Augusta — No filling-station operator from Mississippi has ever won a Masters. In fact, no gas pumper from any state ever has, and a safe wager is, that when this one is done, that record will still be in place. No matter, whatever they want to say, Steve Wilson can tell his pals that in 2009 his picture is on the same page with Tiger Woods in the Masters Players Guide: Steve Wilson, age 39, from Ocean Springs, Miss., who got here by winning the Mid-Amateur Championship last year.
That’s part of the mystique of the Masters, which began in 1934 as a sort of springtime layover for golf pros on their way back to their club up north after wintering in the Southern clime. It was strictly by invitation, a list made up by Bobby Jones himself, who included almost as many fellow amateurs as pros. (Something he said he would never do again after all the complaints a lot of disappointed players rolled in.) Only one who played in that tournament still survives, Errie Ball, now 98, and said still to be giving lessons in Florida.
So, the Augusta National Invitational rolled on, and eventually became the Masters, an American masterpiece. For years it was also “for Americans only,” so to speak. Only three times in the first 25 years did a foreign-born player come close to breaking the Uncle Sam hold on the championship. Harry Cooper, an Englishman — actually he had become a full-time resident — finished second in 1936 and ’38, and in 1950, Jim Ferrier, an Australian, blew a lead on what would become Amen Corner to Jimmy Demaret’s profit.
Finally, in 1961 Gary Player broke through, and twice again won in the ’70s, but that gave no indication of what was about to come. In 1980 Severiano Ballesteros came ashore, and it was if he were heading a landing party. In the two decades of the ’80s and ’90s, the sacred Green Jacket crossed the Atlantic 11 times. After Ballesteros won again in ’81, Nick Faldo won three times, Bernhard Langer and Jose-Maria Olazabal won twice, and Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam each won once. Only in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus won his sixth — after his game had been declared dead — and in 1995, when Ben Crenshaw came directly from the funeral of his mentor, Harvey Penick, and won in a gush of emotion, did the homeside rise up with any kind of persistent resistance.
And, on into the 21st Century the foreign intrusion continued. Fijian Vijay Singh beat South African Ernie Els in 2000, in 2003 Mike Weir became the first Canadian, and the first left-handed player to win. In each case there were American influences. Singh had lived in this country for years, and Weir, while born in Canada, schooled at Brigham Young and makes home in Utah.
Of course, the game knows no borders any more. Air transportation and a communicative break-out have melted the national lines of golf, but nevertheless, hardly any Masters has come to such a conclusion as in the past year. Though he closed with a round of 75, the kind of finish that’ll usually get you beat, Trevor Immelman of South Africa beat Tiger Woods by three strokes. Immelman — who had won only one time on the U.S. tour. He was recovering from tumor removal, had missed cut after cut coming into Augusta, and as he said himself, “It’s the craziest thing I’ve heard of.”
And he hasn’t won since.
So, that’s where we stand, as we head into another Masters, with the shadow of another hot foreigner hanging over these green acres. Geoff Ogilvy is no stranger to victory in this country. True, the U.S. Open he won at Winged Foot was a direct gift of Phil Mickelson’s crash, but he comes into Augusta with game a-blazing. He won the Mercedes-Benz tournament of champions, then swept through World Match Play field and finished 6th last week at Houston. As sadly bereft of credentials as Immelman was a year ago, Ogilvy brings a load to Augusta National. After three visits here, no intimidation factor, no Tiger fear. So, in an atmosphere so convivial to guests, might as well be Ogilvy as any.