Augusta, 1991: As theater, it was a Masterpiece

JOHN EISENBERG

April 17, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

I'm just back from a week at the Masters, and if the tournament were starting over again tomorrow, it would suit me just fine to get on a plane and fly right back. I'm hooked.

It's not because I'm a golf freak (my clubs are gathering dust), or because I'm wildly enamored of the golfers, at whom I've taken a fair number of jibes in this space. I'm hooked on the Masters

because it delivers.

Year after year, almost without fail, the Masters puts on a fine show. Something happens to make you say "wow." Someone chips in to win. Three or four players duel it out to the end. An old favorite makes a stirring comeback.

This year I came back from Augusta and people said to me, "Saw a great tournament, huh?" Yes, I did. But people said that to me last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

Granted, this year's may have been a notch better, what with all the low scores, Tom Watson's comeback, a dozen winners of major championships on the leader board and three players tied for the lead after 71 holes. This was one of the best of the 55 Masters.

Still, it was just a variation on the theme. The Masters' record for providing thrills is unmatched among the major sporting events. None delivers such grand theater as consistently.

No, the World Series doesn't throw in many clunkers. And yes, the Final Four has had a run of close games. But with the NBA Finals, Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, tennis' U.S. Open -- sometimes it's hard to remember who won last year, or what happened. We won't even talk about the Super Bowl.

The Masters, meanwhile, just keeps delivering. It is that rarest of entities on the sporting shelf: a good bet to be better than the hype. Just consider the tournament's recent history:

1986: Jack Nicklaus shoots 65 on the last day to win at age 46. The best Masters ever.

1987: Larry Mize chips in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff.

1988: Sandy Lyle wins by blasting 150 yards out of a bunker to within 8 feet on the 72nd hole.

1989: Scott Hoch misses a 30-inch putt that would have won the tournament.

1990: Nick Faldo wins a playoff after Ray Floyd blows a big lead.

1991: Ian Woosnam wins on the 72nd hole after Watson eagles twice on the back nine.

Not once in these past six years has the tournament been decided earlier than the 72nd hole. There have been three playoffs, a legendary comeback, a couple of famous shots, a miserable missed putt with which even non-golfers could

empathize. Not anything even resembling a clunker.

It isn't just the past few years, either. The Masters began delivering in its second year, in 1935, when Gene Sarazen made a double-eagle and won in a playoff. Thirty of the 55 editions have been won by a single stroke, or in a playoff. There isn't much garbage time at the Masters.

Why is this? Why does the tournament so consistently live up to billing? Part of it can't be explained. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe there is something magical about the place. Golfers just do not hit as many memorable shots to win U.S. Opens.

But to dismiss it all as luck is to miss a basic point, which is that the best golfers hit the best shots, and the best golfers are almost always in contention at the Masters. The tournament practices quality control, if unwittingly so.

For every Masters win by a Mize or Goalby, there are five by a Nicklaus or Hogan or Ballesteros. Flukes are rare. Consider these past six years. Winners included Nicklaus, Faldo, Woosnam, Lyle -- all among the champions of their day. And the runners-up: Floyd, Norman, Ballesteros, Watson.

That's the best beating the best. It happens regularly at the Masters because of the course. Reduce the explanation for the tournament's thrill-making to basics and it is a) Augusta National and b) that the event is played on the same course every year.

Augusta National is difficult but fair, a stern challenge, but

beatable by wise, accurate shot-making. A good shot is rewarded, and a lousy shot gets you in trouble, and it takes years to learn the secrets. The average winner is 32, in his sixth Masters.

It is a tournament for veterans who have learned the course and are capable of beating it. That's the best in the game. It's different at the Open, where courses are tricked up and everyone starts from scratch together on a different site every year, making it more likely that a Scott Simpson or Andy North wins.

But let me tell you: I don't sit around for long examining why the Masters is the way it is. I just enjoy it. The sporting calendar is full of events swollen by hype and crammed down your throat by television. The Masters is an elegant exception, a trustworthy friend. You can count on it.

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