Masters Magic: Slipping Away

There was a time not so long ago when you could sink into the Masters telecast much as you might sink into a favorite armchair, allowing it to enfold you, leaning back and giving yourself up to two days of pure golf, virtually free of advertisements and exemplifying the very best the grand old game has to offer.

Alas, no more. At least, not really any more. It’s true the sportsmanship and the brinkmanship and the weekend fire is still there. The colossal ups are still there, and the dreadful downs, especially on the back nine.

But you can’t sink into it anymore. It can’t enfold you. Because the vaunted “limited interruptions” announcement by dear old Joe Ford is no longer quite accurate.

Oh sure: there are probably still only three major sponsors (although in Canada they used to be joined by luminaries like dry cleaners and lube shops; thankfully, those days seem to be gone). We still don’t see that many ads, especially by comparison with, say, The Open. But they intrude every ten minutes or so, instead of once an hour. And they’re joined by a lot of other stuff as well.

For the past several years, somebody—Augusta National? CBS?—seems to be terrified that we might be getting bored. To prevent that, they throw up leader boards and logos and extended re-encapsulations by Jim Nance, and excessive nattering. Just in case you missed all the action. Just in case you haven’t got PVR or any other recording device. Just in case the beauty that fills your eye is insufficiently arresting.

So now, it’s difficult, if not impossible to sink into the ambiance, drink in the beauty, listen to the crowd roars, revel in the excitement. You can still try to do these things, just as you can still watch your favorite try to make a run or keep his head (and his lead). But you’ll keep glancing at your watch. Because every time the host or CBS intrudes, you’re brought back to the real world.

No longer can you just forget your cares for four or five hours, and immerse yourself in a different world, a world of beauty, grace and sportsmanship. Now, each intrusion reminds you that it’s the weekend and you should be mowing the lawn, or cleaning out the garage, not—Good God!—watching television.

I’ll probably go on watching each year, just as my parents always did. But it’s not as magical as it once was, and if they go on working at keeping me interested, the Masters will one day lose its magic entirely and become just like any other tournament. And that will be a pity.


Women and Augusta National: Same old same old

(This article was written in May of 2012, following publication of my novel Ang Tak, set at the Masters)

Another sexist tempest at the Masters, this time over the CEO of IBM. The company is a long-time supporter of the tournament and every CEO since the world was young has been invited to join Augusta National Golf Club.

But not this time. This time, an infamous snub, because like the Masters, Augusta National is male-only and IBM’s CEO is a woman.

Ho. Hum.

The only reason anyone gives a damn about this sort of thing anymore is because Augusta National happens to put on what is arguably the best-loved and most prestigious of all professional golf tournaments. It’s seen as very wrong, therefore, that the club is male-only.

Not to me. Whether they don’t want to install facilities for women, or they do want to be able to kick off their shoes and make vulgar noises in the dining room, the reason doesn’t matter. The members are entitled to do as they please, and to be judged accordingly.

I’ve got to add that if women could compete in the tournament—that is, if women were physically capable of competing against men at the highest levels of golf—then the all-male rule at Augusta National would seem outrageous to me.

Unfortunately, women are not able to compete head to head with men. Annika Sorenstam gave it a great try a few years ago and came up short. Michelle Wei has tried. Also came up short. Which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t keep trying. The great Babe Zaharias made the cut in several tournaments back in the 1940s and no doubt another woman will do it again one day.

Until then, women at the Masters—as players or members—is an annual tempest in a teapot.

I had to face this this issue head-on a few years ago when beginning my novel Ang Tak, about a young golfer and his caddie at the Masters. The event is so relentlessly male I wanted to inject a female element to broaden the novel’s appeal. So I made my caddie a woman, and made her the narrator. Kat (her name) holds a similar opinion to mine about the issue of women as members. Similar, but not the same: she thinks their choice is a dumb one. But like me, she also thinks they’re entitled to make it.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask if a woman would even want to be a member of this particular club. Yes, you’d be in influential and well-heeled company, with a membership that includes names like Buffett, Gates and Bechtel. (The club is so wealthy, in fact, they don’t even depend on sponsorship. One of the many reasons to love the tournament so much is because of the wondrous announcement that issues forth each year from the Chairman’s mouth: the one about no more than four minutes of advertising each hour.)

But—forgive me—how exciting would it be to be a member? I guess it depends on your tastes. Ten years ago the average age was 78. That’s probably come down somewhat since, but no one knows for sure. The membership of Augusta National is a well-kept secret.

The fact is, Augusta National will decide to invite a woman to join when it feels it cannot afford not to. Which may be next week or never. And whether or not we ever find out—that too will be up to the men of Augusta National. I’m good with that.

*  *  *

Update: In August 2012, Augusta National announced two new members, both women: Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore.

The Fifteenth Club

  • You’re on the par 3 seventh, water all down the right side. To compensate, you aim well left; sometimes that helps you to stay dry. Not today. Another ball gone west.
  • The 370-yard par 4 sixteenth is the easiest hole on the course. Birdies are not uncommon here. Today, however, you miss a short birdie putt. Then, still annoyed, you miss the 12-inch par putt.
  • It’s a beautiful early morning.You plan on a quick round then home to spend Saturday with the kids. But your foursome had a cancellation and the slowest member of the club is in with your group. To compensate for the snail’s pace, you’re rushing your shots and wrecking your round.

You have no club in your bag to help in these circumstances. Yet you could have: meditation could be the invisible fifteenth club that helps you play better with the other fourteen.

More focus, less stress

Daily meditation can be as helpful to you as a session at the range. It can help you to focus, to concentrate. Meditation can help slow your thoughts down after an incredible shot (bad or good). It can assist you in visualizing your next shot. Critically, daily meditation is believed to strengthen the decision-making part of the brain. It helps you make better decisions under stress.

In fact, the simple act of visualizing the good shots, the ones you got right, can improve your game if you do it regularly. Try it some time (but not behind the wheel). Find a quiet moment to empty your mind of all thoughts, then fill it with the memory of one of your best shots. Remember the feel. Hear the sound. Picture that perfect trajectory.

In the course of researching my novel Ang Tak, I discovered that golfers use meditation techniques to give themselves that extra “club” for the times when you want to throw one or break it over your knee. That Tiger Woods learned how to meditate from his mother is common knowledge. But Y.E. Yang, who won the 2009 PGA, also meditates, as do many Asian golfers.

Staying in the moment

When you learn to meditate, you learn how to reduce the stress of a bad shot by embracing it. You don’t deny it, you don’t agonize over it, you don’t start listing all the things you did or did not do. Instead,  you accept that it happened and move on, immediately. You forget that shot and set about finding a solution. It’s history. Your next shot is what fills your mind now. It’s called staying in the moment.

Learning to meditate doesn’t mean you don’t get angry. On the contrary, it means you face your anger and accept it. If you’re able to meditate as you play, then you’ll focus on something like your breath, and try to clear other thoughts from your mind. If you’ve practiced this a while, you may find that this simple technique alone helps to calm you.

Meditation can teach you patience and–in a sport characterized by chronic discontent—it can teach you to find a measure of contentment, if not in your game then in the other components of your round: the weather, the course or your companions.

It’s been written that golf, like meditation, is a journey—a journey toward the perfect swing, the perfect round. It’s also been written that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. If that is so, then perhaps meditation can teach us to enjoy the journey rather than postponing our pleasure until we arrive.

This article was written in spring 2012 after the publication of my novel, Ang Tak, set at the Masters.