AUGUSTA, Georgia — What a different week this would be for a few people, if not for one different bounce or break here or there.
Len Mattiace could have been a fixture here if only one shot had gone differently in 2003. His fellow Long Island native Chris DiMarco would be an annual honoree if natural laws did not take a sabbatical long enough to allow Tiger Woods’ chip to fall into a cup two years later.
Kenny Perry could have been here with a green jacket waiting for him if Angel Cabrera’s ball had caromed just a bit differently off a tree limb in 2009. The point is, when you win the Masters you are part of the club for life — in fact the Champions Dinner is not officially called “Champions Dinner,” it is formally known as the Masters Club. And if you don’t win, especially if you just miss, you feel like you are on the outside for life.
Those are the stakes golfers face when they tee off at the Masters, as they will do Thursday on a rain-softened course (a storm curtailed the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday) amid expected stiff winds. More than anywhere else in golf, what happens here, good or bad, lives forever.
Other majors hold dinners for former champions, but those are not as well attended and do not have the same cachet. At the Masters, winners gather in uniform — green jackets — at the victory site. Throughout tournament week, past winners get to use a private locker room on the second floor of the clubhouse.
“If I think back to the days when I was in the other locker room downstairs there, I definitely looked up to all the people who were upstairs,” said Adam Scott, who earned his upgrade with a playoff win over Cabrera in 2013. “You know, I missed my friend Trevor Immelman after he won (in 2008). I didn’t see him all week and I was incredibly jealous of him sitting upstairs . . . Certainly, I felt a sense of awe towards that upstairs room.”
The invitation never expires. After the first of his three Masters titles, Phil Mickelson vowed that Augusta National would “see my sorry mug” for as long as he lives.
On the other hand, it is rough to know you were only one shot away from a lifetime pass, as Mattiace, DiMarco, Perry and others who lost Masters playoffs were. The silver medal that is sent to each runner-up can offer little consolation. Word is that Tom Weiskopf, who finished second four times without a victory, never opened one of those packages from Augusta.
So there is pressure, as early as the opening shot on Thursday, in realizing that decades of Aprils are on the line. The tension mixes with the natural excitement pros feel as they begin the tournament most of them cherish the most. “I couldn’t sleep the night before,” Rory McIlroy said of his first Masters in 2009. “You can come up here as much as you want, but once you step on that first tee and it’s the first hole of the Masters, it’s a little different.”
This Masters will be especially different. A mild winter caused the azaleas to bloom earlier than usual, meaning they will not be vibrant. “This year,” tournament chairman Billy Payne said, “we have decided that our color of choice is green.”
Of course, that never is out of style here. Russell Henley, who earned the field’s final spot with a win at the Shell Houston Open Sunday, recalled growing up in Macon, Georgia and attending the Masters with a couple of golf buddies. “I remember going down by No. 2 green and just feeling the grass,” he said. “I was overwhelmed. You don’t see any place that’s this green.”
At the Masters, green always is the key hue. It is the color of the grass, the jackets and the envy.