Unpredictable drama makes US Masters a must-watch
OPINION: Ah, it's April. Thank heavens!
No, I'm not trying to hasten the approach of winter, which seems to be heading our way far too early for anybody's liking at the moment anyway. Hopefully Cyclone Debbie's departure will herald a period of mild, settled autumn weather, though it's fair to say I'm not exactly holding my breath.
Talking to the weather, it seems to me, has been about as successful down the years in changing its course as golfers berating balls in flight has been in helping those balls to "sit!", "bite!", "hook!", "slice!" "go left!", "go right!", "be good!" (insert command of your choice here).
That's just a smattering of the more polite orders I've heard golfers bark after balls disappearing into the distance. I've used a few of them myself, though my golfing 'prowess' would suggest I have far less right than the pros to be making any demands of flying, dimpled spheres.
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A former colleague told of seeing colourful pro Simon Hobday, who campaigned for decades on South Africa's Sunshine Tour, shouting at a ball that was clearly heading off into trouble, "Hit a tree, hard!" He was obviously hoping a solid impact would deflect his ball onto the fairway.
When it duly obliged, however, hitting a tree dead centre and ricocheting some distance back in the direction it had come from, he was heard to follow up with, "not that hard!"
Professional angst about the behaviour of golf balls has long been a part of early April. Because that's when the tournament many consider the best in the game takes place. Which is why I'm thankful for the arrival of April this time round.
I'm sure many, particularly those who don't like golf, would suggest binge-watching the US Masters is a pretty indulgent way to spend a weekend, not to mention a waste of time.
And I absolutely get that. Especially given what's going on in the world at the moment. With this week's gas attack in Syria, Donald Trump's convenient, fact-poor hypocrisy in blaming it on predecessor Barack Obama, and the country where I spent my first 34 years itself in the grip of a feckless, self-absorbed pseudo-leader, I'm having a hard time justifying my enjoyment of an event that, from a global perspective, means so little.
To take it a little further, I find myself wondering how tournaments like this, as steeped in tradition as they may be, can even proceed against the current tableau of world events, as if everything is normal.
My own answer, I think, is that we need an escape, and life has to go on. To let it all grind to a halt because things don't look so great right now would be to surrender to the bad news. And let's face it, bad news has always been around.
In short, watching the US Masters is an escape, but it's one I, and many others, need to stay sane. It doesn't mean we're not conscious of what else is happening around us, because that's impossible to escape for any length of time.
I think one of the reasons I love the Masters is the slickness of its packaging. From the intensive programme of work that must go on for months at Augusta National to ensure the azaleas and dogwoods are always in bloom for Masters week, to the unmistakable theme music, to the presentation of the traditional green jacket to the new champion by the previous one, it's always, aptly, a masterclass.
But more than that, it's the many moments of drama that have characterised the tournament down the years that make it a must-watch for me.
Perhaps the one that sticks with me most was seeing Texan Ben Crenshaw win his second title in 1995, doubling over in tears at the moment the final putt, giving him a one-stroke win over Davis Love III, dropped into the cup.
The reason was that his legendary long-time mentor, Harvey Penick, best-known for writing an instruction manual called The Little Red Book, had died days earlier, the trip to Austin for his funeral cutting short tournament preparations for Crenshaw, who was in a slump at the time. Plainly, he had ridden a wave of emotion to the title, which naturally brought tears to my eyes too.
Some of the drama has not necessarily involved great play. Jordan Speith seemed to be sailing serenely to his second straight title last year, before he made a horrendous seven on the par-3 12th hole, hitting two balls in the water, and Scott Hoch had a relatively short putt to win as he battled Nick Faldo in 1989, somehow contriving to three-putt and hand the Englishman his first title.
Already, this year, there's been drama. World number one Dustin Johnson withdrew on the first tee before the first round after he fall down stairs while walking around his Augusta rental home in socks. And the latter part of the first round, on 'in the background' as I wrote, generated what I'm certain will be several "Au-gust-a" headlines, with a blustery wind playing havoc.
Despite that, as I write this last paragraph, an unheralded 40-year-old Las Vegan, Charley Hoffman, has fashioned a four-shot first round lead with one hole to play, on the back of five birdies in six holes.
That's the unpredictable drama of the Masters. That's why I love it.