11 Nov 2020 | Feature stories |

HAYES: Sounds of silence a Masters quandary

by Mark Hayes

The impact of a Tiger Woods birdie on 16 has a massive impact right around Augusta National, in part because of the gutteral roars that reverberate through the Georgia pines.
The impact of a Tiger Woods birdie on 16 has a massive impact right around Augusta National, in part because of the gutteral roars that reverberate through the Georgia pines.

It makes no sense to put sport’s dramas within 10 country miles of the top of the world’s issues in 2020.

But with that emphatically on the table, the golfing community arrives at Augusta National carrying what I perceive as one of the biggest sporting asterisks imaginable.

I say that not to bring into question the winner of this week’s Masters, for he will still have conquered extraordinary odds to pull on the green jacket.

It’s rather to highlight the significance of the delirious and passionate “patrons” whose impact – like so many things in this extraordinary year – we have all been guilty of taking for granted through the generations.

To grasp my point, try to imagine Jack Nicklaus’ against-the-odds charge in 1986 without the crazed crowds roaring home the Golden Bear – let alone the impact on his rivals, most noticeably our own Greg Norman.

Or how Tiger Woods’ heroics from the side of the 16th green in 2005 would be recalled without the hysterical masses as its soundtrack. Or even how – even if it was unintentional – Tiger used that crowd reaction to heap the pressure on to his playing partner and rival Chris DiMarco.

Now think back to ** insert your other favourite sport here ** this year and try to compare it to one of those moments.

Whatever your poison, it’s easy to recall how they were distinctly different without crowds roaring their approval or otherwise.

Commentators around the globe bemoaned that players had to generate their own passion and momentum as on-field/court voices echoed around cavernous stadia. And administrators busted valves trying to figure out ways to safely house fans – some for social and financial reasons, but many more because of the positive impact it had on television coverage.

But very few are yet to return to “normal” – whatever that might be – including golf, which has run a series of major championships behind closed doors.

Some have pointed out that this year’s major winners – both men’s and women’s – have all been first-timers, trying to not so subtly tie those wins to the comparative lack of noise and pressure that crowds naturally generate.

Aside from being disrespectful, I think there are obvious flaws in that argument. And again, I’m not trying to diminish this week’s eventual winner.

But, despite racking my brain, I can think of precious few examples in any sport that rival the Masters in terms of crowd involvement being a key influencer of the final result.

Sure, the cauldron of a penalty shoot-out at soccer’s World Cup or a Champions League final would have it covered, but that’s more a matter of a few minutes of extreme tension; the blue-riband sprint events at the Olympic Games might fall into that same category; maybe it’s the impact of playing for or against India in a cricket World Cup final in Kolkata?

But I would argue that the majority of elite sporting events are fought out on either some form of mental cruise control once initial nerves abate, or by physical acts decided sub-consciously determined by external forces or reflexes. Regardless of how many are in the crowd, or how loud they get.

Golf is different.

As Adam Scott pointed out in his pre-tournament media conference this week, playing without crowds will be his biggest disappointment and change from “normal”. That’s despite the event being played in a northern autumn for the first time and all the associated condition changes that brings.

And the Masters is clearly the pinnacle of this point, not because it’s better than the Open or US Open, but because of the host club’s topography and the uniquely extensive knowledge all golf nerds seem to have of the Augusta National layout.

Scott, the 2013 champion on a typically pulsating Masters Sunday afternoon, rightly says you can follow the progress of players – and moves up and down the leaderboard – by listening in to the roars that reverberate through the Georgia pines.

From the “base” of the course at Amen Corner and around to the 16th green, the noise rises up and almost magically drifts upwards to all quadrants of the undulating property. If you pay only mild attention during a Tiger charge, you can fairly accurately guess his score without moving from the clubhouse precinct atop the hill.

This has an effect on all players. When you multiply that out by the 4-5 groups which contain a final-round contender, then consider that they’ll be out there in excess of four hours, it’s a sure-fire recipe for an afternoon of brain-bending tension.

If you play a bad shot as you hear a Tiger eagle go viral on the “bush telegraph”, bad thoughts can compound quickly.

Similarly, a hint of a run can just as rapidly become a full-blown surge when the masses get behind you.

But none of that will be possible this week.

Sure, there are leaderboards on almost every hole. But a number turned 10 minutes after a key shot doesn’t hold the same fear as the roar that still haunts DiMarco’s caddie.

You’re still going to have to hit your tee shot to that brutal right pin on 12; you’re still going to have to bite down on your darkest fears and hit a 4-iron on to a mouse pad to keep it close on the 15th; you will have several curling six-foot par putts that will force grey hairs to sprout on the spot.

But you’ll be doing it, effectively, in a cone of silence.

Welcome to the 2020 Masters. It’s the same; but it’s very different.

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