Once each year, the emotional connection between golfer and game materializes for one fleeting week among the hills and pines in Augusta, Georgia. The Masters is a singular sporting event, and Augusta National is a singular place. It evokes the grandeur of history and the brilliance of genius. Its holes are monuments to the greatness that has happened there.
The possibilities that the Masters tournament exudes are beginning to take their 2017 form. The tournament field is always in flux in the weeks before the big show. The last few tournaments before the Masters offer the final chances for many journeymen to earn the most coveted invitation in golf.
The only guarantee of a permanent Thursday tee time is a previous Masters win. A win at the other three majors will net you five years’ exemption. A Players Championship victory gets you three. For everyone else, an invitation must be earned anew each season. It’s now or next year — maybe.
Canadian Adam Hadwin recently punched his ticket to the 2017 Masters with a 1-stroke victory at the Valspar Championship. His first Masters invite comes on the heels of a third-round score of 59 at the 2017 CareerBuilder Challenge in January. Hadwin will be honeymooning during Masters week. Rebuking fate, he had booked a refundable flight for his fiancé and himself, just in case his services were requested in Augusta. You never know, right?
Hadwin stands little chance of having Danny Willett hoist a green jacket onto his shoulders this April. New players at Augusta seldom excel. The course is too quirky, too awe inspiring. The uninitiated must acclimate to its grandeur. No Masters rookie has won it all since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979. Then again, it would be unwise to count anyone out.
In this new era of golf, winners come out of nowhere. Before the 2016 Masters began, if anyone picked Danny Willett to win, they were extremely quiet about it. Jordan Spieth’s Masters victory in 2015 was less of a surprise, though his record-tying, 18-under score raised more than a few eyebrows. It was reminiscent of the performance he tied, the story of which will be told and retold for as long as the game is played.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Tiger Woods’ immortally dominant performance in the 1997 Masters. Woods’ score that year beat Jack Nicklaus’ and Raymond Floyd’s shared record of 17-under by just one stroke, but he eclipsed the field by 12 shots. For those too young to remember it, his accomplishment evades hyperbole. Woods crested a mountain top that Sunday, at the age of 21, over which few in sports ever get to see.
It has been nearly a decade since Woods’ fall from grace, and more than three years since he has tasted victory. If watching his fall was tough, watching him succumb to injury has been worse. Time’s march slows for no one, and Tiger’s impending absence reminds us of our mortality. The Masters has a way of doing that.
The 2017 Masters will be the first without the presence of Arnold Palmer since the 1950s, and it comes one year shy of the 60th anniversary of The King’s first Masters victory in 1958. Palmer had to recuse himself from his honorary starter’s role in 2016. Failing health and an ailing shoulder prevented him from joining Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus in what had become a brief but beautiful tradition. A hobbled Tiger took his place at the tee, but it does not seem like anyone could do that now.
As the PGA Tour moves into Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer invitational, many hearts will be heavy. It is a somber reminder that the clock is ticking. Perhaps another Masters rookie will earn his first trip to Augusta when it’s all over on Sunday. It would be a fitting way to honor The King. Each Masters tournament brings the promise of something new, flavored as it is with the fading glory of the past.