Searching for something original to write about the US Masters, which begins among the fragrant Georgia pines on Thursday, and about which so many reams are written every year, I wondered whether there might be mileage in some anniversary-led nostalgia, some reflections on the tournament 20, 25 or 50 years ago, perhaps.
The Masters inspires nostalgia like no other golf tournament and few other sporting events, mainly because, unlike our own more venerable Open Championship and the year's other two majors, the US Open and the USPGA, it always unfolds in the same familiar arena. That is why the Augusta National has acquired hallowed, almost sacred status, unrivalled except by the Old Course at St Andrews.
Its starring role on television for four days every April means that those of us who keep the records in our anorak pockets can tell you that Byron Nelson's winning score of 280 in 1942 would have been good enough to beat the 1989 Masters champion, Nick Faldo, by three, and to force a play-off with both Tom Watson in 1981 and Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999. With improvements in equipment having more or less cancelled out the toughening of the course, the scores at Augusta have changed gratifyingly little over the decades.
In the meantime, golf nuts have come to know the holes at Augusta as well as they know their own local municipal; holes such as the par-five 15th, which provides a colourful annual backdrop to some of the most dramatic episodes in golf, and has done so ever since Gene Sarazen holed his famous three-wood second shot there in 1935. The hole is called Firethorn, which is gloriously apt, for it has inserted fire in the belly of some players and a thorn in the backside of others.
Whether or not Tiger Woods pulls on his fifth green jacket tomorrow week it's likely that he will either stake or blow his claim on the two great par-fives, the 13th and the 15th, with tubby little Sarazen applauding from the celestial grandstand.
After sifting through the history books, alas, I discovered little nostalgic gold in the tournaments of 20, 25 or 50 years ago. Indeed, by some curious coincidence, the "anniversary champions" this year are a humble bunch. In 2006 it was different; 20 years earlier, Jack Nicklaus had won his final green jacket. And next year it will be two decades since a Brit was first anointed, Sandy Lyle's thrilling final-hole birdie and arms-aloft celebration positively immortalising a pair of sweaty armpits.
But between the 1986 and 1988 events came a Masters tournament memorable mainly for an outrageous fluke, the pitch-and-run sunk at the second play-off hole by local boy Larry Mize, harpooning the Great White Shark. Even down there in the Bible Belt where the known world stops at the Mason-Dixon line, they admit that Greg Norman would have made a greater, more deserving champion than Mize.
As for the winner a quarter of a century ago in 1982, that was Craig Stadler, a fine enough player, but hardly comparable with the man who helped him into his capacious jacket, Tom Watson, or with the man he himself helped into a more slimline version the following year, Seve Ballesteros. Half a century ago the winner was not Sam Snead or Arnold Palmer but Doug Ford, best-known to Masters enthusiasts in recent years as one of the genial, portly duffers whose laboured 175s or even 185s over 36 holes led the good ol' boys who run the Masters effectively to rescind the custom of ex-champs receiving a playing invitation for life.
So, denied the opportunity or at any rate the inclination to celebrate the men who won the Masters a nice round number of years ago, I had to look for other milestones. And here's one; it is 40 years since the Masters was first broadcast overseas, by our own BBC. That's 40 years of an April tradition no less dear to some of us than eggs, bunnies and Grand Nationals. Last year I was there, inhaling the pine-scented Georgia air, treading the carpet-like turf, queueing with all the other poor saps to buy merchandise bearing the distinctive Masters logo. It's a privilege I've enjoyed twice, but watching from the sofa feels like a privilege, too.
Maybe that is because the BBC is made to feel privileged to be there. While venerated the length and breadth of the United States, the Corporation is regarded on the verandahs of the Augusta National clubhouse with lofty condescension, as indeed is the host broadcaster CBS. It is 12 years since the Augusta chairman Hord Hardin and his fellow greenjackets leant heavily on the CBS executives and succeeded in having commentator Gary McCord relieved of his duties at the Masters, his less-than-heinous crime to observe that that year's greens were so slick they looked as if they'd been "bikini-waxed".
On the other hand, it is the autocratic hauteur with which Augusta is run that makes it the unique institution it is and has been ever since the club opened 75 years ago.
Who I Like This Week...
Steve McClaren, if only because nobody else does, and I'm beginning to feel sorry for him. Besides, with England drawing 0-0 at half-time against Andorra on Wednesday night, some people were talking about Judgement Day or even Doomsday but was it not, in fact, Groundhog Day? To a lesser degree we've been there before with his predecessors Sven Goran Eriksson, Kevin Keegan, Graham Taylor, Ron Greenwood, Don Revie and just about every other England coach right back to Walter Winterbottom. Even the Alf Ramsey era ended haplessly. The truth of the matter is that the job is a neat paraquat version of the poisoned chalice, and what the most vituperative of the " Sack McClaren" brigade don't seem to realise is that they are scaring off the few decent candidates remaining. Who's going to want that job when McClaren is rocking back and forth in a secure hospital?
And Who I Don't
The Australian cricket team, whose recent one-day wobbles were obviously staged to make us think that they had come to the end of their pomp, when in fact they were secretly planning a banquet of top-class cricket that would leave everyone else fighting for their crumbs. How damned duplicitous of them! Their thumping of the West Indies on Wednesday showed absolutely no hint of the doubts that seemed to be assailing them back home against England and New Zealand. It was plainly all a dastardly trick.Reuse content