AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was a Masters weather week like no other. On Monday the field practiced in steam-bath heat. On Tuesday night a storm dropped an inch and a half of rain on the course and sent a tree crashing into a public restroom. On Wednesday afternoon a second storm broke up the internationally televised par-3 tournament, depriving sentimentalists of their annual kids-and-codgers fix. Thursday, cold and dreary, presented tapioca fairways. Friday, bright and breezy, played havoc with the yardage books. Then came a weekend so idyllic that you expected a pipes-blowing Pan to waltz up the first fairway trailing butterflies.
The sequence was so odd that weather talk turned to climate talk. "You missed the azaleas," said the typical green-jacketed clubman, apologizing for the monochrome drabness of Amen Corner. "They bloomed around Christmas." Others pointed out that certain prefectures in Japan, normally awash in cherry blossoms, were still blanketed with snow — an anomaly that could be dismissed or not, depending on your political leanings.
Let's be clear, Mother Nature was not disruptive. There were no weather delays once play began on Thursday. Some light showers disturbed the mirrored surface of Rae's Creek, but not once did the blast of an air horn cause a player to flinch on his backswing. Nevertheless, the daily buzz centered on conditions.
"It was not that easy," said defending champ Charl Schwarzel, explaining why wet greens were not yielding the expected first-round birdiefest. "When it's firmer you can bounce it up to the hole. Now the ball keeps spinning away from the hole."
Matt Kuchar endorsed that view and added that soft fairways made Augusta National play ridiculously long. "It's also much trickier since they started mowing from the greens back to the tees. Any time you lay up on a par-5, you have an into-the-grain wedge shot. It's easy to catch a little too much grass and come up short."
O.K., I'm quoting the G-rated interviewees. The PG-13 golfers vented freely about the "f—— mud" and the "f—— mudballs" and the "f—— rules officials" who hadn't authorized lift-clean-and-place for the first two rounds. The National's fairways looked pristine on TV, but they covered a sticky gumbo that clung to balls after impact, destroying their aerodynamic properties. Tiger Woods, who only hit six fairways on his way to a first-round 72, suffered three mudballs and said, "The one on 7 was a joke. I cut that, and it hooked about 20 yards." Kyle Stanley, asked to name his mudball holes, said, "One, two, five, 10, 11, 13, 15 …"
The effect of a gob of mud on ball flight has been debated for years, with one camp arguing that the influence is random and another camp insisting that the ball will curve in the direction opposite the gob — i.e., mud on the right side of the ball will make it curve left. Mud falling off the ball in mid-flight complicates the issue, but tour pros like to think they can beat the odds.
The most spectacular evidence that they can't was provided on Friday afternoon by two-time Masters champ José María Olazábal. Confronted with a mudball in the 18th fairway, Ollie decided to hit a fade. Instead he hit a boomerang hook, an admittedly well-struck shot that sailed over two gallery ropes and hundreds of spectators before coming to rest at the bottom of the ninth fairway, roughly 150 yards left of his target. Grinning sheepishly, Olazábal then smacked his air-cleaned orb up the hill and over a tower grandstand to three feet for a par save. "It was a great 4," he conceded afterwards, "but not one that I'd like to practice."
Some players counted on theory to get them through. "The school of bogeys teaches you how to read the mud," said Stewart Cink after an opening round of 71. "On 13 today I had a huge chunk on the right side of the ball, and that means it goes left. What do you do? Do you aim way right to hit the green? No, you can't. If that ball goes straight, you are dead. So I aimed in the middle of the green, and it shot straight left and hit the tree right in front of me." Cink parred the hole, but he called the over-soft conditions "a huge issue. It takes lots of guts to aim away from some of these greens and hit it right towards the trouble."
By the weekend, of course, the sun shone brightly and the fairways regained some of their bounce. "Yeah, weatherwise it was the most amazing, beautiful day," said a beaming Phil Mickelson, energized by a third-round 66. "Very little wind, soft greens and pins that you could get to." Less enthusiastic was Paul Lawrie, who took six more strokes than Lefty to get around. "I had the worst mudball I've ever seen at 8," said the former British Open champ. "Every hole, really, to be fair."
Scott Stallings, a Masters rookie who had made multiple trips to Augusta to study the course, said he was puzzled by the persistent softness. "Today was, I think, the 20th round I played here this year, and I have yet to see the fairways play firm." He blamed the green-to-tee mowing pattern, which prevented drives from rolling out more than 10 yards. "The ball is kind of getting into the grain rather than bouncing on top of the grain, and that's why some of the guys are getting mudballs."
Somebody needed to draw attention away from the wild hooks and slices, and that somebody turned out to be Louis Oosthuizen. The 2010 British Open champion played the par-5 second hole of his final round in two efficient strokes, his ball dropping into the hole after a long, slow roll across roughly a hectare of flawless bentgrass. The sky was mostly blue; the temperature was 79.
"In the spring," Mark Twain wrote, "I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of four and twenty hours."
He would have loved the Masters.