French Fried Already taking heat because of his country's politics, Thomas Levet's first Masters was a real eye-opener

April 20, 2003

It was the crowning achievement of his golfing life, so
naturally Thomas Levet went looking for somebody to hug. The
Frenchman had just lost the 2002 British Open to Ernie Els with
a bogey on the fifth playoff hole, but Levet remained so giddy
that he stunned Els by sweeping him off his feet. After 13
mostly anonymous years on the European tour, Levet's
breakthrough at Muirfield had provided him with playing
privileges on the PGA Tour, but that wasn't the cause of his
fervor. Even before the playoff had begun, the 34-year-old
Levet had been gripped by one thought, which he shared with his
father. "There he is, warming up for the Open playoff," says
Claude Levet, "and he sees me, smiles and says, 'Prepare your
luggage for Augusta.'"

By the time the 2003 Tour reached Florida, Levet could think of
little else but Augusta. However, on March 8, during the final
round of the Ford Championship, his reverie was interrupted.
France had refused to join the U.S.-led coalition that in 12 days
would go to war with Iraq, and as Levet strode down the 18th
fairway at Doral's Blue Monster, he was showered with jingoistic
epithets. Levet responded with a sarcastic clap, and news of the
incident rippled across Florida and beyond. At the ensuing Honda
Classic, in Palm Beach Gardens, two federal agents and a police
officer shadowed him around the course. "I would rather eat a
terrible meal than talk politics," says Levet. "Politics has a
useful place in life, but to me that place is not in sport."

That was a common theme last week at the most politicized Masters
ever, where Levet's troubles had everything to do with golf.
Here's a day-by-day account of Levet's first trip to Augusta.

SUNDAY, APRIL 6 Levet finishes 44th at the BellSouth Classic
outside Atlanta in a performance that is a microcosm of his year:
streaky iron play bookended by average driving and solid--at
times spectacular--putting. Following his final-round 72, he
drives to Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport to pick up
family members flying in for the Masters from various points in
Europe. The group splits up into two cars for the 150-mile drive
to Augusta. In one car is Thomas; his four-year-old son,
Gregoire; his sister's boyfriend, Sebastien Renaud; and Claude.
In the other is Thomas's wife, Caroline; their two-year-old
daughter, Juliette; Thomas's only sister, Marie; and their
mother, Marie-Ange. It's the parents' first trip to the U.S.,
and, fittingly, during the drive they have their first meal at
McDonald's.

The Levet family is close-knit, and everyone has been involved in
athletics. Claude's father was a professional cyclist, and Claude
played on the junior national field hockey team for several
years. Marie-Ange was a standout volleyball player. The Levets
have always played golf together recreationally, with
Marie-Ange's 11 handicap being the worst in the family by seven
strokes. "That's golf in France," says Thomas. "Families going to
the course, playing together." In fact, Thomas and Caroline met
in 1983 when they represented France in a European junior
tournament.

The two-car caravan finally arrives at their rented five-bedroom
house in west Augusta at 10 p.m. The house is a 10-minute drive
from Augusta National, a bit longer with traffic or when it's
raining.

MONDAY Levet awakens to lightning at 6:30 a.m.--the first storm
of the week is moving in. He knows he won't be practicing
today, but he is eager to get a glimpse of the course, so he,
Claude and Sebastien drive to the club to pick up their
tournament badges. The heavy rain closes the course to the
public for the first time on a Masters Monday since 1939.
Levet's awe of the place is tempered by the traffic in front of
the club, which stretches endlessly on Washington Road. The
dash to the tournament office takes three hours, after which
the Levets return to the house for the rest of the day.

TUESDAY Levet has picked the perfect partners for his first round
at Augusta--Toshi Izawa, Shingo Katayama and Shigeki Maruyama. "I
played with three Japanese guys, which was nice," he says,
"because they speak no French and little English, and I speak no
Japanese." Left to his own thoughts, Levet can concentrate on the
many nuances of the course.

Levet is used to the solitary existence. Caroline and the kids
live in the family's new house outside London. Even when he was
playing the European tour, Levet would usually see them only on
Mondays during tournament weeks. This year, while on the PGA
Tour, he has been home only twice since January. He has struggled
to adapt to his new tour, missing the cut four times in nine
starts and winning only $48,142. Still, Levet hopes to establish
himself on the U.S. circuit, at which point he'll move his family
here.

After the practice round Levet works on his game until the rain
returns at around 4:30 p.m. He has invited about a dozen French
journalists to a cookout at his house tonight. "It's rare to have
so many French at a tournament, so I wanted to have them all
together," he says. Levet is sitting just outside the players'
locker room. Realizing he's late, he borrows a cellphone to call
Caroline and politely asks a nearby security guard and state
trooper if they speak French, hoping they don't so that he can
have a little privacy. Turning first to the Pinkerton and then
back to Levet, the stone-faced trooper replies, "That language
isn't very welcome around here these days."

Thankfully, this small-minded trooper is a lone voice of
unpleasantness. Levet will be received warmly by the gallery
throughout the week and will require no special security
considerations.

WEDNESDAY Levet gets in a second practice round in the morning,
with Toru Taniguchi of Japan. Another approaching storm threatens
during the par-3 tournament, but four-year-old Gregoire, all but
obscured under an oversized umbrella, gamely caddies for his dad.
Small but athletic, the tennis-loving Gregoire takes after his
father, who as a child excelled at tennis and field hockey.
Despite his slight build, the 5'9" Levet was "a very tough
cookie," says Claude. "I thought he could one day play hockey for
France in the Olympics."

When Claude joined La Boulie, a golf club near the family's house
10 miles south of Paris, Thomas added the sport to his busy
schedule. He can remember some Saturdays as a 12-year-old when he
played in a tennis tournament in the morning, a golf tournament
in the afternoon and a field hockey match at night. He was
enrolled in a tennis academy, but chronic knee pain made running
difficult, so he focused on golf. By 16 he was a scratch player.
At 17 he was a member of the six-man senior national team.

Despite those accomplishments Levet's parents had their doubts
when he turned pro at 20. "I thought he'd be a veterinarian,"
Marie-Ange says. Adds Claude, "I was afraid he had made a
mistake, but the choice was his, and we've always supported him."
Quietly. Continuing a tradition of not applauding family members
at athletic events, a custom that started with his father, Claude
says they will not clap for Thomas during the Masters. "We don't
need to clap for one another. With family, support is"--he points
to his heart--"in here."

THURSDAY The rain is a persistent drumbeat throughout a dreary
day. The first round is canceled by the time Levet awakens at
10:30, but he still heads to the club to hit balls until 2 p.m.
When he returns home, he and the family pass the time playing
cards and putt-putt golf on a makeshift course Levet crafts in
the backyard. By the time dinner is served, his Masters debut is
12 hours away.

FRIDAY Welcome to the Masters, rook: 36 holes are scheduled today
on the long, waterlogged course, and it doesn't help that Levet
wakes up with a raspy cough and a headache, the early stages of a
cold. Levet has the misfortune of beginning on the 10th tee, and
his first spin around Amen Corner does not go well. After a bogey
on the 11th hole he makes a double at the devilish par-3 12th.
Three holes into his first Masters, Levet is already looking
dejected.

Meanwhile, the pace of play slows to a crawl. Levet, Fuzzy
Zoeller and the third member of their group, Taniguchi, are fast
players, which makes the incessant waiting even worse. Levet,
though, shows remarkable patience, often joining Zoeller in
chatting with fans even as the bogeys pile up. Says Zoeller
later, "I like a guy who smiles while he plays, especially when
he can't get the damn engine running." Levet finishes with a
seven-over 79.

His second round is more of the same. He drops four more shots in
the first four holes and swings his putter in exasperation after
every misread. When he makes his only birdie of the day, at
number 7, he mocks himself with a small dance of exultation.

Standing over an 18-footer for par on the 10th green, Levet
finally experiences a Masters moment: Just as he strikes his
ball, a thunderous roar goes up from the gallery at the adjacent
15th tee, where Tiger Woods has struck a mighty drive. The cheers
do not carry over to the 10th, however, for Levet's putt comes up
short.

When the horns sounds at 7:30, signaling the end of play due to
darkness, Levet is on the 15th green facing a 12-footer for
birdie. He elects to putt out, as is his prerogative, but he
leaves yet another putt short. As he walks solemnly toward his
family in the grandstand--virtually his entire gallery for the
last 45 minutes--they break their rule. They clap for him.

"I wasn't nervous, but I couldn't get in a rhythm all day," Levet
says. "The waiting between shots was crazy, and the greens...I
could never, ever figure them out. Now I must make three birdies
tomorrow to have a chance." He's 12 over, 18 shots behind the
leader, Mike Weir. "I need a miracle."

SATURDAY Miracles are in precious supply. After three
garden-variety pars under brilliant blue skies, Levet finishes
the second round with a 77 and a two-day total of 156 that leaves
him seven shots over the cut. "I've never putted so badly in my
life," he says. "Every time I'm like, Hello! What are you doing?
It's a shame, really. A shame."

As the Levets leave Augusta National for a quiet day around the
house--they will stay through the weekend--Woods staves off
elimination with a gritty up-and-down par on his final hole of
the second round. Some Masters moments you have to see, or hear,
to believe. Others, as Levet can attest, you'd just as soon
skip.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS SLOW STARTER Levet never recovered after going three over par on the first three holes. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK A MAN APART Levet (far left) enjoyed his solitary strolls around the National. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS BIG NEWS Gregoire caddied for his dad in the par-3, then sat around with (from left) Marie-Ange, Caroline and Juliette. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS FUNNY BUSINESS Zoeller appreciated that Levet could still put on a happy face for the fans as he struggled with his game.

Asked if he speaks French, the stone-faced trooper says, "That
language isn't very welcome around here these days."

"We don't need to clap for one another," says Claude. "With
family, support is"--he points to his heart--"in here."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)