Date: April 05, 2018
Author: Mark Hayes

One giant, leafy, gorgeous sound box

Like many, I’ve been watching the Masters’ history replayed this week, building up to the magical weekend with a walk down a verdant memory lane.

Naturally, the 1986 Jack Nicklaus “Bear out of hibernation” tape gets its annual showing as part of the “How did THAT happen to Sharky?” box set.

It cast my mind back to my first pilgrimage to Augusta National which, as fate would have it, was the 25th anniversary of Nicklaus’ heroics.

There were so many things I’d heard before walking through those gates that I didn’t truly know what to expect, but one thing for sure was that if the Golden Bear was one of my teachers, I was going to be all ears.

So I sat in his press conference early that week, transfixed by golf's greatest player's reflection of his triumph on that beautiful 1986 spring afternoon – the day he defied golfing logic and wound back the clock with an inward 30 (with a bogey!!) to storm past a group of hackers named Norman, Ballesteros, Kite and Price.

Nicklaus vividly recalled seemingly every minute of that glorious day, universally regarded as the greatest final two hours of any tournament.

That was remarkable in itself. Yardages, conversations, pin placements, even competitors' movements all came gushing out as if it were yesterday.

For any golf fan, it was a rare treat.

Lost in it for me, at the time anyhow, was an almost throwaway line.

That the six-time green jacket winner insisted every player in contention should look at leaderboards to assess their tactics was not new.

But upon reflection, Nicklaus threw in that during his time between boards on the course, he easily managed to keep track of all scores going on around him, even on that most manic of days, because he could gauge the noise emanating from all parts of the sprawling Augusta National layout.

If you’re too young to recall Nicklaus in his barnstorming heyday, you only need to have watched casually in recent years at the honorary starting ceremony to realise that when golfing pride is on the line, the great man doesn't joke around.

So on the second round of that 2011 tournament, I strolled the fairways as wave after wave of birdies was plundered on a benign Georgia afternoon, and his words came rushing back to me.

I knew roughly where Phil Mickelson's group was by my order of play sheet. They were, as the crow flies, somewhere between 600-800m away from where I stood when an almighty two-tiered groan filled the air.

Mickelson – so much the darling of the American crowd that he matched Tiger Woods in the court of public opinion – as I managed to later confirm via a TV replay, had just shaved the cup with a long birdie attempt on the 13th green.

I knew he'd missed, but I also knew it must have been only by a matter of millimetres.

How? The roar. Even from that distance.

It started as a dull rumbling, then approached what loomed as a climax only to have the air let out by the most extraordinarily loud groan.

A couple of minutes later, joint first-round leader Alvaro Quiros must have done something a group further back, because it came from a similar location, was all positive but not quite as loud.

Sure enough, a birdie for the Spaniard, also on the 13th.

I then focused on what Nicklaus had said and through sound only, tried to picture in my mind's eye where each group was. Even for a Masters rookie, it actually was feasible.

I then thought about why – and it's all down to the landscape of the course.

It's tough to paint that picture with words, but imagine if you can that almost every point on the course is downhill from the clubhouse and its surrounding buildings that effectively form a sound wall at the (near enough to) north.

To get to Rae's Creek at Amen Corner surrounding the 12th hole – the low point of the course – you descend the equivalent of Niagara Falls and then find a wall of foliage with a slight hill behind it to the south that runs all along behind the 13th green towards the nearby fifth green.

The 10th and 11th holes at the east of the course have dense trees along their external lengths, while at the western end, another substantial slope borders all bar the fourth green and the fifth fairway.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a wondrous golfing box.

One that has lush, dense trees as a form of canopy that effectively traps any noise even longer.

The secretive Augusta National committee never lets out official attendance figures, but some estimates put daily numbers approaching 50,000.

So if you plot in your head a vocal, supportive mass of let's conservatively say 40,000 roaring for their heroes to create history for them and then throw them in a green, leafy box, you'll start to comprehend what Nicklaus meant.

Big crowd noises are nothing new to those who attend elite sport. But I can assure you that I've never been to a stadium in which you can shut your eyes and still effectively keep tabs on events 1km away.

It’s just another unique feature of a truly remarkable venue.