As April has come in with a growl in New York and the Northeast, with winter-weather-like conditions, who can utter the word "spring"? Not even the start of baseball season puts you in the mood. The official start to spring every year for me begins the first Monday of every April and takes place in a setting much like one in a fairy tale: Augusta National, home of The Masters.
Waking up in Augusta on Monday morning and entering the gates off of famed Magnolia Lane (the long row of magnolias were planted before the Civil War) is like stepping into a dream world where order and beauty seem to dominate. Greeting official visitors at the end of Magnolia Lane is 'Founders Circle,' where a flowerbed sits in the shape of the Masters logo -- the continental United States -- which is filled with yellow flowers and has a flag stick planted in the location of Augusta, Georgia. Players get dropped off in this area with easy access to the clubhouse, which was originally constructed in 1854 by Dennis Redmond, who owned the land when it was an indigo plantation. It is the first cement house constructed in the south.
The beauty of the property comes from hundreds of varieties of plants and trees that were imported from all over the world when the property was Fruitland Nurseries in the mid 1850's. Thanks to members of the Berckman family, several of whom were horticulturalists, the property is abundant with azaleas, dogwoods, magnolias and more than 80,000 plants which have been added through the years. The names of the holes themselves (for example, #2 is pink dogwood; #3, flowering peach; #6 juniper; #8 yellow jasmine; 16 is called Redbud; #18 - Holly), describe the plants or trees that adorns each hole. To view gorgeous photographs of the course, go to www.masters.org.
Even the check-in process for media and patrons (ticket holders), as mega sporting events go, is beautiful and orderly. A new expanded check-in area was built several years ago where all who enter go through a metal detector and where security guards search bags. With the expanded stalls, this process moves quickly and the guards remain courteous and pleasant.
Everything about Augusta National and the way they host The Masters combine both old-fashion, southern hospitality and charm with modern conveniences and the use of the latest in technology, including the Press Building which is state-of-the-art and every year, they find ways to improve it.
For the first time The Masters and Augusta National are featured in a video game, released by EA Sports and featuring Tiger Woods. "Our sincere motivation is to draw an even greater audience to this wonderful sport," says Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne, "and continue to inspire its growth by building off the success seen in previous versions of the Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise."
Okay, now that you can perhaps feel and smell the beauty of the place, let's talk about the competition. Here are my top picks to win the 2011 Masters:
Graeme McDowell: this Irish hunk shows he can win under pressure. The defending US Open champ and the star of the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales will be primed for a Green Jacket, possessing all the talent, skill, shot-making and the mental strength required;
Matt Kuchar: with the consistency and fine play the last year's top money earner has exhibited all year, posting five, top ten finishes in 2011, I have visions of Kuchar wearing the Green Jacket with his perpetual smile, shining brightly.
Bubba Watson: this is a selfish pick because I had the honor of playing with Bubba Watson in this year's second round of the Bob Hope Classic and enjoyed every second of it. This long-bombing leftie can dazzle with fine-tuned approach shots and a hot putter. Bubba is ready to win his first Major victory!
Martin Kaymer: don't be fooled by the fact that the current top-ranked golfer in the world and defending PGA Champion has yet to make the cut in three previous Masters. Although his dominant ball flight is a 'fade,' Kaymer says he has been working on his 'draw' off the tee and now that he can hit the right-to-left shot off the tee, (which sets him up better for holes 2, 5, 9, 10, 13 and 14), look for Kaymer to surprise even himself at Augusta National.
Justin Rose: Rose is third on the PGA Tour list of 'greens hit in regulation,' a drastic improvement from the year before. In 2007, Rose led after the first and second rounds and will draw on those memories and a sharper middle iron game to impress. And he does not have to deal with the same pressure his fellow English buddy, Lee Westwood, has to deal with, regarding being the most talented player yet to win a Major.
Lee Westwood: The Englishman certainly has the game, but can this Masters be the one? Lee would look quite distinguishable in the Green Jacket. And wouldn't that lift a HUGE load off his back?
Be sure to listen to Ann's live reports from The Masters on WFAN 660 AM, starting Thursday, April 7, at 10am.