Experience trumps talent at the Augusta National. Jordan Spieth now has both in spades.
At the Tuesday Champions Dinner at Augusta National earlier this week in which defending champion Sergio Garcia was honoured, Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champion, was the only person in the room under 30 years of age. Spieth is the exception that proves the norm: The Masters is won by outwitting an extraordinary golf course; something older hands are much better at. Laying siege might work one day, but persist longer and Augusta National will get its own back. Just ask Spieth, who reeled off seven birdies and an eagle (including five birdies on the trot on the back nine) on Thursday—the first time he’s done that in a Major Championship—to shoot an astounding six-under 66 that put him right on top of the leaderboard. Augusta National struck right back on Friday snatching back three strokes in the first two holes and yielding not a birdie all day to the young man. Spieth needed eight more strokes to get around Augusta National on Friday, as he did on Thursday. Most players in his place would have stormed off the course after the round, but not Spieth. Cool as a cucumber in the press briefing room, Spieth appeared remarkably relaxed. “What’re the first couple of holes on a Friday start. It means nothing to me,” he demurred. “In 2016 I had a couple of bogies and a quad, but was able to bounce back with a one-under round, so those two holes are not going to affect me or the outcome of this tournament. I’m still in a great position.” Spieth knows exactly what he’s talking about: he’s one of only four players—Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods being the others—to have won at Augusta before they turned 25 years old. But that’s not to say that Augusta doesn’t give youngsters a chance to shine.
This year, that spotlight is firmly on Tony Finau. The young American admits that he’s been waiting for this moment for 20 years—ever since he saw Tiger Woods’ legendary triumph in 1997. Finau and his brother, who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood, used to fire dance to raise funds to play tournaments in their junior and amateur days. Finau is known for his booming drives but none has been as long as the one from a garage in Utah to Magnolia Lane. At the par-3 tournament preceding the main draw, Finau hit an ace and went running down the fairway to celebrate. Then, in full view of cameras, the golfer’s ankle twisted and popped out, before he gingerly popped it back. An MRI ensued and by some miracle he managed to tee it up on Thursday. Finau called it a miracle; and seeing the young man’s name on the leaderboard on Thursday it certainly seems like divine intervention. After a two-over 74 on Friday Finau was still in the top 10 going into the weekend. Since omitting a mention of Shubhankar Sharma would be too obvious, let’s just say that the young man is on a learning curve and, regardless of his stellar performances over the past six months, it would be prudent not to put him under undue pressure. He’s gained valuable experience by teeing it up at The Masters. After his first round on Thursday, American Patrick Reed said his prime strategy was to stay relaxed and treat the Major like any other tournament. I can’t imagine how much the players are affected by the Augusta ‘halo’ but hapless television viewers like us certainly get the full treatment. Cue, saccharine elevator music set to point-of-view dash-cam footage of Magnolia Drive; visuals of what looks like a picture-perfect golf course, even if the odd brown patch has green paint on it to make it palatable for broadcast; and lots of talk about the ‘patrons’ (gallery) at this hallowed tournament.
If this sounds like a rant, then let me qualify that: Augusta National, at the end of the day, is an elite private golf course which does nothing to promote the game besides providing an annual spectacle for the PGA Tour. It’s too early to forget that the 300-odd members did not allow an African-American to participate till 1975 (until Lee Elder took part in that year’s edition). Interestingly, Elder was not invited to participate in the 1975 tournament; he automatically qualified by winning the 1974 Monsanto Open. Also no African-American member was admitted till as recently as 1990 and till then the club required all caddies to be from that community. Women were not granted membership till, wait for it, 2012! That’s the end of the rant. It’s a good thing to remember when commentators wax and wane about tradition at Augusta, and treat it almost like hallowed ground. It’s none of that. But, it is a fantastic golf course, and deserves every bit of appreciation as a Major tournament venue. In fact, it plays a unique role in the modern game by forcing the best players in the world to compete on a golf course that rewards canny course strategy, precision, and, for lack of a better word, delicacy. Augusta is a far cry from monochromatic venues like Bethpage Black which serve as arenas for other Major tournaments like the US Open. To win the Masters, you need to be patient, wily, and one heck of a putter. In spite of the falter on Friday, Jordan Spieth has all of these in spades, which explains why not only has he won the Green Jacket, but always been in contention when he hasn’t. I’ll be very surprised if he can’t get the job done yet again tonight. A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game