My father loved the Masters. A specialist when it came to spectator sports, Dad was rather selective in tuning in for championships, be it the World Series, the Final Four, or the Super Bowl. But he loved the Masters. One weekend every April, it was the only news that mattered. Which is why this year's event -- the opening round Thursday -- will be so difficult for this casual golf fan.
How do I best describe my dad's taste for sports? It's a reach, but "extreme traditionalist" might work. To call him old-fashioned would be cliché, and would oversimplify what were often profound observations of the games and athletes we cheer. To my dad, there was always a right way to play and a wrong way, regardless of the relative talents of a particular athlete. The most breathtaking of football players could diminish his star quality with an end-zone gyration. (Words of wisdom Dad took from my grandfather: "Never make fun of another man.")
As long and hard as I tried to explain to Dad that the carrying violation was simply no longer called in basketball, he still grimaced every time he saw Allen Iverson in uniform. And wild cards in baseball? A second-place world champion? I once responded to his demand that this effrontery be stopped by telling him it would be like putting toothpaste back in the tube. Dad didn't even get the metaphor.
But he got the Masters. Augusta National was a place where rules were drawn as much by history as by any commission or governing board. The Masters was a tournament created by the legendary Bobby Jones, then made the possession of the legendary Jack Nicklaus, a six-time winner. Nicklaus was second only to Stan Musial in my father's pantheon of athletic greats, and this had as much to do with the way the Golden Bear conducted himself as it did with his supreme skill with a golf club.
Azaleas. Amen corner. A green jacket to the winner, for Pete's sake. The traditions at the Masters are as quaint as they are offensive to the eye of fashion. (Dad was compulsively tight-lipped during the recent controversy over female membership at Augusta National. When the club's chairman, Hootie Johnson, answered the criticism of media sponsors by putting on his tournament without them -- no commercials! -- Dad found it endearingly stubborn and quintessentially Southern. Right or wrong, it was another tradition, you might say. There are larger battles for mankind to win, my dad felt, than equal membership among sexes in a golf club, no matter the prestige.)
With the help of an old friend from Emory University (where he earned his Ph.D.), Dad got a ticket to the 1996 Masters. In his 55th year, my dad walked the most famous golf course in America, and witnessed history on two counts. This was the year of Greg Norman's epic Sunday collapse, when the Shark lost the green jacket more than Nick Faldo won it. (Other than a win here in Memphis a year later, we've barely heard from Norman since.) This was also the last Masters B.T. (Before Tiger). One could argue that my dad saw in person the last Masters played where the tournament favorite was in question.
Dad didn't live to see what will be the 10th anniversary of his walk at Augusta National. Which is why I'll be watching especially closely when this year's field attempts to keep the magnificent Woods from his fifth green jacket. The marketers at CBS call the Masters "a tradition unlike any other." Perhaps the only such slogan my dad ever acknowledged as truth. Yes, my eyes will be on Augusta this weekend, my heart -- as always -- with my dad.