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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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Monday, April 11

The Masters, 2016

The toughest ticket to get to any sporting event isn’t for the Super Bowl, US Open tennis, or the NBA finals. It’s that ticket that allows you to stroll down Magnolia Lane and on to the hallowed halls of ivy at Augusta National for the annual contesting of the Masters. I and millions of other golf fans will never get to see the course or players live but we have a wonderful view of it via CBS and its television coverage. Twenty years ago, we never got to see the front nine because the coverage began too late to pick up any of the participants on the front. Not so anymore. Now I can go to the Masters website and watch live action well ahead of the CBS coverage. But then, most of the drama at the Masters doesn’t really begin until we get to the back nine, especially so on Sunday.

Oh, so many stories. And oh, so many memories for me. I’ve watched every minute of the action at Augusta for at least the last fifty-five years (my wife can attest to that), with many of its images burned on my memory, some of them excitingly positive (for viewers and players), some of them devastatingly negative (mainly for players). The place and the event have become so sacred it’s almost comical, all that bowing and scraping everyone does when speaking of the Augusta traditions and history—the reverence for the Hogan Bridge at number 12, the Sarazen Bridge (which isn’t really a bridge at all) that leads to the green at 15 (commemorating Sarazen’s double-eagle there in 1935 that allowed him to tie and then beat Craig Wood in a playoff), the Champions’ dinner Wednesday nights, the ceremonial first tee shots by past champions (this year and quite a few years previously by a sadly aging Arnold Palmer, an age-defying Gary Player, and a rotundly aging Jack Nicklaus), the green jacket ceremony after the final round presented to the winner by the previous year’s winner (with only the winner allowed to take the jacket from the premises for that year), the reverential description of each hole and the flower for which it’s named (#13 – azalea, #15 – firethorn, #18 – holly), and on and on.

Augusta National is set on what in the 19th century was called Fruitlands, the setting for Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance. The course, so breathtakingly beautiful, looks like a million tiny workers have gone out for months ahead of time to trim the greens and fairways with tiny scissors, to prune the flowering trees and bushes with a barber’s precision, to caution the birds to make no unpleasant sounds, to advise the little fishes in Rae’s Creek and its attendant ponds not to make any untoward splashes. It’s a perfect example of nature tamed, unlike beautiful Pebble Beach which might be the best example of nature untamed. No bad animals are allowed at Augusta, no gators or snakes, no coots to desecrate it with their poop. If a deer or bear were to wander out from the surrounding woods, the deer would be Bambi, the bear a tiny Smokey. If Billy Payne were ever to read what I say here, I’d be banned not only from the course, but also from the telecast. Gary McCord and Jack Whitaker found out what punishment could be meted out for any less than respectful comments about Augusta. In 1994, McCord said the greens looked “bikini-waxed” with "body bags" kept at the back of the green for any player who went long. In 1966, Whitaker described the gallery after an 18-hole playoff as a “mob.” Augusta officials persuaded CBS to remove both commentators from the telecasts. I don’t know whether to mock the place or to fall face-down in worshipful praise to its drama. I guess it’s about fifty-fifty.

First, the positive memories. You have to understand, for every joyful winner there was probably a devastated loser. The wins I best remember—Tiger’s win in 1997 when he opened with a front-nine 40 on Thursday and a back-nine 30, then on to a record 12-stroke victory. What’s most amazing is that he had no 3-putts. This year we saw poor Ernie Els knock it around six times in his opening hole on Thursday, and player after player have 3- and 4-putts on those oh, so treacherous greens. Fred Couples won in 1992 mainly because his tee shot on 12 somehow stuck on the front bank of Rae’s Creek, allowing him to make par instead of a likely double bogey. We all can see and laugh at Phil Mickelson’s 6-inch vertical leap of joy on the 18th in 2004, his slap-happy grin when his putt went in on Sunday to give him his first of three green jackets. And Bubba Watson’s improbable shot in 2012 into number ten in the second playoff hole against Louis Oosthuizen, hooking a short iron some forty yards around a grove of trees and a tv tower. And, of course, Jack’s final nine holes in 1986, when he eagled fifteen with that silly-looking white putter, left arm and putter raised, tongue out as he walked the putt in, coaxed it in, demanded it in. I and a lot of other fans wept when he won that one, his sixth Masters victory at age 46.

Other vivid positive images. From left of the green, Tiger’s chip-in on 16 in 2005 when he sent the ball high above the cup and then watched it circle back to pause dramatically on the lip, long enough for the world to see that Nike “swoosh” logo before the ball decided to tumble in for birdie (How could it not? This is Tiger Woods, after all.). And speaking of number 16 and images that will be shown over and over and over again. This year we saw on Sunday first Shane Lowry knock it in for an ace, then Davis Love, and then, most bizarre of all, Louis Oosthuizen’s tee shot that struck J. B. Holmes’ ball near the cup, then ricocheted to the right, then back left and into the cup.

Then there are all the images of despair. The pressure on Sundays at the Masters must be enormous. Players can go brain-dead, doing things they’d never do in any other tournament. It’s a day of holding one’s breath for five hours trying not to make any monumental mistakes. And too often even nature can conspire against a player. This year, on fifteen, Billy Horschel’s shot was perched on the front of the green, but before he could get there to mark it, an Augusta gust of wind moved it a bit and sent it speeding down the slope and into the pond. Billy just stood there with palms out, hoping an official would tell him he could replace the ball. Nope. The ball was deemed to have never come to rest. Too bad, Billy. I remember the look on poor Roberto De Vincenzo’s face in 1968 when he was told he’d signed for a higher number than he’d actually made, thus missing out on a playoff with Bob Goalby. And Scott Hoch’s bend at the waist, hands to head, when he missed the 2-footer on the first playoff hole against Nick Faldo in 1989, a putt that would have given him the green jacket. And the collapses. Ken Venturi’s final 80 in the wind in 1956 to lose to Jackie Burke, depriving Venturi of being the only amateur to win the Masters. And Curtis Strange’s strange decision on Sunday in 1985 to go for the greens in two at 13 and 15, hitting it into the water on both, leading to two bogeys, losing the title by two to Bernhard Langer. Greg Norman’s loss in 1987 when, in a 3-way playoff with Larry Mize and Seve Ballesteros, Mize pitched in from way right of the green on number eleven to rip it away from Greg. And the real meltdown in 1996 when Greg and Nick Faldo were paired in the final group, with Greg leading by 6, then Greg falling to a 78 to Nick’s 67 and losing it in the worst/best come-from-behind loss/win in Master’s history.

Obviously, this is leading up to what happened this year to Jordan Spieth. His oh so painful experience at the famous/infamous, devastatingly painful short par-3, number twelve, with Hogan’s iconic image of the bridge, with Rae’s Creek fronting the green.
It’s a short par-3 called Golden Bell. Maybe it should be called “Bramble Bush.” Nearly all tour players describe the tee shot as more frightening even than the 17th island green at the TPC. Spieth was leading comfortably by three with only six holes to play. His tee shot landed about where Fred Couples’ shot had landed 24 years before, where Fred’s shot stuck, where Jordan’s fell back into the pond. He took a drop at about 90 yards. Then he hit the most awful chunk he may have ever hit in his life, a fat wedge that didn’t get within thirty yards of the hole. All of a sudden, his three-shot lead had shrunk to a one-shot deficit when he made a quadruple bogey, with Billy Willet, the Englishman and eventual winner, leading. Will Jordan have nightmares about that hole? You bet. Will he get over it and win there again? You bet. He’s only twenty-two, and youngsters like him have notoriously short memories. Will I continue to watch this tournament in the future? You bet. I’m an oldster and I have a notoriously long memory.
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