The exquisite 9-hole Par 3 course set around the three acres of Ike’s Pond is among the most picturesque settings in the world. Adoring and appreciative fans sit patiently on sloped banks in their assorted and often colourful couture, keenly watching the easy practised skills of the contestants in this family-picnic-like atmosphere.
No winner of this contest has ever won the Masters in that same year. As a result, Luke Donald, clearly an aspirant for the green jacket, has opted not to play, and one may rule out Harrington and Byrd for brashly pushing ahead in the face of such superstition. There were two holes-in-one in this year.
In line with the past practice, the trio of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, with 13 Masters titles among them, unfailingly delighted the fans yet again. These three players put on quite a show and there’s no other tournament in the world that could boast such magic as a precursor to the main event. While this trio will all be honourary starter to the tournament — Gary Player for the first time — Arnold Palmer appears to have aged much in the last year and could not even be present at the prize presentation at his own tournament a couple of weeks earlier, owing to a sudden, but thankfully temporary, health setback.
Gary Player is a terrific guy. Still fully capable of shooting in the upper sixties, well below his age, he admits to feeling nervous at his first time out as an honourary starter. Spectators enjoyed Gary’s remarkable ball striking at the practice range, where he apparently effortlessly smacked his drives close to three hundred yards in preparation for the starter duty. He definitely not only wishes to be the longest off the tee on his first time out, but also straight down the middle. He need not have any worry.
One is used to seeing the best players perform only on TV. It is truly a wonderful experience to see one’s golfing heroes live, smiling and joking with their competitor colleagues, and not looking championship-stern at all. At any of the substantial practice facilities, one can watch them in drawing-room comfort from ring side armchair seats. Past Masters champion Immelman’s swing was being micro-managed by the great golf guru, Leadbetter, while Westwood, the Molinari brothers and others had their personal swing coaches at hand. The amiable walrus, Craig Stadler, executed some duffs and sculls that I am an expert at, before settling down to some pretty good shot making. He belies the new mantra of fitness in golf athletics. Nick Faldo may play as a past champion, but is unlikely to be spared from his very popular and informed commentator duties. Even now, he looks fit and young, like a champion should.
|ROUND 1 LEADERBOARD
67 (5-under) — Lee Westwood (ENG)
68 Louis Oosthuizen (RSA), Peter Hanson (SWE)
69 Paul Lawrie (SCO), Miguel Angel Jimenez (ESP), Francesco Molinari (ITA), Ben Crane (USA), Jason Dufner (USA), Bubba Watson (USA)
70 Zach Johnson (USA), Vijay Singh (FIJ), Jim Furyk (USA), Scott Stallings (USA)
71 Ross Fisher (ENG), Steve Stricker (USA), Padraig Harrington (IRL), Stewart Cink (USA), Aaron Baddeley (AUS), Hideki Matsuyama (JPN), Matt Kuchar (USA), Henrik Stenson (SWE), Keegan Bradley (USA), Nick Watney (USA), Kevin Chappell (USA), Patrick Cantlay (USA), Kevin Na (USA), Rory McIlroy (NIR), Angel Cabrera (ARG)
72 Martin Kaymer (GER), Bill Haas (USA), Justin Rose (ENG), Charl Schwartzel (RSA), Tiger Woods (USA), Ian Poulter (ENG), Jonathan Byrd (USA), Bernhard Langer (GER), Charles Howell (USA), Mike Weir (CAN), Brandt Snedeker (USA), Webb Simpson (USA), Rory Sabbatini (RSA), Fred Couples (USA), Sergio Garcia (ESP), Hunter Mahan (USA)
The driving on the practice range at Augusta National is brilliantly and thoughtfully designed, to not only allow many players to practise at the same time, but to also allow precision shot making practice by virtue of several short pins placed at 10 yard increments along one side of the range. Further, even a 450-yard drive will not find the end of this driving range.
There was a time when the professionals could not hit a second ball during their practice rounds, as it was treated as an offence. Not any more, as such rounds are much more relaxed, educative for those competing for the first time and very spectator-friendly. Photography is freely permitted, although patrons are clearly advised to seek autographs only within pre-designated areas. Most players are happy to oblige and keep a felt pen handy for this at all times. One is always astonished as to how these pros, who can crunch out 350-yard drives at will, can equally play the most delicate of chip and pitch shots to within inches of their target areas. Of course, it’s equally amazing how they put so delicately and accurately on these quicksilver greens that read at least 14 on the Stimp meter.
A word on amateurs
The general playing public, such as you and I, are all amateurs. Here, however, we are talking about champion players before they turn professionals, if they do at all. Bobby Jones did not turn pro despite being the best player in the world and winning the grand slam of majors. All professionals were, of course, amateurs once, and transited through a short (Justin Rose) or long (many) amateur internships. They turn pro when they feel they can handle the intense pressure of the weekly grind of missed cuts, a moveable feast from venue to venue and loneliness and solitude. Highly talented juniors begin to win on the amateur circuits and those that are winner or runner-up in the US Amateur Championship and the UK Amateur Championship are already among the best players in the world, lacking only the “trial by fire” wisdom that the pros garner through their weekly gladiating. The encouragement that the US, UK, South Africa, Australia, Japan and other countries give to all amateur sports at the school, college and intra-mural level is why the world’s best athletes emerge from these countries. Out of these great efforts, post war, a small country like South Africa has won 23 majors, second only to the US. Essential to this output, in any sporting discipline, are excellent training facilities, low-cost opportunities to play, availability of equipment, highly skilled coaches and sufficient sponsors to carry the burden of several years of development.
These days, parents interest their children in golf at a very early age and some of them become extraordinary champions. Tiger Woods started at two years of age, as did Rory McIlory, and young Patrick Cantlay, from whom much is expected, at age three. He qualified for the Masters by coming second at the 2011 US Amateur Championship, and was the Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year. Currently, he is the number-one ranked amateur in the world. His remarkable 60 in the Hartford Open in 2011 as a young amateur is a great harbinger of things to come. Besides, his self management on and off the course is confident and pleasing to the general public. Among the amateurs at this year’s Masters, young Cantlay and Kraft of the US and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan have already done brilliantly in the first round.
Amateur championships are the arena, the crucible, where one’s basic character for golf is built. Learning to win and lose, graciousness, fair play and consistency under pressure are all attributes that will be required in the coming future contests. Tiger, Phil, Rory and a host of others have succeeded while many have not; here’s hoping that Cantlay will join the ranks of Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar and other cheerful and successful golfers to continue to inspire legions of young men and women waiting to play at the professional level. Because of the longevity enjoyed at the professional level in this sport, one can reasonably expect a lot of talented young sportsmen, who could select any professional sport, opting for golf — because that’s where the money is!
In India, too, it is felt that great efforts need to be dedicated towards amateur golf, so that these golfers serve to prepare potential champions for the world stage in the future.
The author is chairman, Honda Siel Cars India Ltd; and co-chairman, Usha International Ltd