AUGUSTA, GA. — A fellow was walking through the pearly gates of the Augusta National Golf Club – okay, they're iron, or steel –when he turned to his friend and said something that is an article of faith around these parts: "The Masters is the Super Bowl of golf."
It probably is, in terms of the attention paid to it. But is it – perish the question – a championship? Is there any point in debating the almost unanimous view that it is?
Maybe there is a point, churlish as it might seem: The Masters, while indeed one of the four majors – along with the U.S. Open, Open Championship (usually called the British Open in the United States and Canada), and the PGA Championship – is a championship of nothing. It's a club tournament.
The United States Golf Association conducts the U.S. Open. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which administers the game everywhere except in the U.S., conducts the Open. The PGA of America conducts the PGA Championship.
But the Masters was never meant to be a championship of anything. It wasn't when it began in 1934, and it isn't now.
It was first called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament. The best players in the game were invited. It wasn't long before writers were referring to them as the masters in the game.
The tournament has been called the Masters since 1939. Every accomplished player in the world wants to qualify and every player craves the engraved invitation the tournament committee issues.
It's a tribute to the Masters that players do salivate at the possibility of making it into the field. Golf fans salivate as it approaches. Radio and television producers who pay little or no attention to golf the rest of the year chase journalists for interviews. Many non-golfers who don't know a bogey from a triple play get amped up as the Masters approaches.
Its arrival coincides with the onset of spring and the golf season.
When the weather is nasty, brutish and cold, as it's been in Ontario this week, for example, the Masters is that much more enticing. Oh, the colours. The azaleas. That drive down Magnolia Lane players take upon entering the property. Jim Nantz on CBS saying: "A tradition like no other." And so on.
It's not a trickle of treacle. It's a deluge.
Yet nothing changes the fact the Masters is a championship of, well, nothing. Jack Nicklaus, the winner of six Masters, said so himself this week. He was on the property to play in the Par-3 Contest last Wednesday on the club's nine-hole short course. He participated as an honourary starter with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player on Thursday before the first group went off in the opening round. Nicklaus doesn't appear at other tournaments he won multiple times.
Yes, the Masters is unique. Yes, it's a separate reality.
But, Nicklaus said: "You know, this is a tournament. The others are all championships. Bob Jones [co-founder of the Masters] structured this to be a tournament. He didn't structure it to be a major championship. He earned his record from major championships and he formed a tournament that brought the major championship winners to have it be the Masters."
Nicklaus acknowledged the Masters, for so many reasons, is "the most fun" to play. He loves it. But, he added, as if for emphasis: "It isn't structured as a championship."
Who knows? Maybe Augusta National and the Masters rules committee were trying to set an example for other clubs when rules official John Paramor assessed 14-year-old Guan Tianlang a penalty on the 17th hole in the second round Friday for violating the slow-play policy.
Ben Crenshaw, the 61-year-old two-time Masters winner – not Masters champion, there's no such thing – was playing with Guan and said the imposition of the penalty made him "sick." But perhaps it will awaken club golfers to the scourge of slow play.
This much is clear: Augusta National has created a beloved event, and the first major of each year. But it's a tournament and not a championship, even if, as Nicklaus said: "For most of the world, this is probably the most important tournament that there is."
Note that he said tournament, and not championship.