Men of character required to reap Augusta destiny
Masters brings out the best in the best and year's first Major rarely disappoints
It felt like discovering a thrilling new dimension to the golfing world when I first attended the US Masters, 30 years ago. Now I'm going back this week, probably for the last time, and the sense of anticipation remains as keen as ever.
At a time when transatlantic flights from Dublin involved a lunchtime stopover at Shannon Airport, my flight out on Sunday, April 2, 1989 was subject to a much more extended delay. This was due to the arrival as part of his European tour of Mikhail Gorbachev, who flew into Shannon where he was met by Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
My first sight of Augusta National, however, more than compensated for the protracted delay. It exceeded all my expectations, even down to the quaintness of an old Nissen hut which was then fulfilling its last year as a media centre before being replaced by a new structure at a reported cost of $10m.
The clashing call-tones of mobile phones were still very much in the future. This was a time when the clatter of typewriters, both of the portable and desk varieties, was the dominant sound, though the word processor presented growing evidence of 'new technology'. And a pall of cigarette smoke hung beneath the curved, corrugated roof as type-written words were punched by nicotine-stained fingers.
On that memorable Monday, I observed Seve Ballesteros, the reigning Open champion, generating an excitement reserved for golfing royalty on his arrival through one of sport's most heavily secured portals. All this, with glorious sunshine embellishing the profusion of colour created by a botanical masterpiece.
It had taken two centuries of history to put Augusta on the US map, but through books, newspapers, magazines and more recently television, the Masters had given the city international status as the adopted home of the dogwood, azalea, rosebud and wisteria. And it happened to have the first Major championship of the golfing year.
There was no Irish representative in the field, but leading Europeans such as Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and the defending champion, Sandy Lyle, seemed to offer the familiarity of home, through their Irish Open exploits at Portmarnock and Royal Dublin. And the iconic image of Jack Nicklaus with an outstretched putter, surging to a sixth triumph only three years previously, was already a part of Augusta lore.
Since then, an Irish presence has grown through the years, from Ronan Rafferty and David Feherty, to regular appearances by Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington. They, in turn, have been followed by a newer brigade led by Rory McIlroy, who will launch his 11th successive Masters assault next Thursday, joined by Shane Lowry, back at Augusta for a fourth time.
Meanwhile, a lasting memory from '89 concerns the pre-tournament comments from New Englander, Ken Green, who had won the Canadian Open and the Milwaukee Open the previous season. His opening salvo was to describe the Masters as "a scam".
He proceeded: "The greens are too hard and fast and the pin placements are suspect - I can give them all the credit in the world for pulling off the scam they do. No matter how they set up the course, everybody plays. If any other tournament organiser did that, nobody would show up."
Many observers interpreted this as inverted praise, though Green seemed determined that even the Masters shouldn't be beyond reproach, certainly not in Connecticut. Against this background of notoriety, which nobody has since thought of matching, his 11th-place finish that year was his best in six Masters appearances.
Billy Casper, the champion in 1970, showed a lot more respect, not to mention humour, after coming dramatically to grief in 2005 when he had a 14 at the short 16th en route to a first round of 106. Approaching his 74th birthday and weighing in at a formidable 18 stone plus, Casper declined to return the card, no doubt out of courtesy to his hosts.
"I have a furniture problem," he said afterwards with a smile. "My chest has fallen into my drawers." Green could have learned much from this great sportsman on how guests, even discouraged ones, might suitably behave.
Elsewhere in '89, there were some interesting thoughts from the 1985 winner, Langer, about the most searching test the course is claimed to present. "People make a lot of play about putting at Augusta and it is certainly very difficult," he said. "The greens here are matched by only about four other courses in the world, with the crucial difference that at Augusta, there are severe undulations."
Then, propounding a belief later vindicated by the 2000 champion, Vijay Singh, and which McIlroy might note, the German went on: "Winning the Masters is more about iron play. The challenge of putting can be a lot less intimidating if you get approach shots within 10 feet of the hole. That's how I won."
From a European perspective, the weekend of my first Masters couldn't have been better, with the dominance of Faldo offering rich compensation for wretchedly hostile weather. Second behind Lee Trevino after an opening 68, Faldo went on to be tied for the lead with the American at the halfway stage.
Persistent rain caused play to be suspended for two hours on the Saturday and it meant the Englishman still had five holes of his third round to complete early on Sunday morning. When he did them in two-over par for a dispiriting 77, he had slipped to five strokes off the 54-hole lead held by Ben Crenshaw.
In such circumstances and against a tight transatlantic deadline, the last thing a scribe would want was extra holes. But that's what we got, when a brilliant last round of 65 left Faldo level with Scott Hoch on 283 - five-under par. Still, there was good news from home, with word coming through that Christy O'Connor Jnr had beaten Denis Durnian in a play-off for the Jersey Open at La Moye.
The climax at Augusta, with the clock easing past seven on a dark, damp evening, was to become one of the heartbreak stories of the Masters. Hoch had a 30-inch par putt for victory on the 10th, the first play-off hole, only to pull it ruinously wide of the target. One hole later, Faldo hit a glorious three-iron into the heart of the 11th green and boldly sank a 25-foot birdie putt for victory.
"When you get a chance you must take it," he said afterwards with typical directness. "I knew that the pressure was building on Scott as we went down the 11th." All the American could think to say was: "I guess I forgot to line up the putter."
Glued to a television set in a corner of the media centre, Crenshaw knew exactly what had happened. "Jesus! Hit it," he shouted at an unhearing Hoch, as his compatriot went around the hole to look at the putt for a second time.
From a journalistic standpoint, the aftermath of Masters '89 was very different from things these days. Late on the Sunday night, we gathered in an Augusta hotel where Faldo, replete with green jacket, appeared with a representative of his management group, IMG.
There we were informed that his endorsement income would be increased by £3m over the following three years, based on existing clothing and equipment contracts. And, revealingly, for the first time in his professional career, he wouldn't be playing the Irish Open two months later.
As for the Masters, he remained convinced he was going to win, even when Hoch stood over that 30-inch putt. Just as Harrington would be convinced, 18 years later, behind the 72nd green at Carnoustie, where a par would have secured Sergio Garcia the title.
Charles Reade, the 19th century English novelist, informed us: "Sow a character and you reap a destiny." Which seems to be more true at Augusta National than at any other Major venue.
Sunday Indo Sport