The incredible roars that reverberated across the bowl of Augusta National in welcoming Tiger Woods into competition after many months of uncertainty were in stark contrast to some years ago, when many patrons turned their back to him as he walked past. All is forgiven and Tiger is back; more friendly, more tactile, more relaxed, more at peace with himself but still just as focused. He can win but so can a host of others, except for the distant past champions, as everybody is in there to win.
As the cool, misty early morning yielded to a hot, humid day, we were relishing the previous evening when, after having raced from Atlanta to Augusta, we were treated to some of the best food in North America. Jacko Maree of South Africa did us proud and invited us to the elite Founders Room dinner in which only Club Members (all wearing Masters Green jackets) and their selected guests can participate, even as Bubba Watson, the 2014 winner was hosting the Champions Dinner right next door (more of his mother’s cooking!). Members are entitled, and obliged, to wear their Green Jackets during the tournament days, but are equally obliged to ensure that the jackets do not leave the premises of the Club. Traditional Southern hospitality and courtesy were on full show.
Unfortunately, owing to a shoulder injury, Arnold Palmer could not play his part in the triumvirate of Palmer, Player and Nicklaus which adorns this delightful event each year. His place was taken by the two-time Masters winner, Ben Crenshaw, arguably the best putter ever. The patrons embraced him and revelled in seeing past and present champions displaying their considerable skills. When Jack Nicklaus at age 75 nominated and scored a hole in one on the fourth hole (he had never aced any hole at the Masters ever) the congregation erupted in a deafening roar that Jack will carry forever in his heart. Now televised, there were oohs! and aahs! and laughter every minute within those 10 hectares or so of hallowed land.
This “Family” contest where wives, including that of our own Anirban Lahiri, sons and daughters and even babies in swaddling clothes don the white caddy uniform and bib in support of “their” player, is fast becoming a vehicle to demonstrate the wholesomeness that underlies this great game of golf. With all potential winners of the Masters Tournament participating in the Par 3 contest, the myth that he who wins this contest will not win the Masters in the same year seems to be finally vanquished.
With great financial success, most top players give so much to charity that it enthuses many others to do likewise. Two elderly ladies, never having played golf and thus claiming to be better than the best, because permanent spectators always know better, went with full hands in support of Ernie Els’s charity which fights autism in children. Vox stellarum indeed.
The odds keep changing as recent heavy rains rendered fairways and greens soft, which helps those players who are longer off the tee (Rory, Bubba, Dustin Johnson) and those that are great with their wedges. But, the winner will be the one who can use his imagination, skill and experience to tame those tough breaks on the greens, more particularly the killer downhill putts where managing the speed and line is critical. Remember how, some years ago, even a superb putter like Tiger Woods was two on the green at the easy par five thirteenth hole only to putt right off the green and into the water.
Anirban Lahiri is playing for more than himself. He is fully aware that Jeev Milkha Singh and Arjun Atwal before him blazed a trail which he is following. While he has no illusions about his winning on his first time out, he keenly feels the responsibility of making that trail into a road on which many more Indians could travel. Somewhere along that road, some time or another, an Indian will pick up a Masters green jacket. May be, it will be him. Presently, having just got to world ranking number 33, he has his task cut out to remain under 50. He is showing mental toughness and considerable maturity despite his young 27 years, and might well be at or better than this level for a number of years.
Jordan Spieth comes riding a huge wave of momentum and, having come in second in 2014, is certainly going to be a strong contender in 2015. Even if he does not win this year, his obvious skills and ever increasing experience, coupled with his personality and well meaning candour, means that he will remain a force at top levels for at least the next twenty years. For me, it’s either him or Bubba Watson (he of the “if I have a swing, I have a shot” fame) who will walk away with this year’s Green Jacket.