2010 Masters: Achenbach: A tradition like no other, indeed

Augusta, Ga. | The voice on the other end of the phone was enthusiastic: “Jim, you’re about

to cover your 40th Masters, and we’re going to honor you with a Masters Major Achievement Award.”

Forty years, eh? You must have me confused with some old guy.

Upon second thought, I decided I was that old guy.

Later, though, I talked with teaching pro Jay Golden, my longtime friend, who offered an enlightened perspective on age. Golden was on the range with a 98-year-old man, who said to him with conviction, “The problem with golf is that you start losing your swing at 93.”

I began to look back on 40 Masters.

Three competitors at the Masters have had a significant effect on me as a golfer, if not a journalist. Those three – swashbucklers all – are Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros and Phil Mickelson.

In 1971, I covered my first Masters. Charles Coody’s opening 66 was his only round under 70, but he outlasted Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller – 279 for Coody, 281 apiece for the two blond bombers.

Miller was fascinating to watch. He was the most-skilled iron player I ever saw (granted, I never witnessed Ben Hogan play in a major). Miller was mercurial. At his best, he was unbeatable. At his worst, he was an emotional mess.

I watched Miller again tie for second in 1975 and 1981.

I tried to pattern my swing after his. It didn’t work.

I vividly remember the arrival of Ballesteros at the Masters. He was more fun to watch than any other player. He hit the ball all over the place but invariably was rescued by his unparalleled short-game skills.

I tried to copy the chips and pitches and escapes I saw him execute. Again, it didn’t work.

Nobody seemed surprised that Ballesteros twice won the Masters, each time by a commanding four strokes. His erratic but endlessly creative game was perfect for Augusta National, with its wide fairways and undulating greens.

Likewise it was no surprise when the long-but-crooked Mickelson emerged as a persistent Masters suitor. You, too, would love this place if you ranked 188th in PGA Tour driving accuracy, as Mickelson did heading into the Masters.

I tried to adopt Mickelson’s prominent lower-body thrust on tee shots. I wanted an extra 8-10 yards. OK, it didn’t work.

Three Masters occupy front-row seats in my mind: 1975, 1987 and 1996.

The ’75 Masters remains my favorite. Nicklaus, Miller and Tom Weiskopf battled to the final green. Nicklaus drained a 40-foot birdie putt at 16, and that was the difference. Miller and Weiskopf, playing in the final group, missed birdie putts to tie on the 72nd hole.

The significance of the 1987 Masters, following the dramatic victory by the 46-year-old Nicklaus in 1986, often is overlooked. It broke the heart of Greg Norman and cemented the runner-up label that haunted his career.

Norman could have won every major championship in 1986 but captured only the British Open.

Reversing this losing streak was goal No. 1 for 1987, and expectations were high. Sadly for the Shark, those hopes were dashed by Larry Mize and his unlikely chip-in birdie in a playoff.

If 1987 was a detour, 1996 was the end of the line. Norman led by six entering the final round, slumped to

78 and lost by five to Nick Faldo (who shot 67). It was the saddest moment I have experienced in golf.

Perhaps because the Masters started out as a close-knit gathering of friends who often traveled and socialized together, it has remained the most emotional of the four major championships.

This is a tournament of formality, ceremony and tradition, yet it also reinforces the everlasting lesson that the essence of golf is friendship.

In my 40 years at Augusta, I have grown close to a number of touring pros and officials. Visiting their respective arenas,

I can’t play or officiate as skillfully as any one of them, but we remain fast friends.

On the 11th hole, I spotted rules official Gene McClure, also a member of the U.S. Golf Association Executive Committee. It reminded me of the time McClure and I were conversing at the 2006 U.S. Women’s Amateur, held on the Witch Hollow private course at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Ore.

As we walked along the third hole, a high, wide slice from the adjoining Ghost Creek public course landed at McClure’s feet.

So what did he do, this high priest of the rules? Something he would never think of doing here on the edge of Rae’s Creek. He picked up the ball and hurled it over a grove of trees, back in the direction from which it came.

The last thing we heard was a joyful golfer’s song:

“Hey, Bob, I found it. It must have hit a tree and bounced back.”

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