The Masters 2017
The British, inventors of the sport of golf (amongst other things), left behind a strange law (amongst other things) in India: a wagering contract is void, except in the case of horse-racing. At first, this seems like a pretty random exception. However, the Supreme Court of India has noted that “Games may be of chance, or of skill or of skill and chance combined” and that “golf, chess and even Rummy are considered to be games of skill.” Allowing turf clubs to operate without fear or favour, revealing itself to be much enamoured of swift, muscled creatures with flowing manes, the Court quoted a petitioner with approval:
“A considerable degree of skill does into the operation. It starts from the breeding and training of the race horse on which much talent, time and money are expended by trained persons, jockeys have also to be specially trained and equipped. The horses themselves are not necessarily consistent in fitness, which is the reason why horses are exercised openly and watched carefully by representatives of the Press and their observations widely published. Thus, the inherent capacity of the animal, the capability of the jockey, the form and fitness of the horse, the weights carried and the distance of the race at the time of the race are all objective facts capable of assessment by race goers.”
In addition, though the judges don’t say so expressly, ladies do look quite smashing, with their dresses, hats, and plimsoles, promenading like sail-boats in the public stands, when a derby is put together.
Books on baseball statistics, such as Moneyball, and the growing field of sports data analysis claim that sporting outcomes can be predicted by statistical means. Even if this claim were to be accepted, it would have to be conceded that two competitors of no skill whatsoever (an event that the sport of Sunday golf lends itself to with unfortunate ease) is a game of pure chance. Between opponents of middling talent, the role of chance is diminished, and skill does enter the fray. However, between two competitors equally practiced and skilled, whose competition can be described in terms of an unstoppable force meeting immoveable object, golf is reduced, with respectful disagreement with the justices of India, to nothing more than a game of chance.
And, this is how I will remember the Augusta Masters of 2017.
Almost everything I know about golf is from video games. I first played golf on a computer, Accolade’s Jack Nicklaus golf. In the misspent days of my youth, as people of my age will soon never tire of reminding everyone, very few people actually had computers at work, let alone at home. My father was co-opted to a department that handled data and informatics, and he was one of the only people in the office to be allowed a personal computer. This was perhaps because, even though there was no compunction, he liked to go to work on Saturday mornings. Sometimes I could pester him to take me with him to corporate HQ, so that I could have a round of golf on his PC. On his machine, I discovered that the game designers had gotten the speaker in a 386 office machine to tweet bird calls as the game credits came up. I was a convert to the sport of the Amen corner.
In this vein of information, as the computer gave over to the PlayStation, I came to learn that Justin Rose has one of the longest drives in Tiger Woods 2015. We never chose him because the rest of his game wasn’t that great. In the estimation of the game designers, the Molienari brothers had better all round stats. That’s all I knew about Justin Rose (and the Molienari brothers) before he brought home a nugget of gold from Brazil hammered into the shape of an Olympic gold medal and strung up around his neck on a green and blue ribbon. He did this with an insouciance that only a tall rakish British gentleman of talent, enterprise, and a secret could possess.
In front of the camera, on the course and post-game interviews, Justin Rose is a shiny aluminium can of decency. Can this be true? No one who takes golf seriously can deny they suffer, at the very least, from some sort of gambling problem. The big side-story of the Masters was Phil Mickelson pleading the fifth, as an associate, William “Billy” Walters was accused and convicted of making more than $40 million dollars through inside trading. Inside trading and golf! Who would have thought? Mickelson was named in the prosecution for making a cool million dollars on a tip received from Walters (he turned that amount over to the authorities in some sort of plea-bargain). Yet, hanging poor Lefty out to dry as some sort of aberration, a bad apple, would be to pretend that gambling isn’t in golf’s very DNA.
Golf is not just a speculative business in itself, with incredibly complex moving parts, it seems to attract speculators. John Updike observed that, “the golf swing is like a suitcase into which we try to pack one too many things.” There’s just too much that go wrong and the odds are never in favour of a golfer. You see a bit more of Justin Rose’s colour in a Ryder Cup video when he slaps a hundred dollar bill on the green, to pressurise the challenge from a heckler in the audience, who was then called upon by the European team to prove he could do better. Rose lost that bet, and laughed when he did — the heckler sinking the putt to a huge cheer from the massed audience.
So it was obvious to me, as it was to everyone else, that after Day Three of the Masters 2017, held like every year stretching to eternity at the somewhat green Augusta National Park (golf, the Americans have noted, has an association with the colour green) that Day Four would end with Justin Rose holding the trophy. That was the horse this expert picked. I mean, who was going to take it from him? Jordan Spieth?
That was not meant to be and I am absolutely shattered. The truth is that Justin Rose is one of my favourite players in the game. Oh, how I regret not playing his character in Tiger Woods’15. Yet, I cannot say I am disconsolate.
Garcia. Sergio Garcia.
The real power of winning is that if forces people to take a better look at the winner, and re-assess their previous assumptions about the person. We have to effing do that for Garcia now. That’s how shit life is. That’s how shit a sport golf is.
Before this tournament, the Spaniard had zero wins from 73 starts.
We we hated Garcia, a player noted for his tantrums and unsporting behaviour. A golfing equivalent of John Mcenroe, Garcia was known to fling clubs in frustration. Once, he spat into a hole after a putt, one that other players would have to retrieve their own balls from. How many tournaments did we see Garcia at the top of the leaderboard, only to fade? Many moons ago, Garcia was considered the only European to threaten Tiger Woods’s dominance, adidas’s pick to rival Nike, and the rivalry resulted in Garcia’s most offensive act: suggesting, at a press conference, he’d invite Tiger Woods for fried chicken over at his place (as someone from Spain, he may not have been aware of the sensitivities involved concerning the hurtful racist “watermel’n and chickin” trope).
Rub of the green. Game of chance. Maybe all that an athlete needs for victory, as the film Wimbledon suggests, is the right person in their box for inspiration. Some commentators claim its the stability Garcia’s fiancee Angela Akins (they announced wedding plans on the eve on the tournament) that gave him the x-factor needed to win. Others, including Garcia, claim its the ghost of the recently deceased Seve Ballesteros.
For me, it was a screaming shot that hit the pin, that ball could have ricocheted anywhere, but it sat down for an eagle. That eagle brought Garcia into a game that was threatening to get away from him. He fluffed two putts, managing to take the tournament into extra time. Clearly, in the walk through thickets of cheering family and fans, across to the tie-breaker, Justin Rose’s concentration was shaken. His drive settled into pine needles and he shanked the recovery shot. That was the only hole Garcia was in complete control, and it was enough for Danny Willett’s services to help him pull the green jacket on.
It was the pleasure on Willett’s face that let us know that Garcia is not the man he is when he is angry or frustrated. That he is admired and loved by his colleagues in a way that, perhaps, Tiger Woods never was. To come so close, so many times, and turn up, again, and again, and again — and finally, finally, be called a winner. Rose and Garcia conducted their duel in the highest form of sportsman spirit — a meaningless concept these days — until we see two competitors cheering good play, commiserating with errors, and are reminded that there’s another way to do this.
As a Rose fan, I cannot say that the better man won, but I will acknowledge that when Lady Luck smiled on Garcia — he deserved it.