Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday at the Masters

It is the first weekend in April. To many sports fans, and all those who follow the sport of golf, it is also that special time of year when all the colors of the natural world seem brighter, richer and fuller. When the green of the grass spreads across the panorama of the Earth, the pinks and reds of the azaleas sparkle as the stars in the night sky, and you wonder what if God might be giving us a glimpse of heaven’s grandeur. When blue isn’t just the sky, but rather the eyes of those who have come before us, looking down and smiling at our devotion to the game they taught us to play, to respect and to enjoy. This is the time when history meets the future, and the present is so powerful you never want it to leave. It is the first weekend in April and it is time for the Masters.

This weekend also makes the first major golf championship I have watched since my dad passed away in February. He taught me to love the game, to honor its traditions and love its history. But most importantly, he taught me two very important things: first, to recognize the many ways that golf, and all sports really, teach us about ourselves and life and the nature of God; secondly, he showed me that golf is just a game, not something to be taken as serious as family and faith.

My father, Thomas Bush, saw his last Masters in 2010. It was fitting that the storyline of the week and especially the final round on that Sunday involved the players that it did. My dad loved the great stories of the game, the ways in which the sport itself seemed to take life by the reins and steer it toward a conclusion and a place where hearts are touched and lives are changed forever simply by watching. Phil Mickelson won the tournament. His wife and his mother had learned earlier that year that they both had breast cancer. Amy Mickelson spent the entire week in bed because of the effects the radiation treatment. As her husband walked up the 18th fairway, the tournament firmly in hand, Amy appeared behind the green. She wanted to see her husband win his third green jacket. After the last birdie putt rolled in, Phil made his way to his wife and they shared a tearful embrace. Jim Nantz, calling the tournament for CBS Sports, said “There’s a win for the family.” I didn’t know then that it was a win for my family.

I wasn’t with my dad when that final putt dropped. But I was on the phone with him off and on throughout the entire final round. Now, I want to call him more than anything. Instead, I’ll hold my two-year old son and smile as he shouts “gaw-ball! Daddy, gaw-ball!” at the screen. My father would have laughed.

Today, I’m going to try and document what is for me one of the most bittersweet sporting events of my life. It is ironic that the theme of this year’s tournament, which no one knows really until Saturday afternoon starts to get longer and the leaderboard begins to shape itself, is one of a “new generation” poised to take over the future of the game. The “older generation” that is about to be pushed out are, I’m terrified to report, my age. Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and the rest are at the point where one wonders if they will ever win another big one. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and the rest of the twenty-somethings are taking over. But instead of being upset, depressed or even stubborn about that development, my dad would have just laughed and said, “that’s life; you can’t stay young forever.”

These are some of the special moments from the afternoon spent watching golf and thinking of Dad:

- CBS just did a piece on the famous Masters Champion’s Locker Room, showing that the place is “intimate”, meaning small. The players share a locker with former winners. Jack Nicklaus, my dad’s favorite player, shares a locker with Horton Smith, the man who won the first Masters Tournament in 1934. My father’s favorite player linked forever with the man who first won Dad’s favorite tournament. As Jim Nantz would say, that’s special.

- Augusta National is the Mecca of golf, the Valhalla, the Eden. Everyone wants to play there, to win there. But one thing about watching it on TV that makes it so fun, so special, are the roars of the crowd. The great sports writer Rick Reilly said that the loudest sound he’s ever heard outdoors was not on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or in a football stadium designed to gather in and concentrate noise; rather it was at the 17th green as Jack Nicklaus rolled in his famous birdie putt in 1986 on the way to winning his record 6th Masters. Just now, I posted on my Facebook that if you heard a noise while you were outside, it was Augusta exploding. Tiger is back. He shot a 31 on the front nine and is one back of the lead. If Tiger Woods can come from seven shots back and win the Masters for a 5th time, that would be, in my biased opinion, my dad giving me a memory that will last my lifetime. He had Jack, I’ll have Tiger. I’m now officially rooting for Tiger Woods.

- At one point, six people were tied at the top at 10 under par. That late in the round, I can’t remember that happening.

- I remember watching Tiger delivering a beat down to the field in 1997; I remember Mark O’Meara the next year coming out of nowhere. Phil with his two-inch vertical jump after his first win in 2004; Angel Cabrera beating the man everyone outside of Angel Cabrera (and his caddy) wanted to win, Kenny Perry, in a play-off. All of those tournaments were special, for one because they were at the Masters, but the other reason is that I’d call my dad afterwards to talk at length about the whole thing, the emotions of winning, the agony of what might have been for those who finished just that close, all of it.

Now, the Masters is over. Charl Schwartzel has won by two over Adam Scott and Jason Day. Tiger Woods finished four back in a gallant effort. I wanted this year’s tournament to be historic, to be monumental. It was, only not for the reason I wanted. I’ll never forget the 2011 Masters because my dad watched it from heaven, and I had no one to call. But I do have someone to hug. So my son, AJ, will begin a new tradition soon of watching the tournament with his father. I hope it will be special for him. I know it will be special for me.

I love you, Dad.

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