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Tradition makes Masters special

April 7, 2011

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Former Kansas University golfer Gary Woodland reacts after hitting a shot on the 12th hole during a practice round for the Masters on Wednesday in Augusta, Ga. At right is caddie Jon Yarbrough. Woodland, a Topeka native who earned a spot in the Masters field by winning the Transitions in Orlando, Fla., last month, tees off in the last group at 12:59 p.m. today, one group behind favorite Phil Mickelson. Woodland is grouped with Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, to whom he lost a playoff in the Bob Hope Classic, and Alvar Quiros of Spain. That same threesome tees off at 10:41 a.m. in Friday's second round.

Former Kansas University golfer Gary Woodland reacts after hitting a shot on the 12th hole during a practice round for the Masters on Wednesday in Augusta, Ga. At right is caddie Jon Yarbrough. Woodland, a Topeka native who earned a spot in the Masters field by winning the Transitions in Orlando, Fla., last month, tees off in the last group at 12:59 p.m. today, one group behind favorite Phil Mickelson. Woodland is grouped with Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, to whom he lost a playoff in the Bob Hope Classic, and Alvar Quiros of Spain. That same threesome tees off at 10:41 a.m. in Friday's second round.

— The Super Bowl has evolved from a funky little football game to a national carnival featuring $1,200 seats.

The Masters still charges $1.50 for a pimento cheese sandwich wrapped in a green baggie.

The NBA Finals has leapt from a quaint playground scrum to a slick marketing vehicle where everything from the shoes to the scorer’s tables are sold.

The Masters contains no advertising, no cell phones and absolutely no running.

The World Series has morphed from sweet September afternoons to bitter November nights, from short-sleeve shirts to ski masks, from autumn to winter.

The Masters hasn’t moved for 75 years.

On a Wednesday before the start of this year’s renewal of America’s most curiously strong sports tradition, I cornered Stewart Cink, a 13-year Masters veteran, as he finished his practice round amid an Augusta National scene that looks as if it were dropped out of a 1950s television show.

I pointed to the caddies wearing ancient white jump suits, the signs referring to fans as “patrons,” the giant hand-operated scoreboard, the three-buck beers, the delighted cheers that accompany a midday stroll by a former champion such as Jack Nicklaus.

“Why does an old-fashioned tournament like the Masters still matter?” I asked.

“That’s exactly why it does matter,” he said.

And he was right, of course, the Masters being the only major American sporting event where the field never moves, the culture never changes and the game is never compromised.

You might think that the sophisticated American sports fan would grow bored of this, but it’s quite the opposite. We embrace this. We hunger for this. The Masters remains one of America’s most beloved sporting events perhaps because it is everything we used to be, reflecting a simpler type of sporting culture that will never exist again.

“The Masters is about a certain formality and rigidity that is missing in most of our lives,” said Verne Lundquist, the announcer who will be calling his 27th Masters for CBS. “People crave that sort of thing.”

Nothing changes here, and in many ways that’s maddening, and if Augusta National were just some golf club, you would probably never come near the place.

The club roster, numbering about 300, contains no women and did not have a black member until 1990. There were only black caddies until 1983, and the first black player didn’t tee off in the Masters until 1975.

The club atmosphere feels like the worst of the Old South, and at a quick glance, it still seems that way, with most of the members being old and white while the service people are young and black. You can rail at the silliness of it all until you realize that this throwback culture produces a throwback sporting event witnessed by a diverse group of fans with a winners’ roster that is completely colorblind.

“This place, this week, there is nothing like it anywhere,” Cink said.

All of this is measured not in tweets or texts, but roars from fans leaping up from green Masters folding chairs that cost $29, roars that echo through a course unburdened with whirring technology or noisy glitz.

The Masters still matters because of the purity of that roar, a thundering bond between fan and athlete and playing field that has long ceased to consistently exist in any other corner of American sport.

Augusta National may be this country’s only sports venue that has a sundial. It’s sculpted in the shape of a tiny golfer. It sits in front of the pro shop.

The little guy keeps the correct time. The little guy stands perfectly still.

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