Technically, the Masters should not be a golf tournament of the first rank at all. It is not the championship of anything except itself. The $20,000 first prize can legitimately be described as mere. The Augusta National Golf Club seldom plays as hard as the courses where other major championships are held, courses that are specially altered to present horrendous golfing problems. Augusta has been basically the same course since the Masters began in 1934, and its puzzles are familiar ones to most of the contestants who will gather there next week for the 35th renewal.
Competitively, the Masters field is usually weaker than that of, say, the U.S. Open or PGA, and often weaker than that of routine tournaments on the professional tour. Only about 80 golfers are invited to Augusta, a disproportionate share of them past their prime. True, the contemporary princes of the game are always there. But a lot of the natural challengers are not. These aggressive young pros who in any given tournament can put it all together and beat anyone no matter how green his blazer are replaced by such swingers as the Thailand Open champ, the eighth best U.S. amateur and the 1939 winner of the Masters itself. Such performers are brought to Augusta for honorary, sentimental or public-relations reasons, but they do not seriously challenge the golfing Establishment, and their presence tends to depress the level of competition.
Despite these apparent deficiencies, the Masters is generally regarded as one of the four most important tournaments in the world. Given a choice, almost every golfer would rather be first at Augusta for $20,000 than at Westchester for $50,000. The prestige of winning the Masters can be converted into all manner of benefits that compensate for the immediate cash disparity.
As for attending the Masters, it is probably 'the toughest ticket in sports. The management prints maybe 20,000, but nearly all of them are committed to past purchasers. As for the citizenry at large, the Masters is a sporting event comparable to the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500 or the America's Cup. People who otherwise have only a minimal interest in competitive golf know ail about the Masters.
Given the nature of its outward call on the imaginations of so many people, the Masters obviously must have something fairly potent going for it below the surface, too. It does. In addition to being a good, probably great, golf tournament, it is a compound of tradition, natural and manufactured, a fair amount of schmaltz and Southern sentimentality, a dash of class snobbery and a heap of managerial shrewdness. In general, it offers a fine case study in that fascinating subject, Reality and Illusion.
Greenness and Blueness
H.K. and Sara Horner are from Jefferson City, Tenn. On Sunday morning at 8:30, several hours before play would begin in the final round of the 1970 Masters, the Homers had set up their folding stools, arranged their programs, glasses and other equipment and settled themselves securely behind the ropes on a little knoll overlooking the 13th green and fairway. It would be at least five hours before the first golfers came their way. The Homers had been gallerying at the Masters for seven years, and in some ways they were representative of the hushed majority there.
The Homers are solid, respectable golf-and-country-club-loving citizens, not so conspicuous or aggressive as the upward strivers who hang around the clubhouse or so wiggly and passionate as the teen-age buds and studs who sprawl on The Beach, a swatch of turf and humanity between the 6th and 16th greens. H.K. said, "I am a manufacturer in Jefferson City. We make springs of all kinds—cars, seats, even coffins. Otherwise, I play a lot of golf."
Sara Horner indicated the 13th hole and its environs. "Isn't this the most beautiful place you have ever seen?" she said. "I can sit here all day and never get tired because it is so beautiful."
Everyone comments on the beauty of Augusta National, just as all wedding guests remark on the loveliness of the bride. Even the golf professionals say it, usually to the effect that it is a sensuous thrill for them to be able to club a golf ball around such a beautiful place. And particularly and persistently do the various brands of media men say it. For more than 35 years they have been ripping off paragraphs of evocative, ain't-nature-grand-at-Augusta-in-April prose.