- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

AUGUSTA, Ga.

The 1999 sports year saw the Broncos blow out the Falcons, the Yankees sweep the Braves and the Spurs take a broom to the Knicks. And then there was the Masters Ol' Reliable. The Masters gave us Greg Norman, at 44, making a mighty try for his first green jacket before succumbing to gritty Jose Maria Olazabal, the comeback kid.

The story line, the finish, the cast of characters it doesn't get much better than that.

That's what I love most about the Masters: It almost always delivers. It almost never disappoints. What other major sports event can you say that about? The Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA and Stanley Cup finals have been rife with clunkers in recent years, and even the NCAA basketball tournament has had its blowouts. But you'd have to go back to, oh, 1982 to find a Masters without much pizzazz, and that one went to a playoff (Craig Stadler prevailing over Dan Pohl).

Lee Janzen has a theory about that. "All those other events only have two teams," he said yesterday. "You're rolling the dice if you only have two competitors. Here you've got 100-something competitors. Some of 'em are bound to be playing well, and that makes for a great tournament."

Good point. But what also makes the Masters a great event is that great (or near-great) players always seem to win it Olazabal last year (his second), Mark O'Meara the year before, Tiger Woods the year before that, Nick Faldo the year before that (his third), Ben Crenshaw the year before that (his second). And look at the guys who finished second: Davis Love, Fred Couples and David Duval, Tom Kite, Norman, Love again. Even they're household names.

There are no mystery guests in the Masters no Wisconsins, no Florida Marlins, no Atlanta Falcons, no Florida Panthers. Well, hardly any. Larry Mize did win the tournament in '87, but he won it with the Chip Shot Heard 'Round the World (and faced down Norman and Seve Ballesteros in the process). So even that was a terrific Masters.

Seriously, how can you not like this event? In '98, you had O'Meara birdieing the final hole to win. In '97, you had Woods shooting a record 18 under. In '96, you had Norman blowing a six-shot lead on the final day. In '95, you had Crenshaw, still grieving over the death of mentor Harvey Penick, winning for the last time on the PGA Tour (barring the development of Viagra for Golfers).

How does that compare with, say, the Yankees sweeping the Padres ('98)? Or the Red Wings sweeping the Flyers ('97)? Or the Avalanche sweeping the Panthers ('96)? Or the 49ers crushing the Chargers 49-26 in the Super Bowl ('95)?

Or how about 1990? Have we ever needed the Masters more than we did in 1990? The year in review:

Super Bowl: 49ers 55, Broncos 10.

NCAA championship game: UNLV 103, Duke 73.

NBA Finals: Pistons over Trail Blazers in five games.

Stanley Cup finals: Oilers over Bruins in five games.

World Series: The Reds take four straight from the A's.

And what happened at Augusta? Oh, nothing much. Faldo merely won his second Masters in a row, beating ageless Ray Floyd on the first extra hole. Just an ordinary Sunday at Augusta National.

What makes the Masters so routinely spellbinding? Well, its international flavor probably has something to do with it. Foreigners are always coming in here and making off with the trophy Olazabal, Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle, Seve and it tends to stir your patriotic juices.

Then there's the back nine. Have you ever seen such a back nine? It's brilliantly booby-trapped with water (practically everywhere), fairway bunkers (especially on 18) and unpredictable winds. The front nine lulls you to sleep a little bit, and then bam you're in a minefield.

The beauty of it is that it can work for you as well as against you. If you're behind, you have the option of going for an eagle on the two par-5s, 13 and 15, but you risk a bogey or worse should your ball wind up in the drink. Freddie Couples saw both sides of it a couple of years ago when, in the same final round, he double-bogeyed 13 and then eagled 15. In the space of about an hour he died, un-died and then died again when O'Meara ran in his 20-footer on the last hole.

It's a lovely little tournament they've got here. But it's hard to pin down exactly why it's so lovely, why it outdoes every other sports event for excitement, drama, pathos and sheer fun. "I don't know if I have the answer to that," Hal Sutton says. "But I think part of it is that the golfing public has been winterized [in the months leading up to the tournament]. So the Masters is thought of by most people as the start of the golf season, and there's a lot of anticipation about it."

You can say that again. Let's get this baby going, shall we?

Gentlemen, start your drivers.

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