Kudos to the Masters and Augusta National for the initiative, along with partners PGA of America and USGA, for the exciting news about the 2014 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. Taking place the Sunday before the start of Masters week, boys and girls ages 7-15 will compete in the finals at Augusta National in separate divisions and ages. The drive and chip finals will take place on the club’s superb and expansive practice facility while the putting finals will occur on the 18th green of Augusta National. Bravo! The deadline to register is April 30, 2013 at www.drivechipandputt.com
At his Chairman’s Press conference on Wednesday, Billy Payne gushed about having Condi Rice and Darla Moore (darn, no relation) as the club’s first female members. “It’s just awesome,” said Payne. After last year’s contentious Press Conference which included several pointed questions about the lack of a female member at Augusta National, no way was the progressive-minded Payne going to allow this gender and member issue continue to fester and be a distraction to the Masters. Although constitutionally protected as a private club, Augusta National deferred too long on the gender issue—unlike the club’s prompt response to admitting African-Americans following the highly volatile ‘Shoal Creek’ furor in 1990. At the Press conference, Payne didn’t get entangled with other hot button questions like the proposed ban on anchored putting, or whether or not Vijay Singh should be playing in the Masters due to his admitted use of a banned substance, and whether or not other clubs should follow suit on admitting female members. Asked ESPN’s Rick Reilly: “You can see that we are struggling for controversy. Do you miss the controversy (laughter).” Retorted a smiling Payne: “Do you have a question, Rick?” (more laughter.)
Prior to the start of the tournament, the spot at which Bubba Watson last year hit his amazing hooked wedge shot out of the trees on the 10th hole during the playoff became a “must visit” area for patrons. When visiting there on Thursday, I heard a patron say to his friend: “I was right here last year when Bubba hit his shot. I thought for sure he was going to just chip out to the fairway.” Seeing the spot in person, makes Bubba’s feat even more incredible to me. And what makes it extra special, it’s an area at which patrons can actually place themselves inside the player’s shoes—unlike the inside-the-ropes locales at which Sarazen, Devlin, Maggert and Oosthuizen had their historic double eagles and where a number of players had their aces. When asked on Wednesday if the club would consider putting a plaque at the spot, Payne said: “You know, we haven’t talked about it…I think we’d have to get a little more time to how history remembers that before we make a decision.” Mr. Payne, history will always remember it fondly. (Note: There’s a plaque in the rough at Royal Birkdale’s 16th hole (then the 15th) commemorating Arnold Palmer’s explosive 6-iron shot out of a wet, gnarly thicket in the 1961 British Open, an approach shot finding the green that helped Palmer win the claret jug.) So order the plaque now for Bubba’s iconic shot and keep laying down the pine straw there—it will be a “must visit” place for years to come.
My favorite tidbit about the Par-3 event was Rickie Fowler having his grandma on the bag, following previous years with his grandpa (“he’s the one that got me into golf”) and his dad. About his grandma as caddie, Fowler said: “She did great. I think she’s actually supposed to have knee surgery at some point coming up but all of sudden her knee felt pretty good today.”
Of all the stats compiled for the week, most impressive was low amateur Guan not having a single three putt during the tournament. Using a belly putter, Guan tied Fowler for the lowest accumulative putting average per hole at 1.50. Fowler had two three-putts so I give the putting crown to Guan.
The Masters’ credos, first voiced by founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, of the “endless pursuit of perfection” and “continuous improvement” were seen in a new seating innovation in the “Observation Stands” (Masterspeak for grandstands). To avoid distracting noise for nearby players, the new chair back seating features a spring that quietly lifts the seat bottom whenever a patron stands up. Speaking of Observation Stands, member Condi Rice joined by four other friends sat in one at the 5th green on Thursday for several hours in the back reserved seating row.
Though Phil Mickelson had a disappointing Masters, he remains one of the most popular players and media interviews in the game. A few examples sharpened the point. In his press conference on Tuesday, Mickelson exhibited an easy, engaging manner with an impish and self-effacing sense of humor. When one reporter asked him the loaded question if he’d like to see the R & A Golf Club of St. Andrews admit a female member, Mickelson deftly dodged it by saying: “I really love the game of golf and I love playing professional golf…What I don’t love is getting involved in the politics of it. I tried that earlier in the year…it didn’t go so well.” (laughter.) His words were in reference to controversial (to some) comments made earlier in the year about high taxes and the possibility he might have to move out of his native California because of them.
After the interview, I strolled over to the practice putting green and there’s Mickelson with his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay. Mickelson was about to start a putting drill when a fan along the rope yelled out to him, “Hey, Phil, sweet shoes!” The nattily attired Phil was dressed in white cap, navy shirt, navy pants, silver/white belt and navy alligator (or faux alligator) shoes. Phil smiled, looked at the young man and at his shoes, and then quipped. “I wish I could reciprocate.” The gallery broke up in laughter. Then he added, “I’m just kidding.” Moments later, Bones went over and handed the beaming fan a new golf ball.
On Tuesday afternoon, I attended the sparsely attended press conference for Steven Fox, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. After receiving the official invite, Fox said he played Augusta “12-13 times” with two Augusta National members from Nashville (TN). He cited the huge difference playing in front of the huge galleries on Monday. “I must have yelled ‘Fore’ 15 times yesterday,” said Fox with a smile. He stayed in the Crow’s Nest inside the clubhouse on Wednesday and Thursday nights. With his dad on the bag, Fox missed the cut (76-81).
Best quote of the week is from Bubba Watson when talking about callers who contact Masters officials about possible rules infractions seen on television: “They must have a lot of time on their hands,” Watson said. “Because I don’t know the phone number to call, and I’m playing in the golf tournament.”
Best sportsmanship award goes to runner-up Angel Cabrera for his “thumb up” signal to Adam Scott, applauding Scott’s approach iron to the 10th hole in the playoff.
This was my 30th year covering the Masters, a privileged assignment. As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just showing up.” Thanks, Augusta National, for letting me in.