No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn. — Hal Borland
I endure winter. Having spent nine of them in New England as a young man, I associate winter with a physical pain that many cannot call familiar. Since I was a boy — practicing baseball indoors as March turned to April — I did the metaphorical equivalent of Rogers Hornsby’s famous line: I stared out the window and waited for spring.
And spring always comes. Two distinct sporting events mark the season’s beginning: baseball’s Opening Day (yes caps, and here’s hoping for Ozzie Smith’s national holiday) and the Masters golf tournament. Does the color green ever look more inviting, more warm, more receptive than it does in the outfield of a major-league stadium on Opening Day? If so, it’s on the fairways of Augusta National, the only golf course in America that has grown men getting misty upon leaving the clubhouse, let alone walking the 18 holes. I love everything about the Masters ... and to date I’ve only watched from my living room. The violin music, the azaleas, the whispers of announcers at Amen Corner. The Masters is as old-fashioned as removing your hat indoors. I’m convinced we welcome the event more emotionally the older we get.
I’m old enough for a few Masters champions to stand out more than others. Here are the top five.
5) Phil Mickelson, 2004 — This was Mickelson’s 12th Masters. Long one of his sport’s brand names, Mickelson had finished among the top 10 at Augusta seven times, including three consecutive third-place finishes from 2001 to 2003. You just had the feeling Lefty’s first major win would come in April; only a matter of which April. Mickelson dropped in a birdie on the 72nd hole to edge another Hall of Famer, Ernie Els.
4) Ben Crenshaw, 1995 — The Masters will tug at your heart, particularly across generations. Four days before the ’95 tournament’s first round, Crenshaw lost his longtime coach and mentor, Harvey Penick. Playing with a heavy heart, the 43-year-old Texan somehow found the swing that earned him his only previous major title (at the 1984 Masters) and beat Davis Love III by a single stroke. If you weren’t choked up as Crenshaw burst into tears on the 18th green, you weren’t paying attention. This was Crenshaw’s last major title.
3) Tiger Woods, 1997 — We knew he was a precocious talent, famous since childhood. But did any golf fan expect to see what a 21-year-old Tiger Woods did to the Masters field in 1997? The final round became essentially a crowning party for the sport’s new king, Woods opening at 15-under ... nine strokes ahead of his competition. (It’s remarkable that Woods was actually three strokes off the lead after the first round.) He finished 18-under, 12 shots ahead of veteran Tom Kite. You want a measure of Tiger’s impact since that first of his 14 major titles? He earned $468,000 for the victory. Last year’s Masters champ took home $1.4 million.
2) Nick Faldo, 1996 — This was a Masters lost more than won. At age 41, Hall of Famer Greg Norman seemed finally destined to capture golf’s greatest prize. (This was the Shark’s 16th appearance at Augusta. He’d finished in the top-five six times.) Norman led by two strokes after the first round, four after two, and six after three. But then Sunday. While another Hall of Famer, Nick Faldo, put up a 67, Norman imploded with a six-over 78. It’s hard to start a round of golf leading by six strokes and finish it down five. My father attended this Masters, the one and only time he walked the grounds he came to admire above all others in the sport.
1) Jack Nicklaus, 1986 — When you’re 17, as I was then, 46-year-old golfers were the men who sold equipment and endorsed products, bowing on Saturdays and Sundays to stronger backs and heavier swings. They were the names Dad reminded you of on weekends, a standard for players in their prime to match. On this weekend, though, the sport’s most famous name stole headlines in the name of the middle-aged (and young at heart) around the globe. The Golden Bear merely lurked on Thursday and Friday, then climbed onto the leader board Saturday, two-under and four strokes behind Norman. Five players grabbed a share of the lead on Sunday and Nicklaus fell three behind the leaders after 12 holes. But then starting at 15 . . . eagle, birdie, birdie, par. One stroke (9-under) better than Norman and Kite and an 18th professional major for the greatest player, young or old, golf has ever seen.