The Second Sunday in April

For all the repugnant traditions the Masters golf tournament and Augusta National Golf Club have variously embodied — elitism, racism, sexism — the event is still a cherished totem during our annual dash to the next Christmas shopping season. It’s a stirring and sometimes poignant way of marking time.

Like many men who were once athletes in their youth, the Masters will always be a sporting competition that connotes history made under trying circumstances — if walking around in a sylvan playground can be said to be trying. The pressure, the moment, the ramifications — these concepts aren’t lost on the viewers (or the players), particularly since the CBS television announcing crew, which is vetted by the club, takes pains to remind us every five minutes that what we are watching is somehow more important than any other athletic competition. To win this tournament is a big deal.

But the reason, I think, that the Masters tugs at our heartstrings is because it’s played every year on the same golf course. In the off-season, the titans in charge of such matters tinker with a tee box or bunker here and there, and controversial trees are removed or planted, but the landscape (and the brilliant floral landscaping) remains essentially the same. It is we who change incrementally.

I’ve been watching golf being played on Augusta National for as long as I can remember. I recall Jack Nicklaus in his prime, winning, it seemed, every other year; I recall Jack Nicklaus shocking us all by unexpectedly winning his 6th title at the age of 46, with his son caddying for him; I recall hearts being broken by improbable chip-ins and lip-outs; I recall Tiger Woods repudiating decades of wrong-headedness in the 1990s; I recall a boyhood friend and teammate earning a spot in the field a few years ago. And through it all, Amen Corner — holes 11, 12, and 13 — have always been there. The 16th has always had a crazy sloping ridge that feeds to the left side of the green. The 18th has always been a long uphill slog through an alleyway of pines leading toward the climactic hilltop green. And through it all, the course has been absurdly, beautifully green, an emerald fantasyland filled with birds and flowers and multi-millionaire athletes trying to do on a grand stage what they can do on a practice range in their sleep.

Jim Naantz, the longtime CBS host, is going bald. Byron Nelson is dead. Arnold Palmer is a ceremonial starter. Life continues. We all hurtle toward whatever awaits us. But the land, the good ground, remains. And on the second Sunday in April, we’re reminded of life’s inexorable cycles and our small place in them.

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