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April 11, 2013

Loran Smith: Thoughts of the greats

AUGUSTA — AUGUSTA — There is an abundance of fans at Augusta National today who likely are Tiger Woods aficionados, give or take a few who maintain allegiance to competitors like Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, along with a latent following for Bubba Watson.

If you are younger than 40, you identify with those aforementioned lions of today’s leaderboards, but for those 50 and older, there is a  reaching back to recall the heyday of the golf legends who are now the familiar tournament starters — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Among the traditions of the Masters is the honoring of the past, not just eras, but the players — the old guard. They played in the tournament until technology rendered them competitively obsolete. Long before it became fashionable at other tournaments, you could see past winners like Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson moving about the grounds. Until crowds began to give Hogan claustrophobia, you would see him in the clubhouse socializing with his friends.

And as antisocial as some thought Hogan to be in his sundown years, it was this master of his sport who suggested that there be an annual champions dinner. From that recommendation another signature tradition evolved at the tournament.

The defending champion chooses the menu and hosts the dinner which is attended by former champions and the chairman. Bob Goalby, the 1968 champion — who drives from his home near St. Louis in Bellville, Ill., every year — noted earlier this week that ordering from the menu remains a preferred option for many. When 1988 winner Sandy Lyle imported haggis from Scotland, it didn’t affect Sam Snead.

“The waiter,” Goalby said with a laugh, “knew to set down steak and lobster at Sam’s place.”

The original honorary starters were Jock Hutchinson and Freddie McLeod, who eventually gave way to Nelson, Snead and Sarazen. The last of that triumvirate to start the Masters was Snead, who called it quits after 2002 when his wayward tee shot collided with the noggin of a spectator on the right side of the first fairway.

Enjoying conversations with the past champions was simple. Just drag up a chair on the veranda or in the old locker room and ask a few questions. They were always generous and accommodating. There was a certain trust with the old timers who have now gone off to their reward and have been replaced by Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.

With the dew glistening and sparkling in the early morning sunlight, you see crowds gathering by the first tee to witness these three remarkable champions — Arnold, the first four-time winner; Jack, the only six-time champion; and Player, the first foreign champion — provide the ceremonial start of another Masters.

Palmer will always be remembered for his charisma at Augusta. Nobody has ever overpowered the golf course like Nicklaus, which prompts this question. What would Jack have accomplished with today’s clubs? And could the superstars of today have won with Jack’s clubs?

As these men, who have collectively won 13 Masters, provide a lift to the nostalgic spirits of golf fans, you realize that the passing of time has brought about new champions, and with the coming of these talented athletes, there is a new generation of fans who don’t have to rely on their memory for the latest in facts about the tournament. All they have to do is refer to their iPhones or the Internet.

There is only one problem with that. You can’t take electronic gadgets on this golf course.

I hope that is a Masters tradition that will never change.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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