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Sheer Muddy Madness
A maelstrom of typically American pseudo-liberal public opinion and unseasonable Georgia rain put paid to this year's Masters as a memorable event. What is arguably the greatest annual golf show on earth was reduced to a social and sporting quagmire by a desultory show of protestors outside the gates and by muddy fairways and greens of variable speed within.

What is probably the most lavishly tended and best-managed golfing terrain in the world was reduced to a mud-pile by three days of virtuously continuous rain. Even the most technically advanced drainage system could not cope with the rain that fell on Augusta over the first three days of last week. Not only did it wash out proper practice preparation over the annually lengthened course, it also made much of what transpired a golfing lottery. Balls that landed on the fairway rarely failed to collect some mud before they came to rest - with the result that second shots to the green were more dependent upon a clean ball than a clean strike. Shots were squirted here, there and everywhere and those that hit the ball highest and longest were at the greatest risk. The lucky ones found their balls plugged, which meant that they could dig the ball out and clean it before the ball again entered play.

But if the players were having a rough time they were at least able to stay on their feet. Caddies are not allowed to wear spikes at the Augusta National so as well as having to carry a leaden bag they also had the burden of staying on their feet on wet slippery terrain that would have tested a mountain goat. Spectators too had a tough time in their hole-to-hole transits. Such was the sea of mud behind the ropes that skating and surfing skills were required as well as tolerance and understanding after having made a four hole trek to find a crossing place closed. Gucci mud effect was much in vogue with splattered pink cashmere and combat trouser camouflage effect.

This year's Masters might have been entertaining if only for the fact that, yet again, it produced buttock-clenching tension. It was certainly an exciting finish with the amiable Len Mattiace posting a seven under par score and awaiting his green jacket fitting before Mike Weir put paid to all that. Weir, playing like the seasoned pro that he is and matching Mattiace's score, was always likely to take the playoff but the fact that he did so with a bogey just about sums up the whole event.

The event was a farce. Without adequate practise sessions and over a lengthened sodden course the tournament was wide open to the pack of journeymen players. The attempt to squeeze two rounds of play in on Friday generated a hustle and bustle about the whole event with constant appeals made to speed up play. Pod Harrington never settled to it and Montgomerie's veneer of composure cracked when he attacked an innocuous, innocent volunteer marshal holding a 'Quiet please' sign.

Ernie Els looked puzzled on greens that were not only variable between but also appeared to have fast and slow areas within them. Tiger Woods looked perplexed as yet another ball squirted off the clubface from what, on any other day, would have been a bread-and-butter iron shot. The fact that Woods had to hole a tricky four footer to make the cut speaks volumes about the whole proceedings. The fact he made the putt and maintained his outstanding pro record of never having missed a cut, says even more.

With the big cat out of the way (although he did make a threatening prowl in getting to within three shots of the leader at one stage) the mice came out to play and enjoyed the moment. Darren Clarke enjoyed a first round lead and an ongoing presence. Vijay Singh threatened, as did David Toms and the unlikely Jeff Maggert. Ricky Barnes, the US amateur champion, provided some light relief to the Tiger's angst and Len Mattiace enjoyed himself all the way to the scorer's tent after 72 holes.

Paul Lawrie, like Olazabal, loves Augusta. Many loathe it although they are loath to say so. More than any other tournament venue, far less a major championship venue, Augusta National is a putter's paradise. Mike Weir putted perfectly over 72 holes crammed into three day's play and got a green jacket and a fortune as the first left-handed winner since Hootie Johnson was a boy.

Weir is a worthy winner for he simply stuck it out and although his triumph was not glorious it was not ignominious either. There was, however, much ignominy associated with the whole tournament this year - not least of which came from the in-and-subsequently-out playing of the over 65 year-old past champions.

The Masters has long provided a glorious inaugural three ball of past champions of yesteryear. It is a nostalgic tradition within an institution that pays great respect to those that have served the game well. Tommy Aaron and Charles Coody were awarded the honours this year and, like me, many anticipated Arnold Palmer joining them on the first tee. Inexplicably, Sandy Lyle was sent away with Tommy and Charlie and quite explicably Sandy returned a first round 82 while Charlie notched an 83 and Tommy staggered home with a 92.

Sandy Lyle is in his 40s and yet still manages to put together great rounds of golf. Indeed, he compiled four excellent rounds to take fourth place in the demanding three-venue Dunhill Links Championship last October.

Lyle was the first European to win a Masters title and surely merits more respect than to be consigned to the oldies category at his early age. If the members of Augusta National are to be seen as circumspect and socially respectable they must surely be concerned about being seen as respectful as well.

©    14 - APRIL 2003

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