Sunday, April 12, 2009

An Experience Unlike Any Other

I assume it is pretty clear by now that I am more than just a casual sports fan. Truth be told, in my 31 years, I have derived an inordinate amount of pleasure, excitement, and relaxation from playing and/or participating in sports. In fact, when compared to the percentage of those emotions derived from non-sports related activities, the numbers are staggering, and yes, potentially sad. That being said, without question or dispute, my favorite annual sporting event is the Masters. For over seven decades, during the first full week of April, the golf world has descended on Augusta, Georgia. Consequently, hundreds of millions of eyes from around the world have focused their attention on Augusta, and for as long as I can remember, my eyes have been among them. Unfortunately, however, with the exception of one practice round visit back in '05, my eyes have always watched from the couch. Well, due to the generosity of my good friend, MJ, that unexpectedly changed on Saturday. When MJ sent a text late Friday evening offering up two badges for Saturday's round, it took all of 7 seconds for me and DB to respond, "where and when do we meet you?"

That being said, for this article, I toyed with idea of explaining why the Masters is so special to me. You know, I thought about taking you on a trip down memory lane with Jack in '86, Larry Mize in '87, Norman and Faldo in '96, Tiger in '97, Phil in '04, Tiger from behind the 16th green in '05, etc... Ultimately, however, I decided that you know the history, and if you don't, you probably don't care. Also, I toyed with the idea of attempting to describe how, in person, The National's beauty exceeds even your wildest expectations. Then, as I attempted to do this, I realized that there is a reason The National is more beautiful in person than you can imagine: words and television images simply cannot describe what the human eye can process. To attempt to do so would be foolhardy. So, what's left for me to talk about? The answer is simple, Tiger Woods. For those of you that know me well, this answer lacks originality, but hopefully this take does not.

Saturday was the fourth time I've seen Tiger Woods in person. The first was with DB and our buddy, BH, at a Wednesday practice round at St. Andrew's in 2000. The second was a brief one hole walk with my buddy, BP, at Doral in the second round in '05. And, the third was a brief stint at the aforementioned Master's practice round, with BP, in '05. Each of those three experiences were fun, but they don't even belong in the same conversation with Saturday's experience.

On Saturday, DB and I picked up Tiger on the 6th green, just after he hit the stick with his tee shot, and we followed him through Amen Corner, and we picked him up again on the 15th green. During this span, we witnessed Tiger drop a bomb for birdie on #9 and about a 12 footer for birdie on #12. We also witnessed Tiger miss some very makeable putts along the way. The putts and the shots, however, are not what I will remember. Instead, I will remember the electricity in the air that envelopes everything above, around, and near Tiger when he is on the course on Saturday at the most special of all golf championships. As you would expect, his gallery was close to ten deep, but it's not the size of the gallery that is remarkable, it's the collective emotions. When Tiger steps over the ball, you can FEEL the collective excitement and tension of tens of thousands of people at one time. You can feel everyone collectively hoping that they are seconds away from witnessing something they've never seen before. But, at the same time, you can feel everyone collectively hoping Tiger doesn't hit a poor shot or miss a putt. In other words, you can feel that every single person in that gallery, in their own unique way, for whatever reason, feels personally invested in Tiger's play. I honestly can't explain this sensation.

For the first several holes we followed Tiger, I felt a little bit like an outsider standing back and watching this phenomenon from a distance. I was aware of everything, but I didn't really feel like I was a part of it. Then, DB and I found a great spot on the back right side of the 15th green, and we had a clear view of all the happenings there and the entire 16th hole.

The 16th hole, of course, is one of the great cathedrals in all of sports, not just golf. Tiger promptly made birdie on 15 and made his way to the 16th tee. As he stood on the 16th tee surveying his shot on this legendary par 3, I was literally struck numb. I know it sounds crazy, but from time to time, you have such a startling revelation that renders you physically numb. Well, as I stood there watching the greatest golfer of all time preparing to hit his tee shot on the hole I've seen countless times on television in the past 3 decades, in a setting that defies words, I suddenly realized: TIGER FREAKING WOODS IS ABOUT TO TEE OFF ON 16 AT AUGUSTA, AND I'M STANDING RIGHT HERE WATCHING IT!!!! This was Bird in the Boston Garden, Mays in the Polo Grounds, Favre at Lambeau, Ali vs. Frazier in the Garden, Connors in Queens, Mantle and DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium, Jordan in the old Chicago Stadium, etc... (I'm sure I'm leaving some obvious ones out, but you get the point). In other words, this was the greatest performing on the greatest stage.

Well, needless to say, without even realizing it, I was a part of everything I had witnessed over the first several holes with Tiger. I was invested. In that moment, more than anything I've ever wanted, I wanted Tiger to hole out. At the same time, just as badly, I didn't want Tiger to hit a wayward shot and find the bunkers or the water. It was truly exhilarating. In the end, Tiger hit a pedestrian shot to the middle of the green and went on to make a par. Well, it wasn't the ace I'd hoped for, but it wasn't a wayward shot either. What I now realize, however, is it didn't need to be either. The scene, the moment, the numbness, the anticipation, the excitement, and the anxiety all added up to a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. In an era where we attempt to define sports greatness strictly by numbers and statistics (a trap I admittedly fall into), I can assure you that you can't even begin to define Tiger Woods's or Augusta National's greatness with statistics. They both transcend empirical proof.

In the same vein, as DB and I drove the 2+ hours back to Atlanta, I asked him how the Masters ranked among the greatest sporting events he's ever seen. Without boring you with all the details of the conversation, I will tell you that DB, with his usual even-handedness and wisdom, put things in perspective for me. We shouldn't waste our time comparing one sporting experience to another and trying to rank them in some order of greatness. To do so tends to cheapen each of your sporting experiences just a bit, and that's not fair to the experience or you. That being said, I'm not going to attempt to quantify how special Saturday was for me. Instead, I will simply tell you that it was among the best sporting experiences of my life, and I sincerely hope that all of you that love sports are able to experience a weekend at Augusta. I assure you that you won't forget it.

Finally, before signing off, I would be remiss if I didn't comment on Sunday's final round. For those of us that love the Masters, we will long remember today. We will remember Phil's record setting front nine and his subsequent toe to toe battle with Tiger through 16. We will remember Phil and Tiger running out of gas on 17 and 18. We will remember Kenny Perry's birdie on #12, and his subsequent bogeys on 17 and 18. Because of Perry's bogeys on 17 and 18, however, I fear we won't remember Angel Cabrera's fantastic performance in capturing the Green Jacket. There is no doubt that Kenny Perry gave him some help along the way, but Cabrera's par on the first playoff hole was nothing short of spectacular. And, his approach on the second playoff hole was as clutch a shot as we saw all week. The bottom line is that Angel Cabrera won the Masters, and Kenny Perry did not lose it. I fear this opinion will place me in the minority in the short term, but I am hopeful that will change over time.

So, the NCAA Tournament and the Masters are in the books. Next stop, NBA Playoffs. As Verne said on #17 back '86, YES SIIIIR!!!!!