As you come through the spectators’ entrance of Augusta National, you are funnelled into a laneway bounded alongside and overhead with a thick canopy of pine trees. You walk along for a hundred metres or so. Then, suddenly, the treeline ends and the course rises in front of you.
They attempt to capture this moment each year on television. But as lush and elegant as it may seem in your living room, it does not come anywhere close to capturing exactly how perfect, how unlikely, this place is.
On Tuesday, I walked through the arboreal chute with a first-timer. He stopped, pawed the first few feet of grass with his foot and said, “This isn’t real, right?”
You couldn’t blame him. Augusta National’s grass is so thick, glossy and uniform that it is indistinguishable from field turf. Everything here – the shrubbery, the flowers, the outbuildings – is so perfectly realized that it creates a disorienting effect in the newcomer.
But it’s all real. It doesn’t feel that way, but it is. In that sense, this place is a little like the Great Pyramid: something beautiful built without any consideration of cost or practicality.
Canadian Augusta debutant Adam Hadwin played this course for the first time on Sunday. He was alone through most of that round. The spectators on hand were busy watching the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship. On Tuesday, he played it again with a crowd. It was different.
“I had some moments back on 12 and 13 today where you’ve got the gallery, you’re starting to hear some roars and you kind of have to pinch yourself,” Hadwin said wonderingly. “This is real life. It seems fake.”
As often happens here early in the week, Hadwin’s trio was organized on patriotic grounds. He played 18 holes with another Canadian rookie, Mackenzie Hughes, and former Masters champion Mike Weir.
The cliché in this case runs toward a joke that ends: “You cannot see with your eyes, grasshopper.”
And certainly the taciturn Weir was doing an awful lot of talking out there – by his estimation, more than he’d ever spoken during a round of golf.
Hadwin and Hughes graciously played up Weir’s tutorial role.
The truth is that most nuances of any course are quickly apparent to a professional. (“Some of the things are … I don’t want to say ‘obvious,’” Hadwin said, meaning they actually were obvious.)
Hughes literally put his finger on it later in noting there is only one important factor at play here. He pointed at his own head.
But the symbology of the moment was irresistible. This may be the first time the casual Canadian fan is really paying attention to either of Hadwin or Hughes. Wouldn’t it be great if … ?
At 46 years old, Weir is functionally finished on the PGA Tour. Though still competing, he has already passed into the Jack Nicklaus phase of his Masters career – a living fossil exhumed each April for a few (usually two) days’ inspection and feting.
At 29 and 26, respectively, Hadwin and Hughes have been at this for a while, but it feels like their careers have only just started. In the Disney North version of the story, this is the moment the guttering torch of Canadian (men’s) golf gets passed.
Well, one selfishly lives in hope (cross yourself three times and say a prayer to Frances de Sales, patron saint of journalism), but it’s not likely. Fuzzy Zoeller remains the only rookie to win the Masters.
Instead, it’s another moment to enjoy the grandeur of Augusta through the eyes of people seeing it for the first time.
Hadwin and Hughes drew attention to the same thing everybody who’s ever been here will tell you – that you may think you know it from TV, but you don’t. Not even close.
The first time Hughes remembers watching this tournament was 2003, the year Weir won. He was 12 years old. He remembers every year since.
When he qualified for Augusta via winning the RSM Classic in November, he expected that visiting this course would prompt in him a “religious feeling.”
He played it four times last month, to tamp down the excitement rather than to learn its intricacies.
“That … I don’t want to say ‘numbs’ the experience, but you’re not so much in awe of it. I’m still in awe of it. But not crazy drooling [while] walking down the fairways.”
Hughes was now warming to his theme. He was passing from the usual golfers’ pose – ‘Hey, it’s just another day at work’ – into a full-on geek out in the space of 10 seconds.
“When I was first here, this was like heaven on Earth,” Hughes said. “This is where heaven is. In fact, I want to die right here.”
That’s the difference between Augusta National and just about any other pilgrimage site on Earth. Everybody loves the Eiffel Tower. Even the most obsessive francophile architecture dork probably does not want to die there.
What was lovely about the moment was how unselfconsciously wonderstruck they both were. In one instance, Hughes referred to the fans on hand as “spectators,” rather than the preferred “patrons,” and caught himself in embarrassment. He turned slightly to see if someone who matters had heard him. Even the participants fear the Masters rulebook hook.
Hadwin said he’d stopped a few times during the day to say to himself, “Wow, I’m really doing this.”
Their reverence could be measured against Weir’s more assured approach.
Even at his performance heights, Weir rarely seemed to be overtaken by a moment. When he won here, he didn’t fall to the ground or weep, as some do. He put his hands in the air half-heartedly and went politely in search of handshakes.
That low-key affect has deepened with age. He doesn’t talk so much any more as he purrs. Just one question on Tuesday unbalanced him.
“I guess this never gets old for you, right?”
Weir didn’t wait until the question was done: “Oh my God, no. I love it. Every time.”Report Typo/Error
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