But for sports fans, spring didn’t officially begin until this week. Masters Week.
The palette of colors of the azaleas lining the Augusta National Golf Club course simply jumps off the TV screen. We can hear the breeze whistling through the tall Georgia pines. We hear the birds chirping in the sun. We see the sunlight shimmer off the water that dots the course. I can almost taste the pimento cheese sandwiches and sweet tea now.
I love the Super Bowl. I’ll watch the Olympics and the World Cup 24/7 if I could. But for my money, there’s no better sporting event in the world than the Masters.
For one thing, it’s familiar. It’s the only golf major that’s played on the same course every single year. Golf fans know the holes by heart, and they know exactly when and where the drama will likely take place.
And yes, there will be drama. It generally begins on the 10th hole on Sunday when, as it is said, the Masters REALLY begins. That’s when the big dogs come to the forefront and the also-rans usually fall to the wayside.
You can usually count on a virtual unknown attempting to make a name for himself in the first couple days of the tournament. It seems to happen every year where some unfamiliar name suddenly gets his 15 minutes of fame.
And sometimes, it doesn’t even happen on the course.
True story. Back in 2004, Phil Mickelson won the first of his three green jackets. It was one of the most popular victories in Masters’ history because, well, let’s face it, it’s extremely hard not to like and root for Phil.
After his final putt on 18, I dashed to my laptop, inspired and moved by what I had just witnessed, and penned a column for the Messenger. I also went ahead and threw the story on the newspaper’s website.
The very next day at the office, I got a phone call from a guy claiming to be a radio producer for a Fox Sports Radio affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona. He wanted me to be a guest on a local show later that afternoon to talk about the Masters and Phil’s win. Figuring it to be an elaborate prank by a buddy, I played along and agreed, then hung up.
Three hours later, the guy called back, and I was sort of taken by surprise when I heard the final 10 seconds of a Tucson-area Ford dealership commercial, then the bumper music.
Before my brain really had time to process the fact that this was, (OMG!), for real, I hear “We now welcome Scott Herpst, the sports editor of the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Georgia onto Fox Sports Radio. Scott, you were there at Augusta yesterday following Phil around. What was the atmosphere like in person on 18 when he made that final putt?”
I still didn’t know how they had found me, but it suddenly hit me that they thought I actually covered the Masters in person, which wasn’t even close to the truth, but I knew I couldn’t tell them that. So I just took a deep breath and let it fly.
“Jim, in all my years of covering golf, I’ve never seen an Augusta crowd like the one I saw yesterday,” I replied, not exactly lying.
For the next 5-10 minutes, we talked about Phil, Tiger, John Daly, and the future of the Masters. I layed it on as thick as I possibly could, and the hosts were eating it up.
After my segment was over, I was thanked before the show’s producer came back on the line to thank me again for coming on the show on such short notice.
“No problem,” I said. “Anytime. By the way, just out of curiosity, the Walker County Messenger isn’t exactly the biggest paper in Georgia, and I’m far from the most well-known sports writer in the state, so how in the world did you find me?”
“Well, we pulled up a search online and saw your column,” he explained. “We wanted to talk to a writer from Georgia who was at the tournament.”
“Oh,” I answered. “Well, I’m flattered, but just to let you know, I wasn’t at the course yesterday. In fact, I’ve never been to Augusta National in my life. I only made it home after Easter dinner with my wife’s family in time to see the last three holes on TV.”
A couple seconds of silence followed before his response:
“Wow. I never would have known. Nice job.”
“Hey, call me anytime,” I added. “I can talk about any sport for 10 minutes.”
He laughed and hung up. Eight years later, I’m still waiting to do my next interview for them.
My Masters experience may have been random, but there won’t be anything random about this year’s contenders.
As usual, expect some names to come out of nowhere to be on the first page of the leaderboard after Day 1. But unlike last year, when the previously unheralded Charl Schwartzel stunned the world and won the tournament, a big name will win the green jacket this year.
At the top of the favorites list are Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
Woods may or may not truly be “back” after his win at Bay Hill three weeks ago, but with four Masters win already to his credit, he doesn’t just know how to play Augusta, it’s ingrained in his DNA. He’ll be tough to beat as it is, but if he can get better distance control with his shorter irons and wedges this week, he’s going to be even tougher to bring down.
McIlroy had his first green jacket all but on last year. Then came a super hooked tee shot on No. 10. Suddenly the pressure hit and young Rory was never the same, although he did bounce back to dominate the U.S. Open Tiger-style. You know he’s just been itching to get back to Augusta and make amends.
Then there are other big names that should be in the mix come Sunday, guys like Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson, Steve Stricker (thanks to his putting), Keegan Bradley, and Hunter Mahan, who would have been my darkhorse pick, had he not won in Houston last week. And you can’t forget about guys like Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, and my new darkhorse pick, Adam Scott (just a gut feeling).
But for me, the safe money is on a certain left-hander named Phil. Not only is he a three-time Masters champion, he has the experience, the short game, and the putting stroke you need to win at Augusta.
Plus, he’s been good to me in the past when it comes to the Masters, so I can I go against him?
Scott Herpst is Sports Editor of the Walker County Messenger.