Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Right Blend

Sport succeeds as it does because it has an intoxicating blend of the traditional and the modern. Each generation brings with it a new approach to the game, whether through tactics, skills, or preparation techniques. Yet at the same time, a game is recognisably similar - keeping the same forms, and, by and large, the same rules.

A vital ingredient in the mix is tradition. Support for local clubs reaches its fervour because in supporting a team, you buy into its corporate identity. When you are watching Manchester United, you aren't just watching a team of eleven players - you are watching a continuity from the days of Matt Busby, Denis Law and George Best.

Of course, this is coming under threat, with the advent of a widely used transfer system, or rampant free agency in US sports. Teams resemble less and less the team the year before; a wealthy owner can transform the fortunes of a club not through anything happening at the club itself, but instead through buying in players. The connections with the community and the past are increasingly blurry.

One event that gets tradition just right, however, is the Masters. Part of its charm is its unique nature. It is the only major that is invitation-only; played on the same course every year, the feeling of continuity is inescapable. The fact the field is all-invites, though, ensures its quality. Despite the fact the course has changed, despite the fact equipment has changed beyond all recognition, there's much more a feeling that you can judge the best golf players with other eras by their performance at the Masters than at any other event.

People talk about how tough a test Augusta is. The truth of the matter is, though, that the beauty of the Masters doesn't lie in the challenge that faces the top players as they battle with the course. The Masters isn't about how tough Augusta is, it's about how rewarding it is for the best players. Unlike the US Open, there is a clear and obvious reward for good play. If you play a hole well, there is every chance of a birdie. The corollary, of course, is that bad play is punished by bogeys. And that's what means the tournament is so exciting.

That sounds strange, when I've just lauded the tradition of the event. But my title, "The Right Blend", emphasises how important the here and now is. For all that Augusta seems to be a land time forgot - refusing any product adverts on its ground; restricting TV coverage; allowing only four minutes of commercials in any hour of programming - it is the modern competition that makes it so compelling. We see the same form that we saw right through the history of the Masters - but the same ingredients that made it compelling then continue to make it compelling now. When you get to the back nine on the final day, if you play well enough you have every chance of winning. It rewards good play - but by golly do you have to play well. If you want me tomorrow evening, you know where to find me!