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Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the 17th green during the second round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Friday April 11, 2014. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the 17th green during the second round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Friday April 11, 2014. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Old-fashioned decorum and ritual add to the Masters mystique Add to ...

“The Masters is more like a vast Edwardian garden party than a golf tournament.” – British Broadcast Alistair Cooke

The secret lies in change so subtle it is barely, if at all, noticeable.  Take Gary Player, for instance. He can represent the human side of the Masters. The three-time champion – 1961, 1974 and 1978 – is standing in the lower hallway of the clubhouse at Augusta National. He is within reach of his own portrait, which hangs on the Champions Wall – just to the left of six-time winner Jack Nicklaus, and two to the right of four-time winner Arnold Palmer. If Player turned to face his picture, it would be almost as if he were facing a mirror.

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It may be 53 years since his first victory and 36 years since his last, yet Gary Player is as tanned and handsome and nearly as thick-dark-haired as he was at 25, save for the tint of grey about his temples. The green jacket he wears this sunny afternoon is the same fit as the one he first donned in 1961.

“Mystique?” he asks in his familiar South African accent. “Why, it’s everywhere here. President Eisenhower, Bobby Jones, Cliff Roberts, [Ben] Hogan and [Sam] Snead, Arnie and Jack and me on Sundays, reporters and players talking under the big oak. There’s tradition here everywhere you look. That’s the mystique.”

Player also acts as television spokesperson – “So, for the love of Golf, go!” – for the Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. Tradition is a big deal to him.

Shortly after dawn on Thursday morning, Player, 78, Nicklaus, 74, and Palmer, 84, launched the 2014 Masters with the traditional ceremonial drive off the first tee, with Player graciously conceding that Nicklaus outhit him by a yard or two – “but it’s not bad when you think he used to out-drive me by 50 [yards].”

The crowd was so thick to see three old men cuff golf balls off the tee that it was next to impossible to get within sight of them, the Masters “patrons” – never, ever to be referred to as mere “fans” – revelling in a strange sense that here, and perhaps only here, time stands still, even if now it hobbles a bit.

The Masters is but the first of men’s golf’s four majors each year – the U.S. Open, The Open and the PGA being the others – but it is the only one that is always played on the same course. More importantly is its timing, early April – for millions watching on television the start of the Masters signals the start of spring.

It is as close to a pagan rite as sport comes.

“It’s sort of the official start of the golf season to more of the general public,” Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland said when he arrived for his practice rounds.

Augusta National itself is the main character in this annual play, a revered sprawl of rolling hills, emerald green grass, towering pines, undulating greens, deceiving water and traps and, of course, the flowering cherry and crabapple trees, the blooming azaleas, magnolia, wisteria, dogwood … The course was built on a former nursery and, in many ways, the nursery remains.

In the days leading into Thursday’s launch of the tournament, the “personality” most discussed was not the chances of Australian Adam Scott repeating – though he would be one off the lead on opening day at three-under-par – or Phil Mickelson claiming his fourth green jacket or even what difference the absence of Tiger Woods, having withdrawn following back surgery, would make to the field.

No, they talked far more of a tree – a specific tree that stood for decades on the 17th hole and was lost during a severe ice storm this winter. The spot, unnoticeable but for a few discreet lines in the grass where fresh turf was laid, is pointed out all week long by volunteers while patrons take photographs of … nothing … and stand as if visiting the grave of a beloved relative.

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