For many years, I have had a heated argument going with Tom Shatel, a newspaper columnist in Omaha: The Masters vs. the U.S. Open.
Tom prefers the U.S. Open for all the reasons you might expect. The fairways are narrow. The rough is high. The greens are hard. Old Man Par usually wins. Tom always says that the Open is like real life, where you mostly find yourself trying to avert disaster, get out of trouble and just make it home before you triple-bogey something.
We agree on that. But this is exactly why I like the Masters better. The Masters has nothing to do with real life. The Masters is Disney. The Masters is a magic show. The Masters is about an old Golden Bear charging on the back nine, about a hometown kid chipping in to beat Greg Norman, about Tiger Woods's ball rolling down the hill, stopping a millimeter short of the hole and then, because this is Augusta, taking another quarter turn and dropping in.
The Masters-well, put it this way: There is a gorgeous oak tree between the clubhouse and the first tee. It was planted sometime before the Civil War, and it has enormous branches that stretch out 30 feet on every side. It might be my favorite tree in the entire world; it's so amazing people simply call it "The Big Oak Tree."
If you stand under that tree, though, you realize that it is being held together by numerous cables. See, Tom is right: The Masters has nothing to do with real life. The Masters is a Hollywood set. That's why I love it.
Neither one of us will ever win the argument, I suspect, but there's one thing that I know: The Masters matters most. The Masters, more than any other major, has come to define greatness. Yes, of course, there have been great golfers-Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller at the head table-who did not win the Masters. And yes, there are non-greats who did win it.
But it's still the Masters that most establishes the narrative of golf history. Is Greg Norman better known for his two British Open championships or for the many Masters he lost? Is Ernie Els's career seen as a spectacular success because of his two U.S. Opens and one British Open, or is it incomplete because he never won at Augusta?
Ask a golf fan how many green jackets Jack Nicklaus won and chances are they'll say "six" instantly. Ask them how many U.S. Opens he won, and they're likely to think, "Well, OK, wait, I know he won at Pebble Beach, and he won at Oakmont and..."
This doesn't make the Masters better, exactly. Not everyone likes the Masters. When I was with the Augusta Chronicle, I interviewed Johnny Miller, who created a bit of a fuss when he called the Masters the "U.S. Spring Putting Championships." There are those who think the Masters is too geared toward big hitters, run by people too full of themselves, broadcast with too many tinkling piano notes.
And yet, the Masters has still emerged as the first among equals. Why? Maybe because the Masters is the one played in the spring, when everything comes to life. Maybe because the Masters looks so great on television. Maybe it's because it's the one major that stays in one place-we know Augusta, know the pressure of hitting the tee shot at No. 12, know that if you hit it short at No. 9 the ball will roll back to your feet, know that you don't want to hit it over the green at Nos. 13 or 15.
Maybe it's because the players love the tournament so much that they make it important. This, after all, was the dream of Bobby Jones and the playground of Hogan and Palmer and Player and Nicklaus and Watson. It's that love, perhaps, that sparks the nerves, thickens the pressure, makes the back nine on Sunday at Augusta as marvelous as any sporting event in the world. One of my favorite Masters quotes comes from Fulton Allem. he said that, as a golfer, when you drive down Magnolia Lane, your hair stands on end. He added: "The person who combs it best, wins."