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More than in any other golf championship, the competitive tensions of a Masters tournament are heightened by the rich tapestry of its backdrop. Visually and psychologically, the Augusta National course can be hypnotic and distracting. The landscape draws the eye to bright flashes of dogwood and azalea and redbud and then upward along the slender, swaying trunks of tall, gracefully crowned Georgia pines that frame the lush fairways, creating what seems a single, lightly traveled pathway. It is a theater of golf. Indeed, many a player has felt like tiptoeing to a green so as not to disturb the setting. Here Gene Sarazen double-eagled the 15th in 1935; here Byron Nelson defeated Ben Hogan in an epic struggle in 1942; here Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus prevailed so often. That sense of spirits reconvening, every Masters offers this, yet each year has an individual stamp. This week's renewal will surely have its own theme. But what one remembers will not necessarily be the winner. The agony of a near-winner can be what endures.
The 1979 Masters will be remembered as the one that Ed Sneed failed to win, for the memory of his losing struggle on the final three holes is more poignant and wrenching than the sudden burst of sub-par golf that Fuzzy Zoeller, ultimately the winner, played to come into contention.
Sneed was tied for the lead after two rounds; after three rounds he had put five strokes between himself and the field. And with only three holes remaining, he held a three-stroke lead over Tom Watson, four over Zoeller. Not until the final hole of regulation play did he relinquish the last bit of his advantage. A bogey on the 18th hole, his third in succession, dropped him into a deadlock with Watson and Zoeller, and the tie was broken by the first sudden-death playoff in the 43-year history of the Masters.
All things considered, Zoeller's victory was almost serendipitous. It was his first appearance in the Masters and he had hoped only to play well. "Any time I finish second I feel like I've won," Zoeller had once remarked. In winning at Augusta, he did not have to hit a single shot while in the lead. For Sneed, who had never before challenged for a major championship, the disappointment of losing was compounded by the leader's burden he had shouldered for two days, and the deep feeling he speaks of having for the Masters:
"There is no tournament I would rather win than the Masters. A British Open at St. Andrews or a U.S. Open at Merion or Pebble Beach might come close, but Augusta is the most special place in golf for me.
"After winning the 1973 Kaiser Open I was sent an invitation to play in the 1974 Masters. Bobby Jones died in 1971 and I have regretted that I never competed in the Masters while he was alive. He may have been the greatest champion in golf, and I would have treasured meeting him.
"Since I had never seen, much less played, Augusta National, I decided to practice there a couple of times before playing in the Greensboro Open the week before the Masters. I arrived late on Sunday afternoon and, after introducing myself and inquiring if I could take a look at the course, I walked out on the veranda toward the 9th and 18th greens. Standing there for about 15 minutes, I was mesmerized by the beauty, imagining I could hear the roars of the Augusta galleries.
"I suddenly realized it was getting dark, but I wanted to see the holes in the lower part of the course, in Amen Corner. I started running down the 18th fairway at full stride. None of our Olympic 800-meter runners need worry, but it's about half a mile to the 11th green and that evening it took me only about two minutes to get there. Passing the 18th tee I saw two members walking off the 17th green and I wondered if they would report me to Security. After all, this wasn't a 12-year-old kid but a 29-year-old man sprinting across staid Augusta National.
"I crossed Rae's Creek to the 12th green, and walked up 13, then cut over to 15 and 16. There was electricity in the air, but I wasn't prepared for the flood of emotion that welled up. No television picture or storybook can convey the spirit of Augusta. Each time I play that part of the course I am reminded of that evening walk when I saw it for the first time.
"By the time I got to 16 it was almost dark and I began walking back toward the clubhouse. I could see lights on in the dining room and in one of the cottages behind the 10th tee. There was no one outside, and as I walked by the 18th green I felt a little lonely."