By Rick Drennan
Don’t hide. I can see you.
You’re sitting in your old banger, stuck in traffic, your car heater on the fritz, and your feet frozen solid.
It’s mid-March, near the end of winter, and some Spring heat is on the horizon.
Sure, hope Spring’s eternal, but it’s not there yet for people like you, or me – long-suffering Canadian golfers.
Which brings me to the point of this rant.
The only saving grace at this time of the year is the fact the world’s greatest golf tournament is bound for TV, and promises great drama – again. It always helps ease the passage from Winter to Spring. Yes, I’m talking about the granddaddy of all tournaments, The Masters (April 6-9).
While it’s the aperitif for Spring, its great grandson, The Players Championship (May 11-14) helps end the Spring season.
Both are played at iconic clubs, Augusta National, and the Tournament Players Club at TPC Sawgrass.
One has Amen Corner, the other has the famed 17th, the island hole.
Both can take golfers straight to Heaven, or Hell.
Let’s take a trip to heaven.
My favourite moments at both tournaments involved two dynamically different players, the immortal Jack Nicklaus, and the too-cool-for-words Rickie Fowler.
There’s an old sports adage that athletes should stay within themselves. Yet, both Nicklaus and Fowler had the kind of out-of-body experiences unseen in golf lore –, the former at the ’86 Masters, the latter at the 2015 Players.
Fat Jack (his nickname when he joined the tour back in the early 1960s), doesn’t need any more adulation. He holds the record for most major wins. He’s the greatest player ever, especially now that Tiger Woods is playing like a 6-handicapper, and stuck at 14 majors.
There was always resentment towards Nicklaus because he wasn’t Arnie Palmer.
He was overweight, a bit standoffish, and seem in need of a charisma transplant. Plus, he was better than The King, and beat him regularly. But slowly, year by year, Nicklaus won them all over. It started when he trimmed down, grew his blond locks to a cool longish style (just perfect for the 70s and 80s), and then, at near end of his career, played the greatest round of his career: the final 18 at the ’86 Masters.
Like an old knight gathering his sword and shield for one more fight, Nicklaus shot an improbable 30 (minus-6) on the back nine to win his 18th, and final major.
Using a putter that looked like a garden tool, and leaning on support from his caddy/son Jackie, he led a stirring charge down the stretch that left most fans of the game emotionally spent.
Jack had finally played himself into the hearts of all golf fans.
Fowler’s win at the 2015 Players was a striking reminder of just how exciting Sawgrass is for hosting golfing drama.
Fowler not only birdied the fabled 17th to tie for the lead and move into a playoff, but he birdied it twice more in the playoff to win the title.
The Fowler win was another powerful reminder of how good PGA golfers are with the pressure at its highest and a course playing its toughest.
Yes, Fowler’s performance, especially on 17, is one for the ages, the greatest in the history of The Players.
Both wins are a reminder just how lovely both the Jacksonville, Florida, and Georgia areas are for playing golf in the Spring time. Actually anytime! There are courses galore in both areas, open for all.
The good news is that for almost a year now Air Canada has been providing direct air service from Toronto to Jacksonville.
While Augusta is a Georgia gem, it’s also ultra-private, meaning: it’s a no-go for the average Joe and Jane looking to play golf.
Sawgrass, on the other hand, is public – although the sticker price upwards of $400.00 is a bit of a shocker.
It’s a well-worn path to Jacksonville, and nearby St. Augustine is a beautiful and historic city in its own right. You can visit the World Golf Hall of Fame, or play golf at the World Golf Village and its wonderful courses.
World Golf Village is hop skip and jump from Ponte Vedra, home of The Players Club.
Americans like their heroes writ large, and in Nicklaus reached the pinnacle at the ’86 Masters.
He opened his pro career by beating Arnie Palmer at the U.S. Open in The King’s hometown of Pittsburgh (a definite no-no), and bookended that with a win at Augusta in ’86.
Yes, slowly, over time, after all the wins, he won over all those who disliked him. The ’86 win seared his name into the collective consciousness of golf fans everywhere – a Hollywood ending.
Fowler’s win was less histrionic than Nicklaus’s, mostly because he is younger and less accomplished and he has yet to claim a major title. Both wins left indelible imprints.
When golfers think of Spring, they think of the Masters, and for those lucky enough to be around when Nicklaus won his last major, they think of him draining that putt of the 17th hole and CBS commentator Verne Lundquist shouting, “Yes, Sir!!”
Fowler’s win has whet the appetite for golfers everywhere to play The Players Club. Two years ago, I had the chance to do just that. Was it worth it? Yes. Very.
Have I been to Augusta?
No, not yet. But hope spring eternal. And it’s still on my bucket list.
Watching these tournaments on TV is a rite of passage for many Canadians.
Two great courses, and two great wins.
Both turned out to be the perfect aperitifs for winter-weary Canadians, and impacted two generations of golf fans.
What’s in store for us this Spring?
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out.
Check out some of the great golf for yourselves:
Florida’s First Coast of Golf can get you teed up with Stay & Play in the Jacksonville and St. Augustine area. http://www.florida-golf.org/
General Florida information: http://www.floridashistoriccoast.com/
For Stay & Play in and around Augusta and surrounding South Carolina regions check out the Mountains to Midlands Golf Alliance program www.golfpackagesofsc.com