JOHN COCKAYNE: Major victories, but to the sound of silence
As 2020 draws to its close, life and sport have taken on a surreal quality, especially with lockdown restrictions making an unwelcome reappearance in many parts of the world.
The psychological and tactical advantages believed to create home-ground advantage in other games do not apply to golf. However, golf like the rest of professional sport has been affected by attendance bans, both in revenue terms and lack of atmosphere.
The 2020 Ryder Cup’s postponement was felt by many players to be the right call, as fans are such an integral part of the atmosphere at this event. The adrenalin-fuelled rush generated by the support of a vocal and partisan crowd would have been absent and taken away much of the US home-ground advantage.
Those tour events that I have watched on TV have been played in an eerie atmosphere. For many of the top players it must feel (if they can remember those far-off days) like playing on feeder circuits or mini tours, as they took their first steps in pro golf where absence of crowds is the norm.
The advantages of no crowds have been few, although a respite from “be the man” and other idiotic utterances has been pleasant.
No definitive empirical evidence has proven home ground advantage in which vocal crowds are considered to be an essential element. Golf is played in relative silence anyway, at least compared to other ball games where crowd noise can be a continuous presence.
Patrons at Augusta (there are no crowds, fans or spectators in this club’s lexicon) are very respectful and quiet anyway, so it will be interesting to see when what should be golf’s first Major of the year tees off on Thursday, making it the last of the three that have been played during 2020 after the Open Championship was cancelled.
The lack of patrons might be an advantage and allow the likes of Bryson DeChambeau to use the “new” space to hit monstrous drives from which to explore alternative angles into various holes. Alternatively, it might prove to be a “downer”, in which the library-like silence will allow full voice to the demons of doubt for many players.
To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Hell is empty and all the demons are here ... in my head.”
However, the noise vacuum would be to the advantage of PG Wodehouse’s golfer who was upset by the least disturbance on the links and where “He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows”.
It will still however be both a torment and tempest, albeit a noiseless one, for many players as the Majors generally are. Players will all have their own personal goals and demons to overcome.
These will range from more modest agendas such as ensuring an automatic invite to next year’s event, to the likes of Rory McIlroy, who will be looking to finally lay the ghost of his back-nine meltdown on Sunday in 2011 and take home a first green jacket.
A Master’s triumph will also progress his career to another level, in golf’s pantheon of greatness, by his becoming the 6th player to complete a career grand slam of all four of golf’s Majors.
DeChambeau will be wanting to prove that his US Open win was no fluke. Jordan Spieth will be wanting to return as a winner to the podium, indeed any tournament podium — as he has been winless for several seasons — at a Major. Dustin Johnson will be wanting to add to his sole Major win, while Phil Mickelson cannot break his personal demon of six runner-up spots, but no win at the US Open, but could add another Masters’ title to his resume.
And what of the defending champion Tiger Woods? He remains the heir apparent to Nicklaus and just as with the Golden Bear, you are on dangerous ground writing off a player of his talent, even though he’s had a patchy year.
Augusta suits him and there is the old dictum that form is temporary while class is permanent, so although the days of the dominating prowl and growl might be in the past, the Tiger could well be somewhere in the mix coming into the back nine holes on Sunday.
For golfing historians, it will be a tricky year to record and it will be something of a relief that no one is in the frame to win all three Majors played this year, avoiding the need to scramble to find a name to give this feat. One shudders at the thought of a Covid or pandemic slam!
Players often talk about feeding off the crowd’s energy, so will a player be able to feed off the sounds of silence at Augusta this week?
What is certain is that this will be a Masters like no other, but whether the outcome on Sunday sees a result like no other remains to be seen.
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