Tiger and Time
People still look past me. It baffles me that still happens after all these years. Yes, I know I am petite and pretty and, if you will allow a modicum of immodestly, I ooze with Southern charm. If I were in Hollywood, I am sure I would be Doris Day. I apologize if that’s an old reference. I am old. I fear that I have not kept up with the times.
People sense my friendliness. That is good. I am friendly. I welcome everyone. My bridge is always open. I optimistically set the table for two every time.
But I am not to be underestimated.
My name is Golden Bell. I am the 12th hole at Augusta National.
I am 155 yards long, and I am surrounded by azaleas and sand and water and trees. I am less a golf hole and more a vacation spot. My likeness hangs in offices and living rooms around the world. I look as innocuous and dreamy as a postcard from Hawaii.
But I am to be taken seriously. The winds swirl unpredictably around me. They say I was built on an Indian burial ground. I do not talk about my past. But I can tell you that I have broken many hearts.
I broke Arnold Palmer’s heart. That was in ’59, I guess. I revered Arnie, and over time he came to revere me, but he was still young then, full of spirit and too much certainty. He led when he arrived at my door. He then hit his ball into the water and made triple bogey and lost the tournament. I felt heartsick for him. But I am not easy.
Time after time in the years since then, they have come to me with a sparkle of glory and a touch of arrogance reflecting in their eyes, and they have looked beyond me, to opportunities that await, to a dream they have had had since they were children, to a jacket that they long to wear. And they have walked off my green broken. I have crushed so many hopes. Seve Ballesteros. Gary Player. Greg Norman. Jordan Spieth. I cannot remember them all.
It happens every year.
On this Sunday, the hopers and dreamers began arriving much earlier in the day than I expected. They don’t usually show up until late afternoon, as the sun falls behind the Magnolia and Juniper trees, but on this Sunday they started marching up in groups of three in the morning. I believe the weather brought them out early.
The names change. The faces don’t. In the early afternoon, a powerful man named Brooks Koepka showed up. There is no doubt in my mind that Brooks has the strength to hit a golf ball miles over me. But I watched instead as he hit the ball without assurance. I could tell instantly that his shot would land short and roll back into the water. I tried to stop it. I always try to stop it. But there is not much I can do … once, I recall, I was able to stop the golf ball for a friendly sort named Fred Couples. But ever since then the groundskeepers have kept my grass shorter.
There was nothing I could do to save Brooks Koepka's ball.
The same was true for Ian Poulter's golf ball. Poulter is English, from what I can tell, and he also hit a high, equivocal shot that bounced well short and rolled back into Rae's Creek. Later, the same thing happened to a tall fellow named Tony Finau. Each time the ball dropped into Rae's Creek, I heard those familiar groans that have always tormented me.
I am haunted by waters.
Then the next group, the last group, came up. A man with a beautiful name, Francesco Molinari, walked to the tee. What a name. I have grown to love beautiful names -- Ian Baker-Finch and Seve Ballesteros and Gary Player and Jose Maria Olazabal and Jimmy Demaret
And standing next to him, there was an older golfer wearing red, he had a familiar face, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
There are only a few who have ever turned this place inside out. Arnie was one of those; he was so captivating and fetching and affable. The fans at Augusta loved him so dearly, so fervently, that they called themselves “Arnie’s Army.” I often thought of myself as a member of Arnie’s Army.
Then there was Jack Nicklaus. I will not lie, he was my favorite. I don’t know if the fans loved Jack with quite the same zeal and warmth that they loved Arnie, but I know they admired him. He was so admirable. He kept his head. He never beat himself. He played the right shot again and again.
And Jack always made me feel seen. I’ve heard that he called me the toughest little hole in the world. That is the most meaningful thing anyone has ever said about me. I have been called beautiful so often that it has lost its meaning. But tough! Yes! It’s true. Jack used to say that he always aimed for the same spot — to that safe space of land between my front and back bunkers — even if it meant aiming away from the flag.
I loved him for that. Jack respected me.
There were others, too, who inspired ear-shattering roars, Sam and Tom and Seve and Phil and so on.
But Tiger Woods is different from all of them.
I remember when he first came to Augusta. He was only an amateur then, a teenager, but full of unimaginable promise and talent and skill (I heard Jack predicted Tiger would win as many green jackets as he and Arnie had won combined). I’m told that when they asked Tiger what he hoped to accomplish his first time around at the hallowed Masters he said, without hesitation: “Win.”
It was a brazen and presumptuous thing for a young man to say — the correct answer apparently being something to the effect of “I’m just happy to be here” — and I am sure some of the older men harrumphed and grumbled. But modesty didn’t fit Tiger or his talents. He came to conquer, and when he was 21, he did. He thundered through this golf course like no one ever had before. When he was done, records were shattered, imaginations detonated, and I overheard people say that they would need to change Augusta National just to accommodate Tiger’s prodigious abilities.
They did change Augusta National considerably, lengthening some holes, adding contours and rises in various places, reworking various parts of the course. But they did not change me — if you will allow me to speak immodestly again, I am timeless — and they did not prevent Tiger Woods from winning again and again. He had won four times before he turned 30.
And the roars for him were unlike those even for Arnie and Jack. I think that’s because Tiger wasn’t adored like Arnie, and he wasn’t lionized like Jack. No there was something else about him, something more aspirational. I am not sure I can describe it — I am no poet, I am the subject of poetry — but as I understand it, Tiger offered to take the crowd to a place where golf had never gone. He was an astronaut. He hit shots no one had ever hit. He saw possibilities where others saw tree branches and double bogeys. He brought order to a disorderly game.
Anyway, that’s how I have heard it described.
Then, one day, something with Tiger Woods changed. One hears things, but I am not one to partake in rumors. But I could see that Tiger no longer commanded the game the way he had. The crowds still shouted for him, but their cheers were less confident and more nervous. He grew older. He seemed to have a different swing every time I saw him. And then, some years, he did not show up at all.
I did not expect to see Tiger Woods compete again.
The cycle doesn’t often go in that direction.
When the last group of Sunday approached, I glanced at the little walking leaderboard and saw that the Italian with the beautiful name, Francesco Molinari, had 13 red. And Tiger Woods had 11 red. The Masters was in the balance.
And I waited with hope.
Molinari hit first. He reached back with his club, and I offered a silent prayer for him, like I do for every golfer. But as soon as he hit the ball, I could see that he had made the mistake that has wrecked so many. He aimed toward the flag. And he had lacked conviction. The ball fluttered in the wind, and landed short, rolled back into the creek, and those agonizing groans came. I saw the crestfallen look on Molinari’s face. I have seen that look so many times. I never get used to it.
Then Tiger Woods stepped to the tee.
I looked at him closely. Was this really Tiger Woods, the bold and impertinent kid who believed that nothing was beyond his powers? I could not tell. I began to say my silent prayer for him … but then I stopped because I noticed something. He was not that Tiger Woods. He moved more gingerly. His face was wider. His weather-worn face suggested that he had seen things.
And as he began his swing, I caught something in Woods’ glance, something unusual, something I had not seen in, well, in a long time.
He aimed his shot away from the flag.
He hit it to that space between my front and back bunker. The ball landed and settled 40 feet from the hole, but dry and safe. It was the shot that young golfers feel too proud and too strong to hit. It was Jack Nicklaus’ shot. And now, it was Tiger Woods’ shot.
And I knew right then that Tiger would go on to win the Masters.
I could tell from the roars that he did go on to win. I settled in and just listened for those roars like I do every Masters Sunday. And they were louder than any I have heard in more than 30 years. I have since heard that as he walked off the last hole, Tiger was seen hugging his children, who were not born when he won here the first time. And I heard he took a look up to the sky to think about his father, Earl, who passed away a dozen years ago.
I am not capable of tears. Or at least I didn’t think I was capable of tears.
If there’s one thing I have learned as a most famous golf hole, it is that time, like Rae’s Creek, rushes in one direction. You cannot expect it to stop for anything or anyone. And yet, I’ve been around Augusta long enough to know that every now and again, on special days, time does stop, or at least it pauses. On Sunday, it stopped for Tiger. I think that means time stopped for all of us, too.