My April’s Masters Addiction

 Ernie Els of South Africa hits a putt on the 16th green during the third round of the Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club.

My name is Doug Wicks, I said it.) But I must add that, when April 8th comes along this year, I have no intention of changing my behavior.

And like anyone with an addiction, I will go to great lengths to ensure I get my fix. And it often means that others must make sacrifices on my behalf to ensure I get what I must have.

I have never been to Augusta National Golf Club to watch the Masters live. I watched my first Masters on TV—really watched it—in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus stormed the back nine in 30 (6-under par) to win at age 46. Then the next year I endured Greg Norman’s heart-wrenching defeat in a playoff to a miracle shot by Larry Mize. From that point I was hooked, and I remember watching every one of them since. And nothing changed when we moved to Africa; it just made my addiction harder to satisfy.

For five years I lived in what was then called Bunyole County, Tororo District, Uganda. There was no satellite TV in Bunyole, but I absolutely had to watch the final round of the Masters. The only solution I had was to drive the 63 kilometers from Mugulu to Mbale and watch it at a hotel. But as you well know, in Africa, the Masters is on in the middle of the night. This posed a problem for me.

I refused to leave my family (wife and one small child at the time) alone at our village home overnight, so I had to bring them along. I found a nice little hotel in Mbale, the Sunrise Inn, that had an ‘Executive Room.’ Executive meant that you got a nice fruit basket and a TV in the room. That’s all I needed: fruit for the wife and the TV for me. Unfortunately, the satellite feed came through a master box in the manager’s office. So whatever was on one TV was on all the TVs, including in the bar. So I called the hotel well in advance and asked the front desk to guarantee that they would have the channel turned on to the Masters on SuperSport from 11:00pm until 4:00am. They agreed.

This posed a serious problem, however. There weren’t many golf fans at the bar at the Sunrise Inn in Mbale at 11:00pm on a Sunday night. There were, however, many rabid football (soccer) fans wanting to watch the end of the game. And I wasn’t prepared to take on a bar full of drunken Arsenal fans. (I am an addict, but I am no fool.) So I let the front desk clerk take their complaints. (Sorry guys, you’re an addict just like me, but I think ahead.)

So there I am, in the middle of the night, watching the Masters in a dark room with the volume way down (my wife and daughter are already asleep by 11:00pm), praying that the power doesn’t go out. Because I know that there is no chance in Hoima that the hotel is going to fire up the generator in the middle of the night just for the golf addict in room 3, especially while all the normal guests are all asleep. There’s something surreal about watching the leaders play Amen Corner at 2:30am in a hotel in Africa.

For most Africans, I think it is hard to fully appreciate the majesty and glory of Augusta National Golf Club. If not just for the fact that it is nearly impossible to find an opportunity to watch it live on a good TV. It is host to the only golf major that is at the same venue year after year

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. And it is arguably the most coveted tournament to play in. There is something uniquely special about Augusta National Golf Club.

They say that the Masters does not really start until the back nine on Sunday. That was certainly true just last year when Rory McIlroy, in the driver’s seat with a three-shot lead, drove his tee shot on the 10th into the houses setting up a double bogey and a negative tone for the back nine. This allowed South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel to take control, which he did. He birdied the final four holes for the win. How can you not watch this kind of drama?

This week I got a chance to chat with Scott Simpson, the 1987 U. S. Open Champion, a winner seven times on the U.S. PGA Tour, and currently a player on the Champions Tour. He played in 15 Masters in his career, and we talked about Augusta and what makes it so special.

Simpson describes the Masters at Augusta as ‘electric.’ He too has experienced the struggle of the back nine on Sunday. In the final round in 1983, he was just two shots off the lead going into 11 when his approach inexplicably sucked back into the water—double bogey. Then his tee shot on the par three 12th was into the sun and he hit an 8-iron to the center of the green. But when his group got up to the green the officials said the ball landed near the back of the green and bounded up the hill into the azaleas. They never found the ball. He walked back to the tee; hit the exact same club to the exact same direction, and the ball found the center of the green—double bogey. That’s just the way it is at Augusta.

As he reflected on the Masters, Simpson said “It’s a spectacular setting, with an incredible, rich history. And it’s clear that Augusta is committed to excellence. They don’t lack money to do whatever they need to do to make it excellent.”

He’s right. Augusta is unique in that for nearly five months, during the peak season from the end of May to the middle of October, the course is closed. Then the team of expert agronomists and landscapers improve on perfection, preparing it for the next year’s Masters.

“During that time they can move a tee box, add or remove a tree, and you can’t even tell the next year that anything’s been altered,” says Simpson. “And it’s clearly the best conditioned I’ve ever played. They spare no expense to ensure that the course is without a blemish.”

This is the hardest thing to appreciate: how perfectly conditioned the course is. “You can hardly find a blade of grass that is out of place.”  One year, Simpson told his caddie that he would not be able to find a weed on the entire course. So for the entire practice round the caddie was searching for a weed—any weed. As they walked from the 17th green to the 18th tee, the caddie stopped, pointed down and said, “Scott, come here. Isn’t that a weed?” Sure enough, there it was. After walking and looking for 17 holes, he finally found one weed. One!

Late one afternoon during a practice round, Simpson and his good friend found themselves alone on the course as the sun was setting, gently poking its rays through the pine trees. It was dead quiet. His friend turned to him and said, “Wow. This is spiritual. This is like church.” Indeed, Augusta is like church.

So, what I’m thinking is this: If the Masters and Augusta is spiritual, like church, then watching it religiously can’t really be an addiction. It’s really more of a spiritual discipline, like meditation or like praying.

I know this year, as I watch on a high definition TV in the comfort of my own home on Sunday afternoon; I will be praying that my fellow Masters viewers in East Africa will have found a place in the middle of the night to watch one of the greatest perennial sports events in history. And I think it is no coincidence that it will be Easter Sunday.

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