Hermetically protected as we are from daffodils or robins or sunbeams up here in our northern urban household, the first sure sign of spring is being piped in to us this weekend. The Masters is on television, and the changing of seasons can now officially begin. Americans in general, and this one in particular, don't much care for tradition. We are an adolescent nation founded in rebellion and the rejection of grown-up ritual. We broke with England because it wanted us to stop wearing headphones to the dinner table and to speak only when spoken to. Since, we've opted for traditions that, like the Platte River, run a mile wide and an inch deep.
The Masters is, of course, the high shrine of manufactured sports tradition. It is as stodgy as a fox-trot, as dated as a pair of spats. Prim and manicured as your Aunt Hattie's window box, it is a genteel anachronism, a waxworks tribute to a time that never was. It is a wheezing, elitist dinosaur in a green jacket and plaid pants. And I love it. I love it because in an age of irony it takes itself so damned seriously. I love it because it is run by some old coot named Hootie. I love it because by Sunday afternoon the greens will be harder than differential calculus, and golfers of puny resolve will succumb to the strong. Because Ken or Jim will find a way to torture the words hallowed, azaleas and magnolias into one sentence. Because the holes have names like Redbud or Firethorn or Carolina Cherry. Because it is the only known antidote to the Super Bowl halftime show. I love it because, like The Wizard of Oz, it comes around once a year in all its cornball Technicolor glory to remind me that it's possible to age gracefully.
The Masters and CBS, not without due calculation, adhere to an old show-business rule: Always leave them wanting more. Other tournaments ratchet up their coverage every year with more hours and more cameras, blimps and cranes, a wall-to-wall approach that usually adds up to more shots of Duffy Waldorf tending his ball marks or Davis Love III, grumpy and grimacing, hitching up his pants. As your neighbor's endless vacation slide shows (" Grand Canyon, '74!") should have taught you, too many pictures are usually worse than too few.
The Masters eschews this kind of excess, strictiy circumscribing the coverage in every imaginable way, from the tournament's commercial sponsorship (two advertisers) to the number of airable hours on the weekend (5�) to the location of the fixed camera positions (10 through 18 only). The result is a museum-quality rendering of what a golf tournament should look like. The Masters is staged as a series of broadcast landscapes, each one saturated in the colors of a Zelda Fitzgerald spring; all debutante pinks and hunting-lodge browns, Easter-bonnet yellows and Packard blues, with more shades and suggestions of green than Mr. Roget has words for.
A fantasy briefly glimpsed, like Brigadoon, Augusta National materializes out of the mist for just a few hours but manages to remind us how idyllic life could be if only we were better people, more generous of spirit and lighter in heart, if we were braver dreamers and truer lovers; how perfect we might be if only we knew someone on the membership committee, were longer off the tee and had an annual income in the low nine figures.
The PGA has been trying to tart itself up lately with fist-pumping power-chord promos, selling the kind of sexy, two-bit excitement usually associated with professional wrestlers and cruise-ship magicians. The Masters, though, remains a stately old dame, a little thick now in the hock and the jowl, 40 years out of fashion, high-waisted and high-minded, going on and on about herself and how hard it is to find good help these days. Nearsighted and humorless, still vain, faindy ridiculous if truth be told, it is the Margaret Dumont of golf tournaments, at once straitlaced and daft, a model of tradition, and for that reason, or despite it, altogether lovable.