LITTLE ROCK — Despite 40-degree temperatures that felt colder because of rainy, wet conditions, Ken Duke played golf four consecutive days in early March.
“You overlook that … it’s The (Augusta) National,” he said in an e-mail. “No way I would’ve even thought about going out at home.”
Indeed, the site of The Masters is revered. The first of golf’s four majors, the green jacket, the heroics and heartbreak of years past — the history is palpable whether you drive down Magnolia Lane as a participant or enter through Gate 6A, across Berckmans Road from free parking, coveted badge hung around the neck.
For the players, Augusta National pushes emotions to the surface.
Bubba Watson burst into tears on the 10th green when he won in 2012 and cried again last April when talking about wrapping his son in the green jacket.
A year ago, Adam Scott went out of his way to avoid reveling in his victory, even turning down the usual tour of TV talk shows. Asked why, he told Golf Magazine, “When I start thinking about it, I quickly get back into the moment and it gets really emotional. … if I stopped to reflect on it, I might get in a fog …”
In the final pairing on Sunday in 2008, Brandt Snedeker sobbed in the media room, burying his face in a towel, after his 77 left him four shots behind Trevor Immelman.
From a different perspective, I can relate.
Watching the best golfers on the planet practice and play at Augusta National is a “work”assignment that never gets old.
Exit the media center, turn right, join the masses debating a left to No. 1 tee, a right to No. 1 green, or dead ahead to No. 9 and beyond and an unavoidable scoreboard immediately affirms that The Masters is steeped in tradition. Alphabetically, each participant’s name is hand-crafted with room for volunteers to update scores hole by hole.
No electronic scoreboards are found at Augusta National.
Every first-timer who asks the best way to watch the tournament is encouraged to walk all 18 holes. Each year, I start with a particular pairing; if they disappoint, I wind up navigating the climb on No. 18 with another group. Learned during the past 11 years, strategic short cuts are in play on the hilly, 7,435-yard course. For the journey, attire has ranged from rain pants, insulated underwear, long-sleeve shirt, wind shirt and ski cap to shorts and a golf shirt.
At 45, Henderson State University’s Duke is preparing for his second Masters — an invitation earned when he won his first PGA Tour event last summer. In 2009, he shot 71-72-73-72 and tied for 35th.
He still has his notes, pictures, yardage books and everything else from that tournament and remembers “some key pins that you have to keep on the wide side.”
Recently, he talked course strategy with six-time winner Jack Nicklaus and Jack Jr. — who caddied for his dad for the sixth Masters win.
Because of the conditions, the course played about three clubs longer a month ago than it will this week, he said. “The best thing was we did a lot of green work,” Duke said.
Despite the conditions, the greens were far faster than at the weekly stops on the PGA Tour. Always an emphasis on the Tour, putting is magnified at Augusta National where fairways are generous and the first cut is not penal.
With Tiger Woods on the sidelines, Scott and Matt Kuchar will be popular picks this week. Despite the anchored putter, Scott mis-hit more than one short putt while failing to close the deal at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a couple of weeks ago. Kuchar is a walking ATM, but his long list of top 10 finishes does not inspire confidence.
A year ago, sports-mad Australia celebrated Scott’s break-through victory. This year, Jason Day, who has finished in the top five twice in three years at Augusta, might inspire another wild Monday Down Under.
Superb drama is guaranteed.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.