Communiqués from the Old Country suggest that the wettest winter since Noah's carpentry and animal-management skills were sorely tested is showing signs of relenting. My local market town in rural Wiltshire is about to reclaim its original nomenclature of Bradford on Avon, having spent most of the past three months known within the community as ‘Bradford under Avon’. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the brilliant whites and yellows of spring are bursting forth in defiance. Even in Hong Kong, where the grey pall lingers longer than normal, the beautiful bright blossom of regeneration brings cheer to doleful souls.
Although the modern golf season never ends, and big tournaments have already filled the airwaves, there's something about early April that brings an air of expectation to the heart of every golf fan and indeed many non-golf fans. It's all about the dogwoods and azaleas, the camellias and yellow jasmine. The annual trip down Magnolia Lane, when the green-jacketed brethren open their portals for one brief week to allow the hoi polloi to roam freely around Bobby Jones’ old playground, has the advantage of familiarity.
Not that the modern version of Augusta National bears much resemblance to the masterpiece that he and Dr Alister MacKenzie created eighty years ago. Rather like the wonderful old Hong Kong Golf Club courses at Fanling, Augusta was "nude" in the early days, a course that was designed to be played in a links style, predominantly along the ground. Now the coniferous cathedral spires of spruces and pines that line the fairways merely add to the sensation that you have entered hallowed ground. It is the Masters Tournament.
Augusta is, for the most part, a town that you would happily take a detour to avoid. I remember well my first visit in the early 1990s when I was working for BBC Radio. Our accommodation was one of those typical cheap American motels abutting a noisy highway. The rooms were enormous, as were the beds, with their frayed covers and smelly mattresses. An air of decay permeated, with cigarette burns on the furniture and worse on the tatty carpet. The plastic bathroom inspired a hasty ablution. The morning journey along the Washington Road was a chance to play "which tacky diner with even tackier neon sign will we patronise tonight?" The choice was endless … and depressing.
However, turn right off the Washington Road through the Pearly Gates of Magnolia Lane and you entered a world so contrasting that it almost defies description. It's one of those experiences that you just need to experience! Outside, a churning, screeching mass of run-down humanity with hawkers and ticket touts pushing to take your money. Inside, there is an instant sense of calm and sanctity, like passing through the great west door of Westminster Abbey into a place where reverence is demanded.
In fact it's only the players and those closely related to the Almighty who actually get to drive down Magnolia Lane. The rest of us turn off into one of the many car parks – great areas of gravel and tarmac that stand empty for fifty-one weeks of the year – that amazingly accommodate the forty or fifty thousand "patrons". It's when you pass through the heavily fortified pedestrian entrances that the full magnificence of Augusta National starts to strike home.
My first impression was the grass. In those days there was no rough, or "second cut". It was just one enormous, perfect carpet of dark green, totally uniform turf, stretching as far as the eye could see; not a weed, not a blade out of place. Then it was the swathes of enormous conifers with their base of pine straw. Everything in its place, and a place for everything. Next, the empty fairways. Wide enough to land a jumbo jet, they were deserted, save for the odd player and his white boiler-suited caddie. It's the only tournament in the world where that happens, and the players love it. No scorers, no hangers-on, no officials nor even "on-course commentators". Particularly no on-course commentators!
Click here to see the published article.