The second weekend in April brings the Masters and with it all manner of pressing questions. Like whether Rory McIlroy just might, if Lee Westwood really could, or Bryson DeChambeau really should. Then: whether to go for egg salad or pimento cheese, take your ice tea sweet or not, and if you have any room left for another Georgia peach ice cream sandwich. These last are surely the greatest contribution Augusta National's chairman emeritus, Billy Payne, made to the game during all his years in charge of the club, and ample justification for his somewhat incongruous presence in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
"Something mystical happens to every writer who goes to the Masters for the first time, some sort of emotional experience that results in a search party having to be sent out to recover his typewriter from a clump of azaleas," wrote Dan Jenkins, who covered 68 of them before he died in 2019. "The writer first becomes hypnotised by the cathedral of pines down around the 10th fairway normally; then he genuflects at the Sarazen Bridge on the 15th, and eventually takes up position on the Augusta National veranda, there to wait for an ageing Wisteria vine to crawl up his sleeve and caress his priceless clubhouse badge. It's a peculiar state of mind, a sort of sporting heaven."
I have colleagues who are immune to its charms. Some can’t stand the place, they dislike the reactionary politics, the syrupy pomp and solemn self-regard, rail against the pernickety fastidiousness of all the rules, the Stepford-esque perfection of the scenery. I know one who went once and has complained every year since about the way the famous sandwiches stuck to the roof of your mouth. And another who (whisper it) found the club’s micro-management of the environment so overbearing that he became utterly convinced they had installed microphones at the desks in the press room so they could eavesdrop on his conversations.
I’m a sucker for it all, despite myself, my ingrained sense of cynicism entirely powerless against all that “y’all have a great day” southern hospitality. Oh, I know that the pond water’s dyed blue (apparently), the grass is spray-painted (allegedly), and the birdsong is piped in through speakers (so they say), and that all the fertiliser they use means the place smells terrible after it rains.
But I still find myself pining after the place, feel stricken at missing out on it this week because the travel restrictions mean the number of journalists (and fans) who can attend is limited. It was easier to forgo the autumn edition in 2020. The pangs are keener this spring, with everything so close to being back to normal but still not quite. I think this longing is a kind of medical condition, too, every bit as serious as the one Jenkins identified.
You can diagnose a version of it in the former champions who insist on taking up their standing invitation to enter the event long after they promised themselves, and everyone else, they would stop. "It's time to say 'bye bye' really," said Ian Woosnam after he scored 82 and 81 at Augusta in 2016. "I think this is going to be my last time playing here," he said after he shot 80 and 76 in 2019. But scroll down through the tee times for this Thursday, and there he is in Group 3 with Jim Herman and Stewart Cink. Woosnam, who is recovering from major back surgery, explained that he just wants "to walk around 18 holes," then added (who ever hoped like a golfer?) "or 36".
Back in 2002, the club decided to bring in a rule that former champions had to retire from the field at 65, but scrapped it because there was so much blowback. Now they leave it to the players to make up their own minds, reckoning that their own egos will let them know when it's time to go. But the lure of playing another competitive round at Augusta is so strong that their self of pride isn't always an entirely reliable guide. The 1970 champion, Billy Casper, ended up making 106 during his final appearance in 2005. He was 73 at the time and had just had a hip replacement operation.
You hear of tragic cases among the fans, too, like the couple who turned their backyard into a miniature replica of Amen Corner, and the guy who turned his family bathroom into a shrine to the Augusta National clubhouse. Last year Augusta National even launched a palliative for the chronically affected, and started selling a $150 care package that includes a tub of pimento cheese, another of egg salad and bags of their Masters brand cups, crisps, cookies and popcorn.
In a weak and feverish moment of lockdown-induced longing, I briefly considered ordering one. But they don’t ship to the UK. And besides the hamper doesn’t include any of those ice cream sandwiches. It’ll just have to wait. I guess they’ll taste all the sweeter this time next year.