Augusta National’s Sunday before the Masters unlike any other in golf
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Mark O’Meara is reminded every year how meaningful it was to win the Masters.
O’Meara was on the practice green Sunday at Augusta National, 25 years removed from his birdie-birdie finish to win his first major. Now he is 66 and plays the PGA Tour Champions only occasionally. But he remains part of Masters week.
And he has company, young and old.
Also on the putting green was Bernhard Langer. They were with a half-dozen kids barely into their teens, preparing for the Drive, Chip and Putt Finals.
There was little to suggest the first major of the year had arrived.
“It never gets old,” O’Meara said. “I feel blessed. I feel privileged. I don’t play the tournament anymore, but I still come and enjoy what the Masters Tournament is all about.”
Ultimately, it’s about a green jacket that gets presented in seven days.
What makes this Sunday so unusual is the stage for the Masters is just a private club. Augusta National started the Drive, Chip and Putt in 2014. Five years later, it added the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
Rose Zhang won the fourth edition Saturday in a playoff. She was under the oak tree by the clubhouse the next day and one kid exclaimed, “There’s Rose Zhang!”
An hour earlier, former Masters champion Jordan Spieth teed off for a practice round with his brother, Steve, who played basketball at Brown. Still to arrive was Tiger Woods, the five-time champion and star of the show even in a year divided by Saudi-funded LIV Golf.
Spieth, O’Meara and defending champion Scottie Scheffler were among Masters champions who handed out awards to the various age divisions for boys and girls who won the driving, chipping and putting competitions, plus the overall winners.
All this was taking place as Masters champions Gary Player, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Fred Couples headed to the putting green and then the first tee.
It was a trip back in time, and even O’Meara felt that way.
He looked to the top of the clubhouse at the Crow’s Nest, where amateurs stay, and recalled being there in 1980 as the U.S. Amateur champion. He played the opening round that year with Fuzzy Zoeller. O’Meara pointed to his left — there was Zoeller, sitting on bench.
“I shot my smooth 80,” he said. “I was terrible compared to the kids today.”
Player won his first Masters in 1961. This could be an awkward week for Player, one of only five men to win the career Grand Slam. In an interview with the Times of London, he criticized Augusta National for making it difficult for him to play a practice round “without having to beg a member to play with us.”
“I’ve played my role. I’ve won it three times,” Player said. “If it wasn’t for the players, it would be just another golf course in Georgia. It’s just sad — and I put great emphasis on the word ‘sad’ — that Augusta (doesn’t) make you feel welcome in that regard because I helped make this tournament what it is.”
Player is scheduled to hit the ceremonial tee shot to start the tournament Thursday. He also takes part in the Par 3 tournament on Wednesday. And, of course, there’s the Masters Club Champions Dinner on Tuesday, a highlight for anyone who has ever won a green jacket.
Missing from all this activity were players from LIV Golf, not because they aren’t welcome, but because they have a tournament in Florida this week. Bubba Watson is among past champions with LIV who typically help hand out the Drive, Chip and Putt trophies.
Another twist to the Masters this year was EA Sports introducing its first golf video game in more than 10 years. The Press Building was cleared out for a competition that included Tony Finau, country singer Eric Church and Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
O’Meara soon was headed to the first tee for a practice round. He will be around all week, with a few corporate dinners toward the back end.
Playing the course on the eve of Masters week felt like a treat for a 66-year-old. The highlight of the week is Tuesday for the dinner.
“The only people in the room are guys who have won,” he said. “I’m a small part of it. But to be part of that is amazing.”