There's no place in golf like home of the Masters, but it isn't always good

There's no place in golf like home of the Masters, but it isn't always good
Tiger Woods, left, leads his son Charlie, daughter Sam and partner Lindsey Vonn past the azaleas toward the ninth green during the Par 3 contest at Augusta National Golf Club. (Jeff Siner / Charlotte Observer)

It is golf's church, a place where azaleas and pines form the stained glass that towers over hushed congregants as they pay homage to golfing gods pursuing a brightly colored robe.

It is also golf's cult, a place were the only thing in shorter supply than cell phones, which are banned, is perspective.


On Wednesday, the eve of the 79th Masters, the crisply starched jackets of Augusta National again revealed the paradox of their pursuit, this being a wonderful event run by dudes rooted in weirdness.

Billy Payne, the club chairman whom many people around here call "Mr. Chairman" — like he's a member of Congress or a dictator instead of a guy who runs a golf club — talked about two anniversaries in two very different manners.

In honor of the first anniversary of the loss of the Eisenhower Tree, a famed 17th-hole landmark that was felled by an ice storm, the club unveiled a richly appointed memorial featuring a glass-encased slice of the actual tree trunk.

"Many months in the making to mitigate against normal shrinking, cracking and twisting," he said proudly.

However, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Lee Elder becoming the first African American to play at the Masters, they did not unveil a memorial or throw a party or even invite Elder to play in Wednesday's par-three contest, much to his dismay

Instead, they threw him a few tickets.

"We only honor anniversaries as they relate to the winners of the tournament," Payne said, adding, "We were delighted, delighted to make significant credentials available to he and his family."

That's the Masters in a boiled and salted nutshell: a loblolly pine receives more enduring recognition than a cultural pioneer.

Yet, millions will watch it, and reams will be written about it, and there's no apologies necessary because, after former champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit honorary first-tee shots at 7:40 a.m. Thursday, it will be all about the golf.

For all its controversies, the Masters typically ends up being about the golf. For all the deserved shots it absorbs from the enlightened world outside its gates, the Masters is still remembered for the shots that occur on its national monument of a golf course.

Remember Tiger Woods' hanging Nike-imprinted birdie chip on the 16th in 2005? Phil Mickelson knocking it off the pine straw and between two trees on the 13th in 2010? Bubba Watson wrapping it around the trees on the 10th to win a playoff in 2012? And that's only in the last 10 years.

"The golf course, it gives me goose bumps every time you come down Magnolia Lane," Watson said.

How much does this place humble golfers? Watson is the defending champion and a two-time winner, yet when asked this week about a recent poll in which he was essentially anointed the most disliked golfer by his fellow pros, he acted like a chastened school kid.

"I take it as, I need to improve as a man," Watson said.


Watson is just one of the story lines in a tournament that, initially anyway, will be decorated in perhaps the most enduring story line in sports in the last 20 years.

Woods is back, and it's all going to be about him, at least for the first two rounds. Because of nagging injuries throughout his breaking-down body, Woods hasn't played competitively since Feb. 5, and played only 47 holes the entire season. There is some thought that he has rushed his rehabilitation just to show up at his favorite tournament, and that he doesn't have a chance. Woods claims he wouldn't be here if he didn't think he could win it for the fifth time, and first time in 10 years.

You're tired of his act and you don't want him here? Fine. How exciting was it last year when he didn't show up? Do you even remember last year?

Woods will initially overshadow Rory McIlroy's attempt to become only the sixth player to win a career Grand Slam, and the possible debutante ball for streaking 21-year-old Jordan Spieth — "I won the Masters when Jordan was still in diapers," Woods said — and the Masters return of Dustin Johnson, who recently was away for sixth months because of personal problems he says were related to alcohol.

Then there is the nice yet curious story of two-time winner Ben Crenshaw, 63, who has announced that his 44th Masters will be his final one. It's nice because Crenshaw will be honored after playing his final hole. It's curious because his longtime Augusta caddie, Carl Jackson, won't have it so easy. Jackson, who has been looping for Masters golfers for 53 years, including 39 years with Crenshaw, will be forced into a retirement he doesn't want.

Jackson has said he would like to remain involved in the tournament once Crenshaw leaves, but the green coats have made it clear there is no place for him here.

"We don't have lifetime memberships," Payne said, adding, "We don't have lifetime admission for employees after they leave the employ of the club."

If only he were a tree.