SI's Tim Layden is at Augusta National for the first time in 30+ year career as a sports journalist. He details why it's been so special. Hint: It's not the golf course.
AUGUSTA, Georgia – Fair warning: This is going to be one of those columns where I wax eloquent (or some approximation of eloquence) about my first visit to Augusta National Golf Course and the Masters golf tournament. There will be azaleas. But hang on; don’t click out yet. Bear with me. (Bear. See what I did there?). My transition from the weepy postcard phase will occur promptly and before scrolling becomes burdensome. We’ll be on the back nine before you know it.
When I told some friends and colleagues that I would be covering the Masters this year—my first, in four decades as a professional sports journalist—their response was almost universal. Oh my God, you’re going to love it. This was only in part because the people who run Augusta National have gone overboard in providing a lavish experience for attending media, which is very nice, but unnecessary. A few weeks ago I was writing stories from a drafty tent on a mountainside in South Korea, pausing between paragraphs to scarf down dry peanut butter sandwiches or traipse outside to the use the restroom, which was in an unheated trailer. And it was great. (Or at least that’s the way I’m choosing to remember it, from an increasing distance). So yeah, the Masters swaddles journalists in comfort and feeds them delicious (and complimentary) meals, but in my experience there is rarely a correlation between good work and pleasant surroundings. In fact, it often works the other way. Too much comfort dulls the senses and lightens the intensity.
The primary reason I was assured that my first Masters experience would be wonderful was because, as a lifelong sports fan, writer and golfer, I would be emotionally overwhelmed at seeing in person the temple of sport that I had for so long witnessed on television, anchored to my couch for Saturday and Sunday afternoons in April. Fair enough. Augusta National is a beautiful golf course. Those azaleas are in bloom. The pines are tall and majestic. And the fairways…. the fairways are like billiard tables. I can easily imagine myself chunking wedges all day off lies too tight for my mediocre golf game. (An aside: As I walked the course Tuesday for the first time, watching Tiger and Phil play their practice round, I also imagined a cross country race on the rolling hills of the course, with strategic terrain changes and blind curves. It would be epic, but of course that is not happening in my lifetime, or my children’s, or their children’s. But we can dream).
Through some genetic defect, at this point in my life I’m not inclined to fall to the ground in worship of a sports venue. The last time I felt that way was on my first visit to Notre Dame Stadium, in 1988. There was a reason for that, which had nothing to do with the structure itself, or, to be honest, with Notre Dame or football. I’ll get back to that in a minute, because there is a commonality, for me, between Augusta and Notre Dame Stadium. So, yes, Augusta National is gorgeous. It’s not as beautiful as, say, the Cape Cod National Seashore on a foggy evening in September, or the peak of Mount Rainier in the sunshine. But it’s very nice. I’ve seen some very picturesque golf courses in my lifetime (not nearly as many as most of the golf scribes sitting near me as I type this, but a few), and they’re all quite breathtaking.
What sets Augusta apart, if you accept that it is, indeed, apart, is the connection to past moments and the opportunity to stand on –—or very near—hallowed ground from which famous shots were struck, and to appreciate those moments from a living perspective. Tiger made that chip from right here. Wow. And also, of course, seeing a television show come to life, as if being invited to sit in Archie Bunker’s chair or work in Walter White’s meth lab. Churchill Downs was the same way for me, on my first visit there, in 2002. You walk out onto the track, look up, and, sure enough, twin spires. But I’m here to say that, for me, the thrill dissipates pretty quickly and all of these enthralling places became places where I have a job to do. Don’t misunderstand: I’m incredibly thankful that the place where I’m asked to do that job this week is Augusta National, and not the maximum security prison where some of my high school buddies worked as corrections officers. Or any one of a thousand other less cushy places. Thankful beyond words.
After all these keystrokes already typed (and coded), an admission: I am moved by Augusta National and the Masters. But not because of the flowers or the trees or the patrons or even the players.
Here’s why: I’m a lifelong golfer. Mediocre for a while, briefly pretty decent and then, for most of my adult life, awful, sprinkled with moments of fleeting brilliance that delude me into returning. (This describes 97 percent of golfers on the planet). At this point, golf is a less an athletic pursuit for me than a meeting point for sustaining long-distance friendships. But that’s nice to have, just as my father predicted it would be. So yes, we have arrived at the crux of this writing exercise.
My father, the late Edward Francis Layden, who died in April of 2013, a month shy of his 86th birthday, introduced me to golf when I was 6 years old. He was a largely self-taught golfer himself, a Navy veteran, mediocre Division III college football player (before it was called Division III) and then an accomplished attorney, who like many in his generation took to golf as a weekend pursuit that was equal parts athletic and social. Over the course of his 60-plus years of golf, he was connected to no more than half a dozen regular foursomes, with whom he would play Saturday and Sunday matches and with whom he would eat and drink afterward. My father was intensely driven and competitive in his career; golf was an outlet. He was never a particularly good player and his lifelong goal was to make clean bogeys. Routinely, he would walk in the back door of our home and proclaim that on this very day, he had “discovered the secret of golf.’’
Dad encouraged me to play every sport, but particularly football and golf. Playing golf with some degree of competence, he explained, would sustain me for a lifetime. Not just for the ability to competently beat my ball around the course, for also in learning the arcane language and customs of the game. He made sure I took lessons from a professional, at a little lake course in Vermont. My father and I played together for years. During summers, we would travel to nice courses in Vermont and upstate New York. My brother, Joe, three years younger than I am, eventually became the third member of the threesome. We kept doing this into our 30s, using golf as a chance to keep close.
I don’t want to oversell the golf part of my relationship with my father. He was a terrific Dad. He took us on family vacations, helped me with my homework and drove the boat so that we could waterski behind it, even after he had worked a 12-hour day in some dark-wood courtroom. But there was something special about golf, where father and son(s) were a captive audience for hours on end, and where the natural tension between a teenager and an adult would eventually melt away. It’s hard to stay pissed at somebody for four hours of walking.
The common ground extended to watching golf on television, especially the Masters. My father, again, like so many in his generation, was an Arnold Palmer fan. He had gone to Boston to watch the 1963 U.S. Open, in which Palmer lost in a three-way playoff. The tournament was won by easy-swinging Julius Boros, and for years afterward, when my father managed to find a smooth rhythm and stripe a drive down the middle, he would say, “Nice and easy, just like Julie Boros.’’ But it was Palmer that moved the needle. When Jack Nicklaus arrived to supplant Palmer, my father was among the many who derisively called him “Fat Jack.’’ But as time passed, Dad embraced Nicklaus. On Masters Sunday, I would settle into the living room chair and my father would tell me to watch out for The Bear.
Okay, Notre Dame Stadium. My father was, first and foremost, a fan of the New York (football) Giants. But also, as a card-carrying Irish Catholic male, it was his duty to love Notre Dame. He made me a Notre Dame fan, and we watched those games together, too, and the homer highlights on Sunday mornings. So that is why, on that Thursday afternoon in 1988, when I stood in the shadow of Notre Dame Stadium for the first of many times (two days before Catholics vs. Convicts), I felt a lump in my throat and rushed back to my dumpy motel room to call home and tell my father what I had seen that very day.
Now I’m here at this pretty golf course in Georgia. A famous golf course for many reasons (not all of them good), which stands a very good chance of adding to its history this weekend. I am happy to be here and to check off the box on my personal history and to write stories about the Masters. I’m sad that I can’t call home this time.