Augusta buzzing with Masters expectation
Out here, the Masters doesn't start on Thursday. It's started.
The National, as locals call the course, is already packed and buzzing with anticipation.
This week's 76th edition is shaping up to be a blockbuster, an old-fashioned clash of the titans. And for good reason.
Tiger Woods is back in form and eyeing a fifth Green Jacket in what would surely rank as his greatest win. Rory McIlroy, a young man at the other end of the spectrum, is arguably the hottest property on the golfing planet. A win 12 months on from his infamous collapse would eclipse his spell-binding US Open triumph.
Then there is three-time champion Phil Mickelson, another Augusta specialist, and world number one Luke Donald. All four with wins this season. All hungry for different reasons.
Lee Westwood, ranked third behind McIlroy, says he has been focused on this week since the USPGA in August. That elusive major is all he is missing.
Defending champion Charl Schwartzel leads the supporting cast but comes in under most people's radars. England's Justin Rose has led around here and also won recently. A new breed of Americans such as USPGA champion Keegan Bradley and Hunter Mahan are making names for themselves. Aussies Jason Day, Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy, South Korea's KJ Choi, and Argentina's 2009 champion Angel Cabrera all have claims, too.
It's all smiles for Tiger Woods again, having won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in the lead up to the Masters. Photo: AP
But if it does turn out to be Woods and McIlroy going head-to-head on Sunday the Augusta roars could still be reverberating when we return next year.
"The Masters is always good but if this all works out properly it could be an absolute belter," said the BBC's voice of golf Peter Alliss.
Augusta in spring represents a gathering of golfing clans, both here and in front of TVs around the world. It is an annual rebirth of the game for many, and the first chance for eight months to bag a place in the history books for the players.
Looking out over the "lovely monster", as Alliss describes it, on Monday morning, it's not hard to see why Ian Woosnam rates it as the golf course he would play in heaven. For many, just setting foot on the grounds is nirvana.
Looking out from in front of the clubhouse over the first tee, the land plunges away and colourful streams of patrons trickle down to glimpse Tiger Woods already out around Amen Corner.
Over to the left is the 10th tee, innocent-looking now but the beginning of the end for McIlroy last year. How long will he dwell there this time?
Between the 18th green and the ninth green coming in from the right is a vast space, much more open than the Augusta you think you know on TV. Its real jewels are encased in the pine trees further down the property.
The grass is so thick and lush you feel you should be wearing slippers. Sun dazzles the iconic white and green Masters scoreboard on the first fairway. The smell of pine and wood chippings, and early cigar smoke, float through the air. Conversation hums quietly, but excitedly. First-timers can't take enough photos.
But it's more than the view. It's also a feeling. Of reverence, history, familiarity. Awe. Strict rationing on TV has always left us wanting more which adds to the aura. Too much gloss?
"I'm not much of a golf fan, but the Masters is my favourite sporting event of the year," said a colleague back home.
The Augusta National is a place rooted in tradition, regimented in code and yet so innovative and forward thinking. A cutting-edge website, apps, state-of-the art media centre, the best practice ground in the world.
But despite its grand status as one of sport's holy grails, it is grounded. A traditional pimento cheese sandwich costs $1.50, beer is $3. Tickets are affordable ($75), if hard to come by.
"Everything is the same and yet it changes every year," said Alliss.
"Some of what they do is delightfully old fashioned and some is very up-to-date."
The 81-year-old first came to Augusta to play in the 1966 Masters and is back commentating for his 26th year with the BBC.
"I had six invitations, the first was in 1955, and I never went," he said. "I only went twice, in 1966 and 1967, because back then it was a long way to go, the prize money was very poor and it wasn't the great thing it is now. If somebody said now you had an invitation and you said, 'no thanks' they'd think you were mad.
"But the press have loved it from day one and built it into this marvellous thing."
Of course, the Masters is about more than just a lush Georgian greensward.
Its legend has been made by layers of sporting drama, beginning with Horton Smith's inaugural win in 1934 and going through the Ben Hogan and Sam Snead years, to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus's rivalry, Gary Player breaking the US strangehold, Seve Ballesteros pioneering the way for the Europeans, Sandy Lyle becoming the first Briton to don a Green Jacket, Nick Faldo claiming three, Nicklaus winning an unpredented sixth aged 46, Woods's first win in 1997, Mickelson's breakthrough in 2004, right up to Schwartzel's four-birdie finish to triumph last year.
"There's something about that Green Jacket," said Schwartzel. "Every time you put it on you get this very, very proud feeling."
The South African, who now shares a locker with the late Ballesteros in the Champions Locker Room, will host a braai (bbq) for his traditional Champions Dinner on Tuesday.
"I'm very excited about that and yet nervous," he said. "You're going to be around legends and past champions in a room. It's probably going to be the best evening of my life."
That elusive club will embrace an old friend or welcome a new member on Sunday.
Masters week is go.
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