This week, golf fans worldwide will herald the official arrival of spring as the Masters gets underway in Augusta, GA. Assuming favorable weather, the white sand bunkers and the menacing water hazards will shimmer in the April sun. The fairways will be improbably green. The famous azaleas will bloom pink.
The Masters, more than any other tournament, is about tradition, and as a result, television viewers have come to expect a certain aesthetic standard. But in recent years, they have also been introduced to a more generous Masters, in terms of just how much competition they have been able to actually watch. Several years ago, Augusta National, the club that has hosted the tournament since its inception in 1934, made news by expanding its online coverage of the tournament. CBS, long the Masters broadcaster of record, has followed suit, expanding its own online video coverage.
Along with numerous changes that have been made to the course, Masters observers have interpreted these online move as a signal that Augusta National is trying to update both its image and its connection with golf fans. It's a noble objective and it shows that the club's chairman, Billy Payne, has his eye on the future. Unfortunately, giving golf fans more of what they seem to want, based on the 24/7 condition of the rest of golf broadcasting, isn't enhancing the Masters. It's diminishing the drama of the competition.
The Master's is the most TV-friendly sporting event there is -- even if, for decades, Augusta National permitted only a small portion of the 72-hole tournament to be broadcast. For one thing, the course always looks glorious, an ideal expression of all that is optimistic about a difficult game that requires optimism in steely abundance. However, it's the legendary back nine, with its daunting triumvirate of treacherous holes -- numbers 11, 12 and 13, collectively known as "Amen Corner" -- that has given the Masters its reputation and inspired awe in the loyal TV audience.
"The Masters doesn't begin until the Back Nine on Sunday," is how veteran viewers typically characterize the down-the-stretch nature of the tournament's finish. Any time half a dozen players are bunched at the top of Sunday's leaderboard, the stage is set for the sort of final-nine shootouts, with the world's best gunning for birdies and eagles, that deliver the thrills people continue to talk about decades later.
However, if viewers have access to the many, many hours that constitute the preceding 63 holes, well, what's the point of a scintillating Sunday back-nine if you've already seen the players grind their way around the long and challenging course three times? I personally don't want to see a survivor don the coveted green jacket in the Georgia twilight on Sunday -- I want to see the guy who put the pedal to the metal down the stretch and extended the legacy of Masters heroics as practiced by Sarazen, Palmer, Nicklaus, Woods and Mickelson. When Woods chipped in for birdie on No. 16 in 2005 to set up an eventual Sunday playoff victory over Chris DiMarco, the roar that went up was earthshaking. The audience knew something highly memorable had transpired, at its proper time, in its proper place. So did we really need to see -- live -- Woods putt the ball off the green and into Rae's Creek on No. 13 on Thursday?
Epics of redemption belong to the realm of ancient poetry, not great sports on TV, which is all about packing an intense experience into a couple of hours. Sure, the Masters may be updating its brand, growing its audience, and getting hip to a whole new generation of fans for whom Nicklaus' triumphant Sunday back nine in 1986 is a non-memory. But if the ultimate cost is the glamour of its champions, then what's the point? Sunday at the Masters truly is a tradition like no other -- in the flesh and on TV. Let's keep it that way. Bring back the Back Nine. Cut back the rest.
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