Tiger Woods missing the Masters but Masters missing Woods
Nine years after his last Major, golf struggling for the heightened theatre he provided
Charley Hoffman jogs up the 13th hole during his spectacular first round at the US Masters at Augusta National. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
If, as golf’s immortal voices never tire of telling us, the Masters only begins on the back nine on Sunday, then why don’t they just start the damn tournament then?
To quote Peter Allis: Dude, Please.
It’s because of the unbeatable soap opera of the Thursday and Friday scramble to make the cut, of course, and because of the illusion that Augusta casts a spell, a spell best caught by first round leader Charley Hoffman when he walked off the course on a gusty Thursday evening remarking of the five hours of golf he had just played: “for lack of a better words, it was a dream”.
And that’s the uncomfortable contradiction about the Masters just now. It is the golf course more so than the cast of golfers which has the unfailing power to attract those of us who for most of the year are content to think of golf only as a niche game in which a polite bunch of white guys can win obscene sums of money at tournaments nobody cares about while shamelessly wearing unforgivably hideous clothing.
The Masters is different.
Everyone knows that there is a grim strand to Augusta’s history; that for decades its beautified 18 holes and its horticultural splendour disguised the faint stink of racism and chauvinism.
Everyone knows that behind the folksy symbolism of the Masters – the log cabin, the green jacket, Amen corner – there resides a culture of appalling snobbery and the wielding of petty power by the custodians of the place. Just by asking Bill Clinton to put in a word, Bill Gates had his membership delayed by years . . . yada yada. Everyone knows that in many ways, the place is ridiculous.
Still, the golf course itself can’t be blamed for the people responsible for it. So come Thursday evening GMT, you flick on the box and there it is: sport’s own version of The Wizard of OZ, with all the props in glorious HD.
The thing about the Masters is that it seems to exist in a time warp. If you see plenty of Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy giving good gun-show and presenting golf’s yoof appeal, then you are also likely to catch Bernhard Langer studying his three-foot putt with excruciating patience as if it is still 1982 and he’s the most famous German after Nena.
The thing about the Masters is that every so often, it’s as if an omnipotent finger pokes through the sky and selects an erstwhile obscure golfer to have the whirl of his life.
On Thursday, it was Hoffman’s turn. Obscure, in this instance, means a very wealthy, solid tour pro’ who the television controllers are never arsed showing. Hoffman came up in the generation of golfers fortunate enough to have walked through the Aladdin’s Cave created by Tiger Woods.
He won golf’s NCAA tourney the year after Woods had genuinely electrified golf through both his stunning 1997 Masters win and the colour of his skin.
Golf’s marketing svengali laughably believed (or pretended to) that Tiger could do for golf then what Michael Jordan had done for basketball and, as they say, everyone partied.
Hoffman has been kicking about the pro’ circuit ever since, winning four times on the PGA tour and becoming rich as Croesus through his sheer consistency and presumably building for himself an extremely nice lifestyle.
He belonged, in short, in that vaguely anonymous group of the 40 or 50 best golfers in the world outside the top 10: there to fill the leaderboard and to slice up whatever pie not gobbled by Jason Day or Dustin Johnson or other accepted superstars.
And then, on an unseasonable opening day in Georgia, Hoffman goes and shoots seven under par to produce what Nick Faldo, for one, regarded as one of the greatest opening rounds of the history of the tournament.
How is the casual golf fan supposed to process this information? Are we to presume that Hoffman has had this potential locked within him for 20 years (!) and has finally found away to tap into it?
Or that there genuinely is something unreal about Augusta: that the place is teeming with old golf spirits and something of a Sam Snead or a Ben Hogan took possession of Hoffman’s earthbound game for one magical round which, as he said himself, had the quality of a dream?
Or is there a more troublesome truth that what separates the current group of elite golfers from the plodding group behind them is a difference measurable in the wafer width of an After Eight? More than any other tournament, the Masters throws into the sharp focus the old debate. Is golf a sport or is it a game?
One of the joys of the tournament is the periodic shuffle through the leaderboard, when golf names which were up-and-coming during the heyday of the Reagan administration come screaming out of the pack. Hello Vijay: long time, Fred Couples.
Among the golfers sitting on an extremely respectable two over par on Thursday night, for instance, was none other than Larry Mize.
As everyone around in the 1980s knows, ‘Larry Mize’ isn’t so much the name of a golfer any more as a moment in time, when his play-off chip to win the 1987 Masters seemed to irretrievably cast Greg Norman in the role of tragic figure. That was 30 years ago. Mize is 59 years old now: so how is it that he was able to shoot a round just two off McIlroy and one shot better than whizz kid Spieth?
Golf’s highest council will offer a litany of reasons – that the spooky wind suited him and that this year’s tournament has the potential to become, as Alan Shipnuck put it, a “lurker’s Masters”.
Mostly, they will shake their heads and chuckle soothingly and remind you that none of it matters because the Masters doesn’t really begin until they turn for home after the ninth on Sunday when the shadows fall and the fabulousness of the course is unmasked as the tricky nightmare it truly is.
There was an unspoken sense, after Thursday, that golf’s chroniclers were privately hoping Hoffman would do the decent thing and fade into the pack again so that the superstars can takeover and give golf the rivalry – the storyline – that it so badly needs. For at the heart of this year’s spectacle is the nagging sense that golf has yet to replace the void left by Tiger Woods.
It’s a cruel twist that the twilight of Woods’ career has been jeopardised by something as banal as a gippy back. The chances of him winning another Major have almost certainly passed. But it would be fun to watch him try.
Nine years after his last Major, golf is still searching for someone – anyone – to create anything like the heightened theatre provided by Woods; those awe-inspiring drives, the cold stare, the prophesying of his father Earl and the sheer strangeness of watching a black athlete having a revolutionary effect on a whitey preserve.
Golf is facing a constant gripe that its star is on the slide – that it’s too costly, too time-consuming, too white and too staid. The fear for golf is that the sport itself is in a time warp. Woods may be missing the Masters but not half as much as the Masters is missing Woods. Twenty years after Tiger’s Masters, the game needs a new god. The custodians will be keeping their fingers crossed that their sweet cliché about the back nine delivers something – or someone – special on Sunday evening.