Each year, spring is ushered in by "a tradition unlike any other." The Masters, which takes place at the same place and time annually, is the most recognizable tournament in golf, played at a course fitting of the tournament's name. Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia is heaven for a golf fan, but stands out of the average Joe's reach, with its hallowed grounds only available to a select group of America's richest and most powerful.
But for four days each year, fans can take a peek at Magnolia Lane, wander through the gates guarding the mythical course and step onto the fairways where so many legends have strolled. For golf fans, the arrival of spring and the start of The Masters is like coming home again. It's a familiar friend you haven't seen a while, yet you pick up right where you left off.
It's the exclusivity yet striking familiarity that draws fans to The Masters, and to Augusta National. Stringent rules and a minuscule membership list keeps the general public from playing the course, yet the sights of Augusta are well-known. The Eisenhower Tree lies along the 17th hole -- named after President Dwight D Eisenhower, who hit the tree so many times he threatened to cut it down. Rae's creek runs along Amen Corner -- the toughest stretch on the golf course, encompassing the approach on No. 11, all of No. 12 and the tee shot on No. 13 -- with the Hogan and Nelson bridges providing passage through the famed stretch.
Features are named not only for long-time members or those who have given service to the club, but to commemorate feats of historical significance achieved during the Masters. After Gene Sarazen holed-out from the fairway on hole No. 15 during his 1935 victory, Augusta National named the bridge on the hole after him, commemorating his amazing shot. Ben Hogan set the course record back in the 1950s, and also had a bridge named in his honor, which remains one of the most recognizable features on the course.
Augusta National just oozes history and tradition, adding to the allure of the famed major tournament. Caddies wear white jumpsuits, the winner dons the famed green jacket and crystal is the gift of choice for low rounds and eagles. The Masters a throwback to the beginnings of golf, and has refused to change as the game evolves. The Bobby Jones designed course that protects the green jacket has always stayed one step ahead of golf's finest through tweaks and renovations, yet keeps its identity and distinguishing features.
Even entrance into The Masters is inclusive. Unlike open tournaments, there is no qualification process. Players must be invited, and must meet a rigid set of standards to play at Augusta. Past champions are forever exempt, the U.S. Amateur champion has an automatic spot as a tribute to Bobby Jones and only recently were invitations extended to any current PGA Tour tournament champions. Even for the world's best golfers, Augusta National maintains its aura of exclusivity.
But unlike a typical tournament, The Masters is about more than the players involved. For four days a year, viewers tune in not just to watch Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the other top golfers of the era, but also to catch a glimpse of Augusta National before it's snatched away, locked up for another year. The course, not the golfers, takes center stage, and the committee at Augusta National puts its best face forward for that one weekend a year, sticking with tradition instead of modernizing its presentation. Commercials are limited to four minutes an hour, broadcasters are told to stay on message -- without using the words "bikini waxed" or "body bags" -- and "Augusta," by Dave Loggins serves as the theme music for Augusta.
Long-time viewers of The Masters can recall from memory where the Sunday pin positions are -- always in the same spots, always difficult. Despite never stepping foot on the course, golf fans can narrate flyovers and discuss the intricacies of Augusta as if they designed the course. Stay below the hole; Land approaches on the right section of the green or a three-putt is inevitable; Check, double-check and triple-check the swirling winds at hole No. 12, and even then say a prayer as the ball is in the air. And those roars? Well, you know it's Sunday when the roars tell you who's making a run and where they are on the course, whether watching at home or as a patron in the gallery.
The 2011 Masters begins bright and early on Thursday morning with another tradition: The ceremonial opening tee shot. Two of golf's greatest -- Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer -- have the honors again, ushering in the start of another grueling four-day challenge. Augusta will break golfers, make them earn their way to the top leaderboard and provide the backdrop for plenty of thrilling moments.
And when it's over, Augusta will fall back under lock and key, drifting away next spring rolls around again after giving golf fans a taste and leaving behind a want of more.