4/12/21

Greed and Grace

How the 2021 Masters began and ended

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The tournament started with a man in a white caddie jumpsuit making a gesture that represented some of the worst elements of golf. An entitled kid in an adult’s body commercializing a moment to honor Lee Elder.

This is America, where everything can be commercialized. Augusta National has its faults, but one of its strongest attributes is the respite the Masters brings us from the brands. There are no cars randomly parked across the golf course. There are no internet service provider rankings or courier cup standings. The “what’s in the bag” graphics are gone, and the equipment companies that so constantly have their thumb on the scale of the entire sport are kept at arm’s length.

So it was enraging to see Wayne Player, born on third base thanks to the achievements and earnings of his father, in his jumpsuit as an “honorary caddie” hawking some golf balls over the shoulder of Lee Elder. Depending on your interpretation, the honorary starter ceremony is a bit of needless Masters treacle or another poignant tradition that sets the tournament apart. But this one was going to be different. Its purpose was to honor Elder, a powerful representative for golf and everything that Wayne Player is not. Elder is also a living reminder of Augusta National’s faults and the shames of its past. Player did not ruin Elder’s moment or this unique ceremony, but he certainly stole from it. He seems to excel at that.

Wayne Player, second from left, with honorary starters Lee Elder (left), Gary Player (center), and Jack Nicklaus (right) at the 2021 Masters

Four days later, another man in a white caddie jumpsuit stirred every opposite emotion. Shota Hayafuji, looper for the new Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, closed the on-course action of the 85th edition with a bow toward the 18th fairway. It was pure. It was also pure catnip for every cross section of the sport with varying opinions on the Masters. It was the kind of gesture that undoubtedly had both a non-golf fan and a curmudgeonly green jacket in their feelings. You could extrapolate so much: there was praise for the man himself, Hideki, Japanese culture, the meaning of a Masters win, the reverence for the venue. The response to this two-second movement—a mixture of admiration, respect, and even captivation—was unanimous.

Sound, especially at the Masters, is such a critical part of how we consume pro golf. There’s the ping of the ball off an oversized driver head. The player exhortations and reactions, caddie conversations, and drunken fan shouts. There’s the commentator script and the immediate 18th-green interview with the event winner, asking her or him about what it all means. At Augusta, Jim Nantz has his call ready to go when the final putt drops. The Masters has its famed birdsong, whether you think it’s piped-in or organic, and the “Augusta roars,” a widely known term that describes a rare kind of fan presence. Those roars came back at a lower volume this year.

Recent Masters Tournaments, however, seem to be best memorialized for those quiet or wordless moments. In 2019, it was a bear hug between Tiger Woods and his kids during what Nick Faldo called the best work of his career—saying nothing for almost three minutes. Last year, it was the silence of the deadpan Dustin Johnson struggling through tears to find anything to say. This year, it was the magnitude of the accomplishment hitting the similarly deadpan Matsuyama as he walked through the human tunnel to scoring.

Matsuyama said it was an interaction with his caddie that initiated those emotions.

“When the final putt went in, I really wasn’t thinking of anything,” he said. “But then when I saw my caddie, Shota, and hugged him, I was happy for him because this is his first victory on the bag. And then it started sinking in—the joy of being a Masters champion.”

As Hideki walked off, Shota Hayafuji walked back to put the stick in and gesture to the course below. As with DJ or Tiger, neither words nor even an understanding of a culture that may be foreign to you were needed. The meaning of the bow for the millions watching was understood.

Wayne Player didn’t need to say anything to become a story on Thursday morning. But we will appropriately forget about him in due time as the next jester on the conveyor belt rolls through, trying to hawk some new golf product. The universal enchantment with Hayafuji’s bow ensures it will be a Masters moment replayed and retold for decades.