Masters Golf and Justice

Golf as a sport has its superlatives: the most ancient; the richest; the most aesthetically pleasing; the most honourable in player honesty. Augusta National then takes its own superlatives: the most manicured course, tree branches cut to perfection and flowers that bloom on cue; the most exclusive of clubs; with the most refined field of participants. All is commensurate with this pinnacle we call ‘The Masters’.

And for Australians, we know it’s the farthest thing in the world to grasp. Chronologically, even the Americas Cup and the Tour de France were easier to lay hold of. So we arise early, religiously for four straight mornings the second week each April, always believing that this could be the year that mystical green garment will be ours to adorn.

Originally, we had reason for optimism. Winning at Augusta National shouldn’t be too difficult for an Australian. The first Masters I watched in 1981, a boyish Greg Norman, not yet married and barely known in the US, finished in fourth place. We thought his brashness, length off the tee and touch around fast greens would be sufficient. We hadn’t come to appreciate what could lurk in the clarity of Rae’s Creek, the whims in the breezes through the pines, the snares in each green and mound undulation. The course’s pristine beauty was a false front. Its fickle personality decides your destiny by fate, not fairness.

Decades passed by. Though I’ve never set foot on the Americas, I’ve come to have knowledge and feel for that patch of terrain like it was my own adolescent stomping ground. I’ve memorised the layout of each hole, and know from what angle to approach each green. In 2013 such knowledge took on new significance. Having just arrived for work in Yaoundé, Cameroon, I was unable to get any TV access to the tournament. All I had was some moderate Internet access with limited bandwidth, sufficient to find the official radio commentary and SEN Melbourne’s regular radio broadcast. The actual pictures were completed from my own memory and imagination.

The Masters’ radio commentary was the balance of Augusta tradition, authority, and Southern hospitality, complete with the tinkling piano we come to expect on the TV. My wife asked me why they keep whispering and speaking in such hushed tones?

SEN had no rights to the broadcast, but I knew that they would not excuse themselves from commenting on any big moments. On Friday evening (midnight for me in Cameroon, Saturday morning Melbourne time), Dr Turf almost fell over his co-presenters in the studio, interrupting them to describe how Tiger Woods’ super accurate approach to the 15th had hit the flag stick and ricocheted back into the pond. I struggled to accept this as reality. How could any fate be so cruel? Dr Turf is known for his jocularity and SEN is not officially broadcasting the event. I haven’t yet seen this with my own eyes. Is Dr Turf just pulling my leg?

This was Australia’s unobtainable Holy Grail. Yet for brief moments this weekend, we had hold of first, second, and third placings concurrently. While listening to the radio, I was doing all I could to imagine the unimaginable. There are some sports fans who say golf on the TV is boring. How could you survive golf on the radio? Yet the opposite was true. The wonderful description from the commentary team mixing with the echoes of encouragement and crowd reaction captured my imagination and brought me to Georgia.

Even beyond this, I remember in 1983 when I visited my mother who was on stress leave, recuperating at a beach house at Philip Island with no TV. We followed the radio description of the America’s Cup from Rhode Island. Yacht racing on the radio! Can you imagine that? But we did, and like this Masters it was unforgettable, somehow even tastier than having the pictures.

Of all of Greg Norman’s many tortures and ignobilities at Augusta, the one that stays most vivid in my memory is his third place finish in 1989. He made up four shots to the leader Scott Hoch, with four birdies from 13 through 17. A par at 18 would have sent him into a three way playoff with Hoch and Faldo. In soaking rain, his par putt was on line but stopped short by barely more than a ball width. The golf gods had allowed just that ounce more water on the green than Norman was allowing for. Forlorn and waterlogged, he squelched across the 18th towards the scorers room, one tiny stroke too many.

The 2013 Masters was unexpectedly wet on Sunday. My memories of a wet Greg Norman were coming into my visualisations as Jason Day tries to stay dry and keep his run going on hole 16. He pulls his tee shot long and left, to the same place off the green Tiger Woods’ ball came in the 2005 Masters. That day Woods made one of the most miraculous shots in history. Aiming at least twenty feet to the left and allowing for a right angle turn on the slope, the ball inched down into the hole for birdie. No doubt Day also remembers this and aims for the same. This time his ball stops on the soaking greens. His par putt also stops short. Woods made 2 on that 16th hole in 2005 and won in a playoff. This day, Day makes 4 and loses by 2.

The 2013 Masters comes down to a playoff between Norman’s protégé, Adam Scott, and Angel Cabrera. Scott hits first but the two balls follow one another. There’s no fair way to separate them. Fate alone will decide the outcome.

It’s always been a game of inches, but never justly so. For if Tiger was just a few inches less accurate on his approach to the 15th hole, he misses the pin, his ball stops near the hole, he sinks the birdie putt. There’s no water, no bogie, no illegal drop, no two stroke penalty, no threatened disqualification. There’d be a four shot turn around and Woods would be here in the play off with the others. But fate has determined otherwise.

To compliment the radio commentary, I keep trying to visualise what’s happening helped by my memory of past events. Both Scott and Cabrera miss the 18th green to the right, just near where Chris DiMarco landed in 2005. In that year, the onward chip from DiMarco hit the pin and bounced away by 3 metres, whereas it could have just as easily jammed into the hole for birdie and victory. DiMarco sinks the par putt but loses to Woods in the play off. All this is decided by the thickness and elasticity of a flag stick.

In 2013, like the previous year, victory will likely be decided on the second playoff hole, hole number 10. Could there be justice in this after the 1987 injustice against Norman at that second playoff hole, that 43 metre fluke dunk by Larry Mize? But I’ve stopped caring about justice. I just want Scott to win.  It must finish here, as they are suggesting it’s getting too dark to play anymore. It must finish here, it’s past midnight (in Cameroon) and I’ve been listening to this radio for four days. It must finish now; I’ve been watching this tournament for 32 years. That’s how long Lindy Chamberlain waited for justice.

On the 10th green in fading light, both Scott and Cabrera have similar length birdie putts. The radio commentary team is debating which putt they would rather have. One commentator is insistent. He says he’d rather have Scott’s downhill putt, as he won’t have to worry about getting it to the hole, rather than Cabrera’s uphill attempt. The radio commentary is once again shown to be genius. Cabrera leaves his putt one roll short. Scott sinks his and claims victory proudly for himself and inspirationally for Norman. The radio commentators have done their job. They let the effects microphones take over as the patrons celebrate.

About Michael Viljoen

Michael was born in the Nelson Mandela Bay area, the same as Siya Kolisi, the successful World Cup winning Springbok captain, but was raised in Melbourne with a love for Australian Rules. He has worked as a linguist in Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, where he wrote a booklet on the history of Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, which was translated into several Cameroonian languages.


  1. Delightful piece Michael. Dr Turf will be thrilled. Even more so: your readers. Really enjoyed the discussion of a life’s observation and the place of fate. Hope all is well in Arfreekah.

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