This Masters makes the 25th anniversary of Fred Couples’ 1992 victory — the one where his ball absurdly stayed up on the bank at the 12th hole — and that’s really weird because I’m pretty sure it happened, like, three years ago. I should know. I was there.
There are too many crazy parts of growing old to talk about but the one that gets me again and again is underestimating how many years have gone by. This tends to come up most when seeing friends’ children for the first time in a while. It’s such an absurd cliche for friends to go, “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown!” — this stuff used to annoy me to no end when I was young — but the truth is that we old people REALLY CANNOT BELIEVE how much these kids have grown. There is no exaggeration there. It is actually beyond our belief. Every conversation I have about friends’ kids inevitably goes something like this:
ME: So how is little Jacob doing?
FRIEND: Oh, he’s not so little anymore.
ME: I’ll bet! So what grade is he in now?
FRIEND: He’s married with three kids.
It doesn’t matter how much I steel myself for these conversations, I can never get close. I’ll talk to a friend about what college his daughter is going too. I call back a week later and say, “So what college did she decide on?” My friend will say, “Well, she just got her law degree. Actually, she has been practicing law for about 10 years now.”
So, the Fred Couples thing … 25 years. I can’t believe it. That was the first Masters I ever covered, the first professional golf tournament I ever covered, one of the first big sporting events I had ever covered. I was 25 years old, completely unsure, entirely clueless and, for reasons that remain unclear, I was sports columnist for the Augusta Chronicle.
The fact that the Chronicle hired someone who knew nothing at all about golf has been widely discussed in this little corner of the Internet: It is kind of stupefying. I will say in my defense that I did try hard to learn. I read a lot of golf stuff. I studied it. I sat at the knee of Augusta’s great golf writer David Westin, asked him so many questions about golf that I drove him nuts. The first golf tournament I ever attended was the 1992 Doral Open. I didn’t cover it — my whole job was to talk with golfers about the Masters.
That was amazing. I had lunch with Ben Crenshaw. I met a young golfer named David Toms, who is almost exactly my age (he’s four days older than I am). I got yelled at by Curtis Strange for the first time. I walked alongside John Daly as he played in a Pro-Am. I wrote my first ever story about a golfer I would get to know a little bit better through the years, a guy named Tom Watson. It was pretty great.
But the Masters itself — that was when I fell in love with golf. I didn’t fall in love with PLAYING golf; I still don’t play. Instead I fell in love with the rhythms of golf, the history of it, the artistry of it. Imagine it, being 25, getting introduced to golf at Augusta National for the Masters. I met Arnold Palmer there; he said that he would look out for me.
I was interviewing Gary Player there when a television crew walked over and interrupted.
“Mr. Player, what was the golf course like today?” they asked him.
“I’ll be happy to talk with you in a minute,” Gary said sternly. “Right now, I’m talking with this nice young man.”
There were EIGHTEEN former Masters champion in the field that year; I was introduced to that beautiful Masters tradition of inviting back all the former champions to play. I watched Doug Ford play golf. Tommy Aaron. George Archer. Gay Brewer. Ray Floyd almost won that year. Jack Nicklaus was on the leaderboard. It was like the stopping of time.
Everything about it was brilliant — bright yellow sunshine, glowing green grass, azaleas in bloom, it was like the scene had been colored in magic marker. All around me were people who had waited their whole lives to be there; that includes the golfers. Fulton Allem had given me the quote to sum up the week. “When you get to the Masters, your hair stands up on end,” he said. “The person who combs it the best, wins.”
Davis Love III and Fred Couples, I remember, were the hottest golfers in the world coming in. I had spoken a little bit with both of them to prepare myself. Davis was — and is — this Southern gentleman, son of a great golf instructor, someone in awe of golf. Freddy was cool, and Freddy was weird.
“I don’t like to answer the phone,” he told us. When asked why he shrugged. “Because there might be someone on the other end.”
It was strange, no doubt. Golf? Me? The only thing I knew about golf growing up was that rich people played it behind the chain link fence on Warrensville Road that I bicycled by on the way to baseball practice. I don’t think I knew a single person growing in Cleveland who played golf. It was never an option. I did cross-country ski once. I bowled often. I did play putt-putt. Golf was another planet.
And then, suddenly, I was on that planet and it was mesmerizing, wonderful, exciting. The golfers, most of them, were fantastic to talk with. Ian Baker Finch? Nick Price? Larry Mize? These were some of the greatest guys I’d ever met. And the golf courses were beautiful. I couldn’t believe how far the golfers hit golf balls. I couldn’t believe how high the ball went, how softly it landed, how much they could make the ball turn in mid-air.
Wow. Twenty five years ago.
I’ve been to the Masters every year but one since then. I was there for the great ones, for Tiger Woods’ remarkable first victory (and his second, third and fourth), for Phil Mickelson hitting off the pine straw, for Jordan Spieth’s runaway victory in 2015. And I was there a few duds, too. Even the Masters has duds now and again.
I was there when Vijay Singh’s son left a note for his father before a final round and the glorious words on that note — “Trust your swing, Papa,” — have been the source of endless conversation around the clubhouse.
I was there in 1998 when the Golden Bear let out his his last, great roar.
I was there when Greg Norman melted down … when Rory McIlroy melted down* … and last year when Jordan Spieth did the same. I’ve seen a lot of balls hit the water at Augusta, and there isn’t that much water on the course.
*To give you an idea on timing, I was just trying to guess when Rory McIlroy melted down. I guessed it was 2014. It was 2011. Everything is basically twice as long ago as I recall.
This year, I’m missing the Masters. My life is baseball now — well, baseball and Houdini — and that’s exactly how I want it. I’ve been lucky enough to be at these events so many times, 20 Super Bowls maybe, 15 or so Final Fours maybe, countless NBA and NHL games and U.S. Opens and Kentucky Derbies and all the rest. So lucky. But I skipped the Super Bowl and I didn’t miss that. I didn’t write a single college basketball game for the first time since I was probably 20 years old, and I didn’t miss that either. Part of my new life as a baseball writer means getting to be a regular old sports fan again, and that has been fun.
I won’t lie. I do miss being at the Masters. There is nothing in sports, nothing in life, quite like Sunday at the Masters, this year with Jordan Spieth trying to pull off the near-impossible (he was down TEN SHOTS after Round 1), with Justin Rose doing that shark thing he does (he swims around, nobody notices him and then he wins), with a personal favorite, Sergio Garcia, putting himself in position to finally break through or have his heart broken once more. it should be wonderful, and I’ll watch it all on television, where that CBS crew with Jim and Verne and the rest do great work.
But, yeah, I’d like to be there. Well, really, I’d like to be there in 1992 again, 25 again, talking to Arnie again, feeling that mixture of awe and confusion and wonder again.
You can’t go back in time, though Sunday at the Masters is probably the closest thing.