Tiger and tradition take center stage at Augusta

Tiger Woods, Monday practice round, 2012 Masters
Fred Vuich / SI
Tiger Woods had a huge following during his Monday practice round at the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Old traditions die hard at the Masters, and as tournament week kicked off Monday with relaxed practice rounds under bright skies, a fresh set of players and fans gathered to enjoy the sights and sounds that make Augusta National special.

The only thing missing were the azaleas. But we’ll get to that later.

Tiger Woods got an early start to his week on Monday morning, beating balls at Augusta’s stately two-year-old driving range, working up a sweat and looking comfortable. He moved on to the first tee before most fans had even passed through the gates. When crowds poured into bleachers behind the range around 8:30 a.m. in hopes of catching Tiger’s warm-up, they were instead greeted by Javen Jones, a 21-year-old Augusta native working crowd security.

“Tiger’s an early bird, man,” Jones told some disappointed fans. “You have to get here fast if you want to see him.”

Some fans stuck around to watch more warm-ups, some chased after Tiger, and others took off for the concessions, where prices for a pimento cheese sandwich ($1.50) and a cup of beer ($3.00) remain frozen in time. Having a little lunch for five bucks is a tradition most folks can get behind, you know?

Woods teed off with his buddy Mark O’Meara and the twosome buzzed around the course in less than three hours, dragging along the largest gallery of the morning. After O’Meara hit his approach to the 18th green well inside Tiger’s, O’Meara appeared to enjoy telling Tiger about it as they strolled up the fairway. They then spent a few long minutes on the green taking putts at spots when the pins will be placed throughout tournament week -- those hole locations are traditions, too -- and were off the course before 11 a.m.

It’s impossible to say if this year’s event will live up to the hype surrounding it, but a couple of moments on Monday morning indicated that this could be a special week.

As Woods and O’Meara were playing their approach shots on 18, K.J. Choi holed out a wedge shot from the fairway on the ninth hole, where the putting surface is a short pitch shot from the 18th green. The large gallery that had gathered to watch Woods let out a tremendous roar. That’s right: a roar during a Monday practice round.

In fact, it might’ve been the most electric moment in the history of Masters Monday practice rounds -- until about an hour later.

On the par-3 16th hole, Martin Kaymer and his group were skipping balls across the pond and onto the green to the delight of spectators (another tradition), when -- would you believe it? -- the German skipped one across the water, onto the green, and into the hole. It was a ridiculous shot, and the crowd exploded. That’s right: an explosion during a Monday practice round. Kaymer sauntered up to the hole, plucked the ball from the cup and heaved it into the crowd. The pros get caught up in the experience out here, too.

“There's no other place like it, really," said Jason Day, who tied for second place last year. “This is my favorite week of the year every single year. I've watched this tournament from a kid until now watching TV -- there's just so much history and tradition here, it's a fun place to be.”

While nearly all players in the field made an appearance on the grounds, the star of the day was the course itself, which opened to the public on Monday for the first time this season.

“It’s immaculate -- it just seems like nothing is out of place,” said Alison Dunwald, a Toms River, N.J., native attending her first Masters. “I mean, even the bathrooms are perfect. It’s like being in Disney.”

Another fan was impressed even before he got through the gates.

“This parking lot has better grass than my yard,” said a fortysomething fan.  “Seriously. This is better.”

The green jackets would never go for it, but that would make a catchy slogan for a T-shirt in the merchandise shop: AUGUSTA NATIONAL: OUR PARKING LOT IS NICER THAN YOUR YARD.  Regardless of how the actual event plays out, the course has delivered on the hype, as it does every year.

“It’s everything I imagined -- just spectacular,” said Charles Gorrigan, a 47-year-old Masters newbie from Worcester, Mass., while gazing out at the famed par-3 12th hole in the heart of Amen Corner.  “The only thing missing are the azaleas. Where are they?”

Turns out the azaleas were done in by an unseasonably mild winter, and the bright, pastel blooms have already burned off.  It is perhaps the only Masters tradition that didn’t make it out here this week, which will no doubt be a crushing disappointment to amateur horticulturalists and Claritin salesmen, but for most everyone else things should carry on as planned. Two more great traditions, the Par 3 Contest and the ceremonial opening tee shots from Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, are still to come.

It may be slightly greener than usual this week in Augusta, but like all Masters, it promises to be a good one.

And that’s probably the best tradition of all.

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