- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Jack Nicklaus was reminiscing yesterday about his first Masters in 1959, when he bunked in the Crow’s Nest of the clubhouse with the rest of the amateurs. Augusta National wasn’t allowed to feed its lodgers for free, lest they be declared professionals, so it charged them a nominal fee for breakfast ($1), lunch ($1) and dinner ($2).

Nicklaus and his roommate, Phil Rodgers, knew a good thing when they saw it. At suppertime they would loosen their belt buckles and wolf down “two shrimp cocktails and two or three steaks.” After a few days of this, though, a club official came around and told Jack, “You’re eating far more [than the other players], and we’re going to have to charge you an extra two dollars for each steak.”

To which Nicklaus replied: “Fine, we’ll be happy to pay that. Just bring the steaks on.”

There’s always been an element of unreality about the Masters, whether it’s $2 steaks, TV coverage without commercials or, until recently, fairways without rough. When you drive down Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse, Padraig Harrington says, you feel like you’re leaving the “madness” of the outside world behind. “It’s all peaceful and serene.”

Indeed, for years, Augusta National and its Old South ways seemed stuck in a time warp. But not any more. In the last two decades, the club has opened its gates wider than ever to the outside world. Once the most exclusive of the major tournaments, it’s now one of the most inclusive, a veritable United Nations of golf. Of the 101 players who will compete here this week, a record 45 — nearly half — are from other countries.

“I think it’s very, very fair [now],” Vijay Singh said. “It’s a major event, so we should have the best players in the world. It’s … hard to imagine that, 10 or 20 years ago, there may have been only one or two European players playing over here. That tells you how the world of golf is getting stronger.”

Actually, it’s been more than half a century since “only one or two” international players teed it up in the Masters. But it wasn’t until the ‘90s that the top 50 in the world rankings were guaranteed invitations. (And because of that, South Africa’s Tim Clark, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell and Australia’s Craig Parry were able to slip in under the wire this year.)

Until then, it was a very American event, a veritable celebration of U.S. golf supremacy. In 1957, to cite one extreme example, 90 of the 101 competitors were Yanks (which must have made Australia’s Peter Thomson, South Africa’s Trevor Wilkes and England’s Harry Weetman feel very lonely).

In 1963, when Nicklaus won his first Masters, only one international player finished in the top 10 (Gary Player). It was the same in ‘66, when the Golden Bear won his third green jacket (Canadian George Knudsen did the honors that time). In ‘75, when he won his fifth Masters, no international player finished higher than 15th. Hard to imagine, as Vijay put it.

“When I first played here,” Nicklaus said, “golf in central Europe wasn’t even played. There was an occasional player that would play it. It was sort of an elite game. … There were virtually no Asian players that were playing tournament golf. You’ve got players from every place in the world now that are playing golf and playing tournament golf and playing quite well. So I’m not surprised at all to see the field be half international players because it’s just … it’s just international players who have gotten so much stronger and so much better.”

There’s such nostalgia about the ‘86 tournament, about Nicklaus summoning one last growl at 46 and shooting a 65 in the final round to rack up his sixth green jacket. But what made that Masters great wasn’t just Jack. What made it great was that, over the last few holes, the entire globe was engaged. You had Aussies rooting for Greg Norman, who wound up a heartbroken second, Hispanics rooting for Seve Ballesteros, who finished fourth, Zimbabweans urging on Nick Price, who took fifth, and Japanese delighting in the exploits of Tommy Nakajima, who tied for eighth. (Heck, at the start of the day, even Germans had reason to be excited; Bernhard Langer was just a shot out of the lead.)

Augusta National hasn’t been the same since, really. Two years later, Scotland’s Sandy Lyle began a run that saw international players win seven of nine Masters. And after that, of course, Tiger Woods, the Human Melting Pot, took over the place.

Talk about a golfer for his times. Woods is part Caucasian, part black, part American Indian, part Asian — “Cablinasian,” by his own description. And that’s kind of how golf is right now; there’s talent in every corner of the planet — the best of it, happily, congregating in Augusta every year in April.

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