights activist Martha Burk, Augusta's official Thorn in the Side, is moved by the club's insistence on all-male membership to threaten action against companies sponsoring the Masters, Johnson simply turns around and says: "That's fahn, darling, then we'll do without sponsorship." Which, in a sporting universe in hock to corporate money, is kind of admirable, don't you think?
What I Like This Week...
The World Snooker Championship, which unlike the US Masters is winnable by at least half the field. I have a fancy that the man from Happy Valley in Kong Kong, the unseeded Marco Fu, might do well this year, which doubtless condemns him to an epic first-round thumping at the hands of the 13th seed Alan McManus. Whatever, I find it reassuring, this year as always, that the soundtrack to my life from mid-April until May Bank Holiday will be the gentle click of Belgian Aramith balls. Not even our daffodils - which are improbably late to flower this year - are an indication of spring as reliable as the goings-on at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
And What I Don't
The Football Association's shortlist for the England manager's job is becoming unutterably tiresome. For example, it is ridiculous that the Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren, who just a couple of months ago was being backed as the next Premiership manager to be sacked, is now being just as heavily backed to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson. If the FA wouldn't have appointed him then - and I'm certain they wouldn't - then they shouldn't appoint him now. Middlesbrough's fine run in the Uefa and FA Cups do not make him a better contender than he was two months ago, any more than Manchester City's relative slide makes Stuart Pearce a worse one.Reuse content