The Masters That Never Was, Part II: Jordan & Rickie vs. Bryson & Rahm, and Rory gets deep
Ed. note: This is the second installment of The Masters That Never Was, a fictional account of how the Masters Tournament *might* have played out had it been conducted this week at Augusta National Golf Club.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — As Augusta National continues to buy up large swaths of land around town it seems inevitable that someday all Masters competitors will be housed on-site in cabins, or perhaps a high-rise of suites that will be as lonely as the Overlook Hotel during the other 51 weeks a year. For now, the players still rent homes during Masters week, and many cluster in West Lake, a gated community of big, soulless houses that is two Waffle Houses away from Augusta National.
The pros make unexpected cameos throughout the week: Tiger jogging shirtless on the winding streets, two teenagers following discreetly in a golf cart, thrilled to be voyeurs to greatness; Martin Kaymer in a robe, collecting The Augusta Chronicle in a driveway; Jason Day tossing a Frisbee with his kids at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. Various corporate entities also rent in the neighborhood, advertising themselves with lawn signs. To get from the GOLF.com abode to West Lake Country Club you pass the compounds of ROLEX, NETJETS, ZURICH and many others. Mental notes must be taken, because any of these houses could offer a terrific reporting opportunity should the right victory party break out on Sunday night.
Many of the players use the fitness center in the West Lake CC clubhouse, as do a few stray reporters battling dad bod. On Monday morning of Masters weeks, Rory McIlroy could be found on a Peloton bike in the West Lake gym, Franz Ferdinand pumping audibly out of his ear buds. He was cooling down when Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson swaggered in, trailed by Joseph Diovisalvi — Joey D! — their trainer, built like a fire hydrant, more intense than any Marine sergeant. The complicated relationship between Brooks and Dustin has been the source of conjecture ever since their fracas at the 2018 Ryder Cup, which began, according to sources, during a taut game of Words With Friends; Johnson insisted that traj was a valid word even though the game rejected it. When Brooks quoted Bobby Jones — “The main idea in golf as in life is to learn to accept what cannot be altered and to keep on doing one’s own reasoned and resolute best whether the prospect be bleak or rosy” — Johnson put him in a headlock, touching a brawl that didn’t end until Webb Simpson began pouring CBD oil in their eyes. Knowing all of this, McIlroy couldn’t resist a jab by way of hello: “You wankers here to lift or to box?”
Koepka ambled over, draping a meaty forearm on McIlroy’s bike. “You get your thank-you note from Jay yet?” he asked.
“Just a bottle of Chateau Margaux,” McIlroy said. “I would have preferred the commish send me a box of FedEx Cup points.”
Johnson was looking on blankly until Joey D whispered, ”PGL.”
“Man,” Dustin said, “why’d you guys have to blow up my spot? That was long money. All we were gonna have to do is show up and get paid — no one would have cared how we actually played.”
“That’s what the WGCs are for,” Koepka said. “Let’s get to work, meat.”
McIlroy sauntered out of the gym, drenched in sweat. In the parking lot he leaned against his tournament-issued Mercedes, drawing a happy face on the windshield, which had been dusted by pollen. Visible on the passenger’s seat were a pile of books: Bhagavad Gita, Dianetics, The Alchemist, Man’s Search For Meaning, The Swinger.
“How’s your week going so far?” McIlroy was asked.
“That seems like a simple question, but really it’s not,” he said in his lovely lilting brogue.
“Time is a circle. Happiness is an illusion. What if you’d asked Johnny Miller how he was feeling on Masters Monday in 1975? He probably felt great, right? What about Shark in ’96? Ernie in 2004? I can’t control happiness. All I can do is balance my chakras and clear my engrams. But sometimes I question if it’s worth it. We’re all just dust in the wind, man.”
With that, he slid into the $80,000 sedan and drove off.
Back at Augusta National, there was a different intensity in the air. The Drive, Chip & Putt kids were long gone and the club members were back outside the ropes. It was down to business now and the course was packed. A big crowd was following the practice round grouping of Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Bryson DeChambeau and Jon Rahm. Reporters aren’t allowed inside the ropes at the Masters but ahead of the match, on the practice putting green, Spieth removed the lanyards of two GOLF.com writers and handed each a wedge. “Follow me and act like you’re my short-game coaches,” he said, walking toward the 1st tee. His agent looked like he had taken a bite of a rancid pimiento cheese sandwich but said nothing.
Spieth and Fowler were taking on DeChambeau and Rahm in a $2,500 best-ball match. “Just enough to make it interesting,” Fowler said.
The fans following the foursome picked up on the action and were openly rooting for Jordan and Rickie. “On a likability basis,” Michael Greller whispered, “this is poachers versus baby seals.” Greller caddies for one of the seals, Jordan Spieth.
Spieth and his team, to use his favorite word, were all flying high after his victory at the Match Play ended a painfully long and public winless streak. Spieth is an underrated trash-talker and he was chirpy from the start. On the 4th tee, Rahm shoved a 2-iron well right of his intended line. As the ball soared increasingly offline, Spieth said softly, “Be as good as you look.” Rahm’s Spanish response did not require any translation services.
When DeChambeau missed a downhill eight-footer at 7 that could have squared the match, Spieth said to his partner, “Rick, I didn’t study physics at Texas. When the putter slows down at impact, is that called deceleration?”
“Uh-huh,” Fowler said.
It was not clear that Fowler understood the joke. In contrast to his partner’s energetic presence, Fowler seemed subdued. He had flown in that morning from Jupiter. “Spent the last 13 days shooting TV spots,” he said after a yawn.
“Must feel great to be done for the year,” Spieth said.
“I do that quarterly.”
The Rahm-DeChambeau partnership offered a study in contrasts. Even in a Monday practice round, the fiery Spaniard was channeling Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal by playing a series of stylish shots. In the trees on the right side of the 8th fairway, Rahm sliced a 3-iron around a trunk and almost reached a green that was more than 250 yards away, uphill. He then played an exquisite pitch stone-dead using a 6-iron. “That was the club Jose Maria used around the greens here,” he said. “It is a shot few players can master. It must come from deep within you.”
Meanwhile, DeChambeau was lost in his head. Standing on the 12th tee, he had an animated discussion with his caddie about the breeze. “Did you see how the pine needles blew out of that tree in 11 fairway?” he said. “That would indicate a south by southwest wind. But the ripples in the creek by 12 green suggest a north wind. I hate this hole because it defies reason.” Finally, he unzipped a pocket in his golf bag and produced what looked like a small grenade. He pulled the pin and bright red smoke began pouring out. DeChambeau watched intently as the smoke swirled through Amen Corner. Two members in their club coats discreetly pulled their phones and snapped photos. DeChambeau then cut a little 6-iron to the center of green. Walking off the tee, he said, “I might get a scolding but it was totally worth it. I’ve always been perplexed by the wind vectors in this swale of Spiethian tears.”
Fowler said, “Huh?”
“Ignore that jabroni,” Spieth whispered. His eyes were now slits and with his hat pulled low he looked like an old-time gunslinger. Spieth poured in a 40-footer to win the 12th hole and then played the next five holes in 5-under, closing out the match with another long birdie putt on 17.
“I will pay you in Euros,” Rahm said.
“The hell you will,” said Spieth.
“Fine, I will give you the money at lunch,” Rahm said.
“How can I say this nicely?” Spieth said. “Where I’m eating? You can’t come.”
He headed into the clubhouse and up its corkscrew stairs, to the Champions Locker Room. The club within the club. It’s what every player in the field covets, to become a member of that club. The lust can be so strong it can ruin a man’s golf swing.
DeChambeau’s eyes followed Spieth’s every step as he walked up the stairs and out of view. “I’m heading to my presser, if you guys want to ride together,” he finally said to the reporters. “Meet me in front of the clubhouse in seven minutes. I just need to go pound a couple of protein shakes real quick.”
The Masters began as a clubby gathering of Bobby Jones’s friends and for most of the 20th century retained its intimacy. More recently, the Augusta National campus has begun to feel like a theme park, growing bigger and more ornate every year. The Press Building has become emblematic of the changes. The original was a metal Quonset hut — small, simple, atmospheric. In 1990 a much larger paragraph factory opened, with stadium seating. But it was decidedly low-tech: a group of workers with sliding ladders updated by hand the hole-by-hole scoreboard at the front of the room; the numbers were so small that veteran reporters toted binoculars so they could follow along from their seats.
Now the Press Building has been moved to the periphery of the property, freeing up space for a larger merchandise tent and spectator pavilion that looks like it could be Mastersland at Epcot Center. The new press room is a $50 million extravagance decorated in a style that can only be described as Southern Masculine: dark wood, dark leather, old photos in heavy frames. It is so far from the course a brigade of golf carts is required to shuttle the scribes to and fro. Players, too, when they can be talked into making the long journey. The green jacket charged with ferrying DeChambeau to his press conference gave the accompanying reporters a dubious look but Bryson said, “It’s okay, they’re my biographers.”
The club built a series of tunnels to get all the carts and other traffic around the grounds to their varying destinations. DeChambeau pointed down the biggest one, which is off limits to reporters.
“That takes you to tournament headquarters,” he said. “I arranged a tour last year. There’s a secret elevator that goes right into the chairman’s office, like he is ascending from the Bat Cave.” The Augusta National member driving the cart couldn’t quite suppress her smile.
Walking into the Press Building, the GOLF.com reporters zigged when DeChambeau zagged. “Aren’t you guys coming?” he asked, sounding a little hurt.
The new interview room is huge and sterile, with the players seated on a fancy dais far from the typists. This looks nice on TV but kills any connection between the golfers and the scribes. New-school media members treat press conferences like actual news events but more seasoned reporters know little of substance is ever said, and if so, it will be ubiquitous on the Internet within minutes. The only reason to attend is if your editors force you. DeChambeau listened intently to the explanation.
“Dude, that’s meta,” he said.
The real action is upstairs, in the dining hall, where the writers gather under an arched roof that cleverly evokes the old Quonset hut. Holding court at his usual table was Scott Michaux, a dogged reporter for The Augusta Chronicle. One coffee break with Michaux was all it took to get caught up on a day’s worth of press conferences: “Let’s see, Rory spent most of the time reciting Yeats. Adam Scott is now carrying three putters — a regular one for lag putting, the broomstick for anything inside 15 feet, and a left-handed 8802 for shorties. Xander said so many people were calling him underrated he had become overrated, and then because of the backlash he’s back to being underrated. Tommy Fleetwood signed an endorsement deal with Paul Mitchell that contractually forbids him from doing a manbun. Justin Rose just broke his contract so he can play a set of Corey Pavin’s old VAS irons. Otherwise, I think you boys are all caught up.”
The expansive windows at the front of the Press Building face the driving range. As the sun began setting, there was a lone figure still hitting balls. Tiger Woods. The defending champ cancelled his press conference scheduled for that afternoon, citing a need to get treatment on his back. He had arrived at the range only a half hour earlier. Michaux stood at the window watching with binoculars. (The huge electronic scoreboard in the new Press Building made them unnecessary but reporters are creatures of habit.) Woods was painting the sky with low draws and high cuts, aiming at the 250 flag with what looked like a 3-iron. Michaux suddenly pounded on the glass. “He just holed one!” he shouted. “Now I have the lede for my notes column.” He scurried off to type, the first winner of the week.
Day 3 of The Masters That Never Was will be published on GOLF.com on Tuesday evening.
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