Ken Jones: Pure theatre, but the Masters is a major challenge in name only

Thursday 26 December 2013 05:33
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In her determination to challenge the unconstitutional authority that maintains Augusta National as an all-male golfing preserve, the women's rights leader Martha Burk probably has not given a second thought to how the Masters acquired the status of a major championship.

The question remains unanswered. People suspect that the golf historian, Herbert Warren Wind, had as much to do with it as anybody. But the presence of the incomparable Bobby Jones as inventor, founder and resident dreamer of the tournament which was otherwise stuck away in a remote hillbilly corner in north Georgia did not hurt.

They grew up in an era when amateur golf was king. As Jim Murray, late of the Los Angeles Times and this life, put it: "Gentlemen didn't play a game for money, and the Masters was conceived as a showcase for amateurs, with only a smattering of the most socially acceptable pros invited to play."

Even Jones, the only amateur in modern history to beat the pros at their own game, finally conceded, regretfully, that no amateur was going to be able to match shots with the stars of the American Tour. So he began to invite Tour winners.

Thus, there is more to the reverence in which Jack Nicklaus holds the Masters than his six victories at Augusta National. "The Masters is a monument to everything that is great in golf," he has said. "The mystique about it is Bobby Jones and what he meant to the game, the class with which the event is invested and all the special things you won't find in other places. It is a cut above, a way above."

But if stubbornly defended dubious tradition remains strong enough to keep an army of protesters at bay, and sustain the enormous interest that annually puts a nondescript town at the centre of sporting attention, not everybody agrees that the Masters provides golf's ultimate test of skill and nerve.

The roster of past champions from this and past eras of the game – Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods – is enough to protect the Masters from conventional adverse criticism (especially from within the playing ranks). However, there are dissenting voices.

The fact that the Masters is synonymous with the carefully nurtured beauty of Jones's vision, and is therefore made for television, makes some people think that its reputation mainly exists in the minds of broadcasters and writers. One of sport's greatest theatres holds plenty of perils but whether it is a test of golf to compare with the other three majors is open to question.

Unlike the Open, the US Open and the USPGA Championship, the Masters is not a moveable feast. Each year brings subtle changes (the fifth hole has been made more hazardous this time) but generally the difficulties are so well known that the contestants are clear in their anticipation. Unlike the other majors there is no rough to speak of, the real problems arising from devilishly slick greens and evil pin placements.

An American friend who has put in more appearances at Augusta National than he cares to remember says: "Sometime I think there is more crap written about the Masters than any sports event I can think of, including the Super Bowl. Of course, we enjoy being here. But to regard the Masters as the ultimate test of golfing skill is pure nonsense. Take away the old-timers [following protests from Nicklaus and Palmer, the Augusta National chairman, William "Hootie" Johnson, rescinded his decision to impose an age limit on automatic qualification], who keep coming back every year, amateurs who are invited in accordance with Bobby Jones's wishes, the guys who aren't long enough from the tee, those who can't draw the ball or hit it high and it is not difficult to work out that two thirds of the starters have no chance of winning.

"Although no player in full possession of his senses is going to reject an invitation, for most of them it's a lost cause before they strike a ball."

To my mind, it's no coincidence that European golfers have been consistently successful in the Masters while Tony Jacklin is the only European winner of the US Open. Social slights figured in Lee Trevino's antipathy but there was also a technical aspect to his disenchantment. Trevino hit the ball too low. An exquisite golf course simply did not suit his game.

There are things about the Masters that any right-minded person would find objectionable: snobbery, chauvinism and, yes, barely concealed vestiges of racism. When Woods won in 2001, I stood in a crowded clubhouse watching television when his final putt dropped. Only the black waiters applauded.

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