One of the most common question sportswriters get is this: What is your favorite event to cover? The answer, for me, is simple: The Masters.
And really, it isn’t even close. You can take the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Olympics, the U.S. Open, all of it. Just leave me that wonderful week in early April, please. Leave me the Masters.
But as I tried to answer the logical follow-up question once – why? – I couldn’t come up with an easy answer. It is the event, of course, but it’s more than the golf. It is the specialness of the place, of course, but more than just that, too. It is a lot of things.
How about one for every hole they’ll play this week?
1. I love the Masters because the old men who run the event don’t call it a tournament. They pronounce it a tunamint. Used in a sentence (please insert a handful of marbles into your mouth before trying this at home): "Ladies and gentlemen, I would like humbly to welcome y’all to the Masters Tunamint."
2. I love the Masters because it really is the start of spring. I’ll leave my house in New Jersey, where I’ll still need a coat and gloves to walk the dog, and when I return, the flowers will be blooming in my yard.
3. I love the Masters because of the flowers -- and no, I’m not going to gush about the azaleas for a few thousand words. I’ll save that for Jim Nantz. I love the perfection of the flowers. Every pine needle is in the right place. The place is a golf course that happens to be situated at the world’s most beautiful garden, and the tournament -- excuse me, the tunamint -- takes place at the peak of its bloom.
4. I love the Masters because -- no lie -- I once saw Arnold Palmer drinking an Arnold Palmer.
5. I saw that on the veranda of the old stately clubhouse. The veranda overlooks the old Live Oak (more on that in a minute), and sportswriters are still allowed to settle into the deep wicker chairs and order lunch here.
6. It is the best lunch spot in the world -- not because of the food, but because of the view. You can see the first tee, although it’s usually surrounded with fans. You can see the golfers walking off the course, the spectators milling about with their course maps. I always get a feeling time has stopped when I sit up there.
7. One more story about the veranda: One day, a group of my friends ordered peach cobbler after their lunch. They waited a few minutes and the waiter came back with the check instead. There must be some mistake, they pleaded. They ordered the cobbler. But there was no mistake. "Mr. Nicklaus needs the table," they were told.
8. I love the Masters because it reminds me of this story this story by Wright Thompson about his father.
9. The place also reminds me of my favorite sports book, You Gotta Play Hurt. The book provided two invaluable tips about covering the Masters before I ever dreamed of covering the Masters.
10. First tip: Do not lose your badge. I’m not sure if the consequences will be as dire as Dan Jenkins describes in his book, but I have vowed to never find out.
11. Second tip: A walking guide to the course. Jenkins describes how he had never actually seen the fifth hole, and it only took a couple of trips to realize he had a pretty good point. It’s hard to get to, cramped and the course pretty much makes a U-turn on the next couple holes.
12. Of course, once I actually attended the Masters, I started to wonder when Jenkins charted this course since he never leaves the press room. He used to sit in the back all day with a couple of his cronies, smoking skinny cigarettes.
13. They don’t let him smoke back there anymore. The room used to be a gritty place with sandwiches, soft drinks and beer, but a couple years ago, they renovated the place and cleaned up the table, and now the Masters offers a much healthier breakfast and lunch for the media.
14. It was better the old way.
15. Another point Jenkins made in his book: He complained about the lack of good hotel rooms in Augusta -- which is true, of course. I used to stay in a Fairfield Inn that jacked its prices to $330 a night. But now we stay in a house. It’s a beautiful four-bedroom colonial about 10 miles from the course.
16. So this is the one event a year where a bunch of sportswriters will hit the Harris Teeter and throw some steaks on the grill a couple nights a week. It’s actually a nice change.
17. Speaking of food ... I love the Masters because of the chicken sandwiches. They are nothing more than a piece of fried chicken breast on a starched bun, wrapped in green cellophane, but hot damn, they’re good.
18. You can keep the pimento cheese sandwiches. They taste like bread smeared with paste.
19. If you have read this far, you’re probably starting to wonder: Does this guy even cover golf? I do. But it isn’t the golf that makes the Masters special. It’s the stories. You always find a good story.
20. Like this one: Steve Wilson was a 39-year-old gas station owner with a “chicken-wing swing” who managed to win the Mid-Amateur and earn a spot in the field. He had a rough career. He gave up the sport “30 or 50 times.” And then there he was, with his kid carrying his clubs in the par-3 contest, the happiest man on the planet.
21. Or this one: Kenny Perry had just bogeyed the final two holes to give away his chance at golf immortality. His family is in tears near the press center – sobbing, actually – and what does Perry, a 48-year-old father with the perspective of a happy life, do? He tells them, “It’s not the end of the world. "It’s a golf tournament."
22. There are always stories. It’s like Masters magic. I think that’s because the field is both exclusive and inclusive at the same time, if that makes any sense. The Masters limits the run-in-the-mill PGA pros, but it includes the former champs and amateurs who have great stories.
23. I love the Masters because the old timers are there. Every year, it seems, somebody writes that the course is too tough for the pass-their-prime former champs, but the event is special because they become part of it.
24. I didn’t see Ben Crenshaw break down in sobs after winning the green jacket for a second time. But I saw him shoot 1 under in 2006, walking arm in arm with the caddie and friend, Carl Jackson, who carried his clubs the day he won. Jackson had some serious health problems. Crenshaw paid his bills.
25. I wasn’t alive when Billy Casper won the Masters in 1970. But I saw him shoot a 106 in his final appearance in 2005, then tuck the scorecard into his pocket without signing the evidence. “I just wanted to do it one more time,” the then 73-year-old said with a smile, “before I got old.”
26. I love the Masters because it has a rhythm. You write the old-timers on Thursday, the contenders over the weekend, and of course the winner (or, if it’s dramatic, the loser) on Sunday.
27. And Tiger. You write lots and lots and lots about Tiger. It should have been no surprise that, after a year of scandal that ruined his image, he returned to golf at Augusta National -- to a welcoming gallery, of course.
28. Except, of course, for the guy who flew the plane over the course with the banner that read, “Tiger, did you mean Bootyism?” (The planes never flew past the course again, leading to the speculation that the powerful club had the air traffic patterns changed.)
29. I love that Phil Mickelson evolved from choker to champion here. I was there for all three of his victories, and all three rank in the top 10 of the greatest sporting events I’ve seen live.
30. I was sitting in the small bleachers perched above the 18th green when he sunk that 18-foot putt for his first major and leapt into the air.
31. I was there again when, last year, he hugged his wife, Amy, after winning the tournament as she fought breast cancer.
32. Look, not every year is as dramatic as that. Trevor Immelman’s rain-soaked coronation wasn’t exactly a memorable four days. This is a sporting event, after all, not a miniseries.
33. I love the Masters because winning the event makes a bunch of mediocre pros appear much better than they actually were. Charles Coody won a Masters. It was one of his three career titles to go along with the 1964 Dallas Open and the 1969 Cleveland Open. Tommy Aaron won twice in his career, but was lucky enough to win here once, and that made a career.
34. Because the list of golfers to never win the green jacket is much longer. Ernie Els. Hale Irwin. Nick Price. Johnny Miller. Peter Thomson. Lee Trevino. Greg Norman. On and on it goes.
35. This the 15th anniversary of Norman’s Sunday collapse against Nick Faldo, and I still want to hide under the couch.
36. I love the Masters because I just reached “the turn,” so to speak, of this list and I have not run out of stuff.
37. I love the traditions. The par-3 contest on Wednesday, when the pros can show their human side for a couple of hours.
38. The ball-skipping during practice rounds. Lee Trevino started it during a rain delay, skipping a ball across a water hazard to the delight of the galleries, and now it’s a tradition. Fans yell “SKIP!” after players take a practice shot, and then the pros will try to bounce a shot off the water and onto the green.
39. And, of course, the Masters lottery. Sportswriters, the hackers who spent the previous four days second-guessing the shot selection of the pros, enter their names for a chance to play the course on Monday. And the lucky ones get to shoot 100.
40. A confession: I’m always too much of a coward to enter. Maybe this year! (Gulp.)
41. I love the Masters because of the back nine at Augusta National. It really is the perfect back nine. Walk it with me:
42. The 10th hole -- Camelia is its name -- is historically the hardest hole on the course, a downhill par 4 with danger on both sides of the fairway and a difficult approach into the green.
43. The 11th hole -- White Dogwood -- has the greenside pond that doesn’t look menacing, until it does.
44. The 12th hole -- maybe the most famous in golf -- is the par 3 with Rae’s Creek in front and the azaleas behind.
45. (A quick note on 12: The single coolest spot on the course is a very small media viewing area near the 12th tee box, which is the apex of Amen Corner. You can see the players approach and putt on 11, tee off and -- from a distance -- putt on 12, and tee off from 13. I could sit there all day.)
46. The 13th hole is where the action really begins on Sunday, a par-5 that rewards the players long enough to go for it in two. It yielded 10 eagles last year.
47. The 14th hole, a 425-yard par 4, has one of the most difficult greens on the course, but no bunkers.
48. (A quick note on 14: I was walking the course on Saturday last year, looking for a story, when I just stopped near the green to watch. “Who’s hitting?” I asked a man. “Phil,” he replied. A few seconds later, the ball landed on the green and rolled into the cup for an angle. That man? He hugged me.)
49. The 15th is another par-5 eagle chance -– six on Sunday alone last year.
50. The 16th hole -- a par 3 with maybe the coolest name, Redbud -- is where Tiger had that epic chip that Nike shows over and over and over in its commercials. That was at the 2005 Masters (and the last time he won).
51. The 17th hole has the famous Eisenhower Tree (which, for the record, is completely out of play for nearly all the players). It is also where Nicklaus sank the great curling birdie putt in 1986 that gave him his six green jacket at 46.
52. (And the call from Verne Lundquist -- "Maybe ... Yes, sir!!" – still gives me chills.)
53. The 18th hole is a brutal finishing hole: Uphill, long (465 yards) and demanding. Plus, there are no massive seating areas, just folding chairs and craning necks, which adds to the appeal.
54. Wait. I haven’t gotten back to the Live Oak yet? Okay, so at the back of the clubhouse is a 150-year oak tree that provides shade to dozens of meandering sportswriters, caddies and members each day. The tree is held together with enough steel cables to build a small suspension bridge, leading Fuzzy Zoeller to tell me once: "They probably have more invested in that damn tree than I do in my entire house."
55. This is probably a good place to address the "they." The millionaire and billionaire members are dinosaurs -- there’s no way around it -- and their exclusionary rules are awful. Yes, it is possible to love the Masters and dislike them.
56. But you have to admire their ability to rake in the money. The Masters souvenir store is capitalism at its finest -- I mean, $89 for a golf shirt? -- with people sending home orders totaling thousands of dollars. It’s ridiculous.
57. And yes, I still bought a $25 seersucker overall outfit for my 1-year-old son last year. It’s ridiculously cute.
58. You can get the same golf cap in 50 styles and colors, but the concession stands still serve the same bare-bones menu at 1980s prices. A beer? $2. A pimento cheese sandwich? $1.50. (But trust me, save the buck fifty.)
59. I love the Masters because as elite as it is, the masses blend together outside the ropes. Too much of today’s sporting experiences separates the haves from the have much less -- separate entrances at stadiums, sky boxes at arenas, etc. At the Masters, everyone walks as one. I’ve stood next to Alonzo Mourning and Phil Knight. Tiger’s ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, was easy to spot.
60. And she’ll be missed.
61. I love the Masters because of the town. Augusta gets a bad rap. The downtown area, away from the Washington Ave. strip malls, has a bunch of cool bars and local restaurants.
62. I mean, there are 10 Waffle Houses in the Augusta area -- it can’t be all bad, right?
63. The best bar: The Soul Bar, a place on Broad Street with live music and James Brown posters plastered on the walls.
64. The best food: The Snug, where you can get a great steak away from the overwhelming crowds.
65. T-Bonz, an overcrowded steakhouse on the strip, isn’t bad, either. Every Sunday night when the tournament is over, Mickelson’s caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, hangs out there with R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. And that’s cool.
66. I love how, on he night of the champion's dinner, the past winners hang on the veranda in their green jackets, most of them visibly younger than the members, looking like they are sneaking drinks at their parents house.
67. I love how they all keep coming back. Gary Player’s wife was waiting for him to step off the stage following what was supposed to be his final Masters press conference last year, after following this man around the planet for five decades, and asking, “Do you think you can come with us now?”
68. Player, of course, will back this year -- not as a player, but to mark the 50th anniversary of his first win in 1961.
69. He beat Palmer that year, who famously made double bogey on the last hole to give away the title. All these years later, Arnie still hasn’t gotten over it.
70. I love the way the place smells in person, a strange mix of cigar smoke and pollen and sometimes mud, a smell that exists no where else in the world. It smells like ... Augusta.
71. I love the Masters because of the anticipation of what might, the day-long hunt for the story, and the thrill of opening the laptop on deadline and getting started.
72. So maybe I could have boiled the whole list down to this: I love the Masters because it brings out the best in sports, and as a result, it brings out the best in the people who are lucky enough to write about it.
-- Steve Politi, the sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., will cover his ninth Masters this week. His columns are available at www.nj.com/politi, or follow him at Twitter.com/NJ_StevePoliti.