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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Sports: An inspirational pilgrimage to Augusta and the Masters
Niagara-on-the-Lake residents John Kozik and Linda Anderson-Kozik at the Masters on Sunday afternoon. No cameras are allowed but the tourney offers free pictures at Founders Circle near Magnolia Lane. SUPPLIED

For many golfers, a visit to the place that bills itself as the Home of Golf — the Old Course at St. Andrews — is a bucket list destination.

Anyone who travels to Scotland can realize that dream and with some luck, play the Old Course.

Equally awe-inspiring, but much harder to attain, is a visit to the Masters, in Augusta, Georgia.

The April event is the first of pro golf’s major tournaments and the only way to get in — short of paying scalpers a hugely inflated price — is to be invited by someone who is a “patron.” That’s Augusta’s preferred parlance for “ticket holder.”

Last weekend, eight area residents, including myself, were able to attend this year’s Masters courtesy of a Niagara-on-the-Lake couple who have been patrons for more than a quarter-century.

They attend every few years but otherwise share their tickets with people in the community. They’re well-known in town but prefer to remain out of the limelight.

So, this year my wife May Chang and I, plus John Kozik and Linda Anderson-Kozik, spent Saturday and Sunday watching what could be one of the last competitive appearances by Tiger Woods at Augusta.

And make no mistake, everyone wanted to see Tiger.

On Thursday and Friday, Niagarans Martha and Don Cruikshank, and Robin and Kevin Foster, took in the tourney.

An almost religious reverence surrounds the Masters, from the hokey, hushed tones of the TV commentators to the earnest club members and thousands of staff and volunteers who ensure everything runs smooth as silk.

It’s a throwback to earlier times.

No mobile phones, no photos, no running, no shouting. But inexpensive food (hearty sandwiches $1.50 to $3), you can leave your folding chair unattended and return hours later to find it undisturbed, and a folksy southern friendliness permeates the event.

The reverential aura feels more than a bit overdone, but it’s part of the experience. Though let’s not forget or whitewash Augusta National’s previous long-standing prohibition on women members and of racial minorities before that.

The club and the tournament seem to have stepped into the 21st century and finally turned a corner on those issues.

Seeing the lengthy standing ovations and cheers for Tiger Woods everywhere he turned, whether on the practice range or on the course, was heart-warming.

A Black man whose forebears would never have been allowed to set foot on the course let alone win the tourney five times is recognized and respected for all he has done in and for the game.

No matter your opinion of golf — a game of skill played by talented athletes, an odd sport that’s apastime for the rich and moneyed class, or somewhere in between — you can admire the efficiency and organization displayed by those who put on the Masters.

They know how to move people, literally.

Whether clearing the parking lot of tens of thousands of vehicles within about 30 minutes, smoothly guiding a crowd of about 40,000 through the front gates and security starting at 7 a.m., or shepherding souvenir buyers or hungry patrons, Augusta does it with aplomb.

(But with all those people creating literally tons of garbage daily, noticeably absent is any sign of recycling. Everything just goes into Augusta-green trash bags. That’s a sad throwback.)

Then, of course, there’s the golf. Having been to a few tourneys (such as the Canadian Open and the PGA Championship) over the years, I find the pure athleticism of these players impressive.

Last Saturday morning, prior to their rounds, on the practice range, everyone from Vijay Singh to Canadians Adam Hadwin and Corey Conners, and amateur Neal Shipley, warmed up firing laser-like bombs at will or dropping shots to within feet of the flags.

Tall or small, young or not so youthful, they all seemed ready to shoot well under par. But in reality, many of them struggled on one of the world’s toughest courses. That’s the way the game goes.

Every player was on the practice range at least 90 minutes before their tee time.

Except one, the man everyone wanted to see. Exactly an hour before he was due on the first tee, surrounded by a phalanx of four security guards, Tiger marched directly to one of the far practice greens to chip.

The roar that rumbled through the 1,500 or so fans in the viewing gallery and along a nearby walkway told you who had arrived.

Fifteen minutes later, as he moved to a spot on the range 30 feet in front of us, he was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation and rowdy shouts. Just as he was on every hole all week.

In contrast, when an emaciated Phil Mickelson came out, fans offered a polite but muted greeting.

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIroy (a fan favourite who was cheered loudly) and “Lefty” practised back-to-back, shot for shot, but didn’t acknowledge one another.

The LIV versus PGA Tour animosity might have had something to do with that.

Walking the Augusta course, besides witnessing exceptional play and classic holes filled with decades of lore, one is immediately impressed with how hilly it is. The walk is a workout.

It’s well-known that the unforgiving greens are smooth as glass, but the fairways’ spectacular elevation changes simply don’t translate in the two-dimensional realm of a TV broadcast.

The pilgrimage to the 88th Masters provided many indelible memories, among them: a dominant victory by Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top golfer; the major tourney debut of runner-up Ludvig Aberg of Sweden and Tiger prowling the course en route to an unimaginable dead-last finish.

So many came hoping to see one last charge by Tiger but left realizing the man who once dominated the sport is a shadow of his former self.

Still, he remains one of the best to ever play the game and they love him for it.

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