Mary Poppins and The Masters
Get ready for four days of superlatives. Grass so green, water so blue, pictures so beautiful you’ll think they’ve been photoshopped. There will be soporific piano music and the whispered voices of TV announcers recounting tales of the ghosts of Masters past. You’ll think Charles Dickens had written the script.
Yes, four days when the gods of golf will be in their heaven looming over Augusta National – sorry, iconic, beautifiul, majestic, legendary, pristine, heavenly, hallowed Augusta National, take your pick – and all will be right with the world.
After a while you begin to wonder if the Masters is played on a golf course or a Disney set. Even Bobby Jones probably didn’t realise he was creating a Mary Poppins course – “perfect in every way” – when he dreamt of turning the old Fruitland Nurseries property just off Washington Road in Augusta into his own private playground.
You have to admit there are times when watching the first men’s major of the year, the so called "Spring Classic," the tournament played in the "Cathedral in the Pines," that you just want to shout:
“Oh, come on, it must have at least one bloody flaw!”
I’m lucky to have covered five Masters. I even managed to play seven and a half holes, but that’s an entirely different story. There’s no doubting it’s a special place, but it just seems a wee bit too special. It reminded me of the movie the Stepford Wives. I mean, what other course in the world fills in divots with green sand mix, dyes the ponds blue and keeps the azaleas in ice so they bloom at just the right time, as if Mary Poppins has waved her umbrella over the whole place?
I’m not alone in marvelling at a level of perfection almost too good to be true. First time Bob Torrance set foot on Augusta National he returned to report that he couldn’t find a weed.
The Scotsman knew a weed when he saw one. He’d worked as a greenkeeper at Routenburn Golf Club in his hometown of Largs before he became a world-renowned golf coach. Imagine the annual budget needed to keep every weed in the Augusta area at bay was Torrance’s take.
No wonder the Stepford Wives analogy is apropos. That’s especially true when you see what lies outside the property the locals simply call “The National.” Six-lane Washington Road could be Anywhere, USA, with its Hooters, Taco Bell, Waffle House, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Carraba’s Italian Grill, Applebees, Domino’s Pizza and other popular eating establishments you’ll find in just about every town in the US of A. You don't have too drive far to find the other side of town either. Life on the other side of the Augusta tracks is a million miles away from the opulence the rich members of the world's most exclusive club enjoy. Then you turn down Magnolia Lane into another world, an oasis amid the urban sprawl that lies outside.
Former England cricket player Mike Selvey covered a Masters when he was chief cricket correspondent for The Guardian. As Selvey noted on Twitter:
“It's that Magnolia time of year again. Is there a more sycophantic, obsequious event in sport?
“Once was plenty for me.
“The sinister undercurrent there was unavoidable. And the quasi-religious obeisance to it all just a bit nauseating.”
Not the words the green jackets expect to hear, and don’t. Speak ill of the place and media credentials might just be withdrawn, just as announcers Jack Whitaker and Gary McCord were withdrawn from TV coverage for having the temerity to veer off script.
I know how Selvey feels. There is an undercurrent of something not quite right about Augusta National that’s hard to put your finger on. Everything seems just that wee bit too superficial. A bit like Dubai for me: everything appears right as rain on the surface, but you wonder what lies underneath all the gloss.
As for “nauseated,” haven’t we all felt just a wee bit queasy when that twee, grovelling, green jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin tries to suck the entire life out of every single tournament no matter how exciting it was?
Back to the golf course. I love looking at old photographs of the course, the one Dr Alister MacKenzie no doubt envisaged when he laid it out in the early 1930s ahead of the inaugural 1934 Augusta National Invitational Tournament. It’s amazing to see images of the course with areas that aren’t manicured to death.
Wonder what MacKenzie would make of his most famous creation as it is now. Surely even he couldn’t have imagined the vividness of the place – so green, so lush – given that his favourite course was The Old at St Andrews, where brown and burnt out is often every bit as beautiful as green and verdant?
#JustSaying: “The finest golf courses in existence are natural ones.” Dr Alister MacKenzie, The Spirit of St Andrews