If there’s one positive thing this poxy pandemic has given us, it’s pause for thought. Lockdowns have seen the washing machine of modern life stop spinning for a time and for many, those periods of self-reflection have opened people’s eyes to the lives they were living pre-Covid, and the one they hope to begin when all this is over.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my school days lately, and how this whole journalism lark came to pass. Those dreaded double-English classes as a pre-pubescent teen, our teacher drilling the poetry of Yates and Kavanagh into us as if one day we’d need it. Not everything was wasted on me, however. We studied Of Mice and Men for the Junior Cert; the story of George, a street-wise schemer and his friend Lennie, a gentle but dim-witted giant, the pair were only as good as the sum of their parts, each relying on the quality of the other to make it through the daily grind of the Great Depression in America.
It was a symbiotic relationship, as Ms. Johnson told us repeatedly. “Write that down in the test Billy and you’ll do just fine.” Billy is my brother who she taught fifteen years earlier. I never had the heart to correct her. Instead, I sit here also dreaming of one day ‘livin off the fatta the lan’ in the hope that golf’s symbiotic relationship – the one between players and fans – will be rekindled in 2021.
Call me old fashioned but the sport simply hasn’t been the same since the noise went away. When the PGA Tour restarted in June, of course we were grateful just to have live golf on the telly, but a few events into the season and the novelty had worn thin. Even Augusta wasn’t immune. They billed it as a Masters like no other, and they were spot on; a bore-fest on a soft golf course that lacked the usual fire both inside and outside the ropes.
It made me think of Shane Lowry’s six-shot Open win the year before at Royal Portrush, picturing his walk down the 72nd hole without half the country behind him. Reeling in the Years 2019 and the Clara man lifting the Claret Jug would’ve had all the notoriety of a priest lifting the chalice at Mass. My own standout memory from my week on the Dunluce Links was Rory McIlroy’s first tee-shot, and it’s the fans that made it so memorable.
I couldn’t believe my luck when my media badge gave me access to the side of the first tee-box itself, and I’ll never forget the electricity running through my body when his name was announced on that tee. Hairs stood on end where I didn’t know hair existed. I remember thinking if I was standing in Rory’s shoes, I’d miss the ball. Turns out McIlroy wasn’t feeling too dissimilar. Never have I heard the sound of elation turn to despair so quickly. As his ball hooked left, it was as if God himself plugged-out the vocal chords of the gallery mid-scream. But without the crowd causing such a stir, would McIlroy have made the fatal error? By the same token, with that rambunctious energy in tow, would Collin Moriwaka and Bryson DeChambeau have claimed their maiden Major titles with so little fuss last year? Perhaps they would have, but with 30,000 spectators hovering over their shoulders as they tried, it could easily have been different.
It’s no coincidence that the November Masters was the least watched renewal since counting began in 1995. A clash with the NFL and a runaway winner didn’t help the cause but neither did the dead air of a patron-less Augusta National, or the trivial attempts at commentators to fill it.
When Tiger Woods holed his infamous chip off the 16th green at the Masters in 2005, it was the crowd reactions that narrated the ball’s journey from peril to perfection. “In your life have you seen anything like that” was the perfect accompaniment to the initial murmurs of worry as Tiger’s chip looked thinned and wayward, to the then audible relief as the breaks initiated just in time, to the shouts of ‘come on back’ and the excitement as the ball obeyed down the slope to the unthinkable as it tracked towards the pin, and just as the noise threatened to reach fever pitch, the ball stopped as the Nike tick came into view for its photo op, gasps of horror and disappointment from the patrons followed until, as if by magic, or the sheer will of the people, it gets its second wind before disappearing into the cup.
Take the crowd away from that moment and one of the most memorable shots in the history of the sport becomes just another great shot. Take the crowds away from professional golf and you lose the game’s soul. It’s the atmosphere, as much as the talent, that captures the imagination of a new generation. I miss it.