AUGUSTA, Ga. — This is the Masters, where pines grow, pretension rules and power golf dominates, a sporting event as much of the past as the present. And in a world changing too fast, isn’t that reassuring?
Where at the moment, the only two people who seem important among the 87 who tee off Thursday are Rory McIlroy, attempting to win the missing major, and Tiger Woods, attempting to win any major — particularly the one that some two decades ago changed the game.
Those two have defined themselves, put themselves at the top, and in the process put themselves behind the eight ball.
Rory’s career depends on winning the Masters, which would put him up there with Hogan, Nicklaus and, among others, Tiger, as the winner of all four Grand Slam tournaments.
Tiger’s reputation doesn’t exactly depend on taking this Masters or any of the other Slams, but as the years drift by — he’s now 43, and hasn’t won the Masters since 2005 or any major since the 2008 U.S. Open — the memories grow dim.
Golf’s current landscape is the property of Patrick Reed, winner of last year’s Masters, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka. History is bunk, claimed Henry Ford — anybody out there know who Ford was? — so stop thinking of the way it used to be. And yet, golf relies so much on history, on comparing, and judging and explaining that Bobby Jones, credited with creating the tournament that became the Masters, played with clubs that had hickory shafts and golf balls that barely bounced. much less rolled.
Jones is the only person to win a genuine Grand Slam, in 1930; four majors in a calendar year, except two of those four were the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur, which in the 21st Century are more like minors.
Do you dare reference Babe Ruth in a modern baseball story? Or even Willie Mays? They seems less of a different generation than a different millennium. This is Bryce Harper’s time. You have to stay relevant.
But golf is judged differently. The Masters clings to tradition, the par-3 contest Wednesday when the pros put their children, some tots, boys and girls, into mini-caddy outfits, to tug around a few of daddy’s clubs while a gallery delights.
The Masters clings to tradition. Nicklaus, a six-time winner, at age 79 is asked to show up Thursday morning and hit a ball down the first fairway, which elegantly and beautifully he does — for no good reason except to remind us that the Olden Bear remains as much a part of the tournament as he was 50 years ago when he was the Golden Bear.
Six Masters victories for Nicklaus. Four Masters victories for Woods. No Masters victories for McIlroy, who has won the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA and a ton of other tournaments, including The Players, a few weeks ago.
“This is my 11th year here,” said McIlroy when asked if he has come to terms with the course, Augusta National, on which the Masters is played. “If I haven’t figured it out by now, there’s something wrong.”
The only thing wrong is that he’s never finished first, despite at times being the leader.
“Yeah, I’m very comfortable with this golf course,” said McIlroy, now 29. “One of the great things is it forces you to be creative, and I like that side of the game. I like to see shots. I like to visualize.
“I know I’ve played well enough and shot enough good scores here over the years. If I put my best effort forward, I’m going to do well here.”
Woods has done well enough, but what chance does he stand against golfers 15 years younger?
“There were a couple of events over the course of my career,” said Tiger, “major championship-wise I needed to win. I didn’t want to blow the lead I had in ’97 (his first Masters triumph), because of what happened the previous year. Greg (Norman) lost a six-shot lead. I didn’t want to lose a nine-shot lead.
“And then to win here in ’01, to complete all four in a row. That’s never been done. ... I needed to win that one. Now I don’t really need to win again. I want to.”
So does Rory McIlroy. And he needs to.