AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first golf course where I walked all 18 holes was Augusta National. That was 1992. I had never played a full round of golf. I had never covered a golf tournament. And suddenly I found myself writing the lead column at the 1992 Masters for The Augusta Chronicle, the hometown paper. It was pretty ridiculous. I was in the unique position where every single person who read my column — literally every one — knew more about golf than I did.
My one advantage was that I was working with David Westin, an Augusta sportswriting legend, and with infinite patience he explained some of the finer points of golf to me. “No,” he told me, “they are not allowed to just cut down a tree that’s in front of their ball.” And, “No, the caddy cannot carry the golfer if he gets tired.” Things like that.
But the one thing I remember most was that Jeff Sluman and Lanny Wadkins were leading after the first day. And I assumed that since they were leading I had to write about them … I mean they were LEADING THE GOLF TOURNAMENT. I may not have known much about golf, but I understood the concept of leading. I was furiously trying to learn all I could about Sluman and Wadkins.
That’s when David Westin first told me of Peter Jacobsen’s famous quote.
Jacobsen said: “The slums of Chicago are full of first-round leaders.”
And I must say that this is now my 20th Masters, and that quote is as valuable and true as it has ever been.
We’re all sitting in the press room listening to Rory Mcllroy because he is this year’s first-round leader. He shot what the Augusta members like to call “a wonderful 65.” The press room is packed, not an empty seat in the place, and Mcllroy is sitting above us and he’s a charming young man. He’s just 21 and he has finished third in a major championship three times already. He tells us how much he learned about himself at St. Andrews last year, when he blazed out to a 63 on the first day and followed it with a devastating 80. He offers a great and pithy summary of Augusta’s greens when he says, “I’d rather have 20 feet up the hill than 6 feet down.” He goes over his spectacular round — not only did he shot 65 but he had three pretty short birdie putts that he missed.
And, most entertainingly, he shares with us a little story about getting yelled at by a woman on Wednesday night because he was throwing a football around with friend and making a bit too much noise. Mcllroy is from Northern Ireland and he explains that he’s sort of getting into American football a little — he even has learned how to throw a spiral.
“Were you running patterns?” a reporter asks. Mcllroy stared blankly.
“I don’t even know what that means,” he says.
And it is all enjoyable, and Mcllroy is a terrific young player who absolutely could win the Masters. But, it means almost nothing. And we all know it. Mcllroy knows it. Every reporter in the room knows it. Every fan of golf knows it. In the last 25 years, there have been a total of 41 first round leaders including ties. One won the Masters. One. More first round leaders over the last quarter century have finished in 21st place than first. Only 17 of the 41 first round leaders even finished in the Top 10.
Jacobsen uttered his classic quote in 1990 — that year Mike Donald shot a 64 on the first day to lead the tournament. Donald shot an 82 the next day. Jacobsen was actually referring to himself in the quote, though. He shot a 67. He offered his quote. The next three days, as if to prove his point, he shot 75, 76 and 75 to finish tied for 30th, which apparently is the golf equivalent of the slums of Chicago.
This brings up a key point about golf tournaments that is often missed … there are A LOT of great golfers in the world. More than you might think at first blush. And there is a a LOT of variation in their games week to week. Again, more than you might think. When you go into a major tennis tournament … well, OK, the French Open is coming up in about a month or so. I can more or less guarantee you that the winner of the 2011 French Open will be Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. Really, I can predict with confidence that the winner will be Nadal, but if I took those three and gave you the rest of the field I’d feel pretty good about my chances of success. It’s certainly POSSIBLE that someone else will win. But in tennis, Nadal is so much better than anyone on clay that it’s hardly likely.
Our minds are trained to think that way — the best dominating, winning more often than not. But golf doesn’t work that way. Nobody, not even Tiger Woods, wins five Masters in six years the way Nadal has with the French. Nobody, not even Jack Nicklaus, wins seven U.S. Opens in eight years the way Pete Sampras did at Wimbledon. There are too many variables in golf. There are too many talented golfers who can have the week of their lives. There is too big a shift in conditions — for instance, Thursday was a tame day in Augusta, the conditions were soft, the wind was down. But as the week goes on, with the weather is expected to be hot and dry, everything figures to dry up and speed up and golf balls could be running uncontrollably, like wrestlers thrown against the ropes.
It’s all just too unpredictable. Put it this way: Tiger Woods probably has dominated golf the last 14 years like no man in the history of the sport. Do you know how many men have won major championships since he won the Masters in 1997? Take a guess.
The answer: Thirty two. Yep. THIRTY TWO DIFFERENT MEN have won major championships in the last 14 years. There are so many good golfers, and those good golfers play so differently from week, that even after they play the first round of the a major championship we STILL really have absolutely no idea who is going to win this thing.
This brings up another point: There was a headline in my old paper, the Chronicle, before the tournament even started: “It’s Lefty’s To Lose.” That more or less seemed to be the consensus among the people who know a lot more about golf than I do. Phil Mickelson loves the Masters. He’s won it three times. He also won last week, which suggests his game is in good shape. Mickelson was the clear favorite, but as the headline suggests it went beyond that. It’s Lefty’s to lose.
Only, let’s face it, that is absolutely ridiculous. Mickelson might well win the Masters. But if he was leading by a shot going into the back nine on Sunday it would still not be his to lose. Golf doesn’t work like that. Nobody is just given a golf tournament. What if Mcllroy shoots a wonderful 65 all four days? He will win, and Mickelson will have nothing whatsoever to say about it. What if Tiger finds his old magic and goes low on Friday and Saturday? And it’s not just Tiger … there are 50 other golfers who could go low on Friday and Saturday. What if a howling wind comes in … what if Mickelson’s ball takes an odd kick and ends up behind a tree … what if Ricky Barnes or Rickie Fowler or some other Rickey sinks a bunch of putts in a row … what if something unexpected happens because something unexpected almost always happens.
We spend a lot of time in sports writing about things that won’t happen. We write about trades that never materialize and match-ups that inevitably do not matter and scenarios that almost never play out like we expect. That is part of the beauty of sports, I think, building expectations and having those expectations dashed, making predictions and having those predictions crushed, thinking hard about what is going to happen and then having our best thoughts turned upside down. This is never more true than in golf.
My favorite moment of the Mcllroy conversation happened when someone asks him if he would rather be in the lead after the first day or back a couple of shots where nobody is paying attention to him. This would be a bit of an odd question in another sport … asking a football coach after the first quarter if he would rather be leading or trailing would probably not get a particularly satisfying response.
But Mcllroy understands the spirit with which the question is asked, and says he would rather be in first. “I don’t think there’s any better position than that,” he says, and he smiles, and he knows: There are three days left at the Masters. He hasn’t accomplished anything yet. But, hey, he is tied for the lead. In this wild world of major championship golf, that’s about the best he could do after one day.