AUGUSTA, Ga. - The most appropriate way to describe what the Masters has become is to use a phrase that Augusta National could fully appreciate. The event really has blossomed.
This blazing color tournament, marked by its azaleas, magnolias and dogwoods, is the biggest thing in golf. It is the event that makes the largest impression on golfers who are hard to impress. It is the one that inspires reverence and rejuvenation at the same time.
Maybe that is not much of a revelation for anyone 30 or younger, but the reality is, the Masters was not always king of the majors. At least one generation ago, or two, the U.S. Open was everything any tournament wanted to be: the proudest line on a resume, the highlight of the season, the crown jewel of the sport. It sounds hard to believe, but there was a time when the Open drew the largest television ratings in golf.
Those days are long gone. The Masters is both the start and the height of the Grand Slam every year. Just ask Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the general public. The latter votes every April by its viewership habits. As for the other two, consider what they said Tuesday:
Woods: "There's no other tournament in the world like this . . . Most guys will probably rate it as their most favorite tournament."
Mickelson: "I think every player feels that way about it. This is The Event. This is the major championship to win . . . This is the one that we want to win the most, the tournament that I think is the most meaningful."
You clearly get the impression that Mickelson, a three-time winner here, never would dare utter a somewhat off-color rap on Augusta National, as he did about the U.S. Open layout at Oakmont in 2007. He wouldn't pop off in the Masters' press center the way he went after captain Tom Watson after the U.S. Ryder Cup debacle last fall.
Every major is steeped in history and the other three all are older than the Masters, yet it is here that the players act like they are stepping on hallowed ground.
"It's just a special place for people who love the game as much as we all do," Mickelson said. "It's what you think about in the offseason, when you're putting in the work at the gym at 5:30 in the morning. You don't want to be there. You think about the Masters and what you're doing it for. This is what gives us the motivation."
So how did this happen? There are several reasons, one of which is the decisive win that Woods achieved here in 1997. He made a spectacular splash with his first major championship at the age of 21, and his splash created a wave in golf interest. The Masters got a head start on the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in the Woods Era.
Also, Augusta National is way out in front visually in the high definition TV age. The place just looks beautiful, especially for people in the North who hunger for spring and sun after brutal winters. Plus, Augusta is the greatest beneficiary of advances in course maintenance. Watch old Masters clips and notice that Augusta now is much prettier than Augusta then.
Finally, the Masters has grown while remaining relatively small. The field this year is still only 98 deep. Golfers begin only on No. 1, not on the front and back nines. The hours on TV are limited.
On behalf of fans, I'd say the more golf on TV the better -- and not everything about the Masters superior to every other tournament (I confess an odd taste for the PGA). But it sure is the best at blooming.