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AUGUSTA — The wind gusts at Augusta National’s Amen Corner on Thursday ripped hats off the heads of patrons. Golfers stepped away from their balls three and four times, often bringing the pace of play to a halt. Bathroom lines were moving even slower.
And I could think of only one word throughout the first round of the 2017 Masters – gratitude.
“You drive through Magnolia Lane, and every year I get out of my car, and I walk up there and I just say a prayer of thanks, of gratitude,” Masters legend Gary Player said Thursday. “Because having traveled more miles than any human being that’s ever lived, these eyes have seen things that are atrocities.”
Player had walked off of the first tee just minutes before, ceremoniously driving the 81st Masters into existence as an Honorary Starter alongside Jack Nicklaus, who Player described as his best friend on the planet. Player competed in 52 Masters, Nicklaus in 45.
Perhaps it was the void left by who was missing that drove his words. Golf’s Big 3 – the title Player, Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer earned in winning 31 major tournaments throughout their careers – was down to two, as Palmer passed away in 2016 at the age of 87.
“I think gratitude is a very important word, and I think it applies to you people in the room,” the 81-year-old Player continued, prompting me to reactively sit up a little straighter in my seat. “If you think of (the Masters press building) facilities, there’s nothing like this in any sporting event in the world. … It’s a dream, and I think we must enjoy the dream while we can.”
It parallels life, no doubt — the ability to enjoy the good moments.
Walking the Augusta National grounds, gratitude is etched across the faces of everyone: patrons, golfers, members, volunteers and staff workers alike. It feels like the dream Player describes.
“This place lives up to the hype, and there’s a lot of hype,” a first-time Augusta visitor from Massachusetts said Thursday as he carried bags full of souvenirs.
It’s a calmness, a gentleness, a personal kindness that’s as beautiful as the grounds where it occurs, despite the forceful winds.
“I love playing in the wind,” Rickie Fowler said Thursday after his 1-over round of 73. “These are some different conditions than we’re used to seeing at Augusta. … But I love playing this course.”
Fowler attended the ceremonial tee shots of Nicklaus and Player more than two hours prior to his round, as did William McGirt, a first-time Masters attendee at the age of 37. They were the only two current golfers to attend the ceremony.
McGirt shot a 3-under 69 and is near the top of the leaderboard entering Friday’s play.
“When I heard ‘Fore Please, William McGirt now driving,’ I almost shed a tear,” McGirt said after his opening round. “I’ve dreamed my whole life of playing in this tournament, and I’m going to enjoy it fully. … There was no question that I was going to (the ceremonial tee shot).”
Inside the gates of Augusta National, it’s somewhat hard to imagine that millions upon millions are following the tournament around the world. There’s a grace within, a simple beauty hard to describe.
And there’s certainly gratitude – for the opportunity, for the people who have come before and created the stage, and for the next three days of witnessing history in Augusta.
NOTES FROM THE COURSE
Charley Hoffman leads the tournament by four strokes entering Friday’s play after shooting a 7-under 65. In the 2015 Masters, Hoffman shot a 5-under 67 in the opening round and finished the tournament tied for ninth.
The world’s top-ranked player, Dustin Johnson, withdrew from The Masters after falling down stairs and injuring his back Wednesday night.
Vince Johnson is covering his ninth Masters Tournament. You can follow his Masters coverage in real time on Twitter @vincejohnson.