A Tuesday Unlike Any Other
Our intrepid reporter braved six hours of press conferences at the Masters as a parade of stars waxed and weaved
By Alan Shipnuck
AUGUSTA, Ga.—Forget the back nine on Sunday, the Masters really begins in the press building on Tuesday morning, when a procession of the game’s biggest stars take their turns pontificating, prognosticating and chewing the fat with the global golf press. Nine months removed from the most recent major championship, Masters Tuesday serves as professional golf’s unofficial state of the union. The green jackets subtly made their feelings known, excluding any LIV golfers from the slate of nine interviews. (Champion Golfer of the Year Cam Smith was one of three pros to journey into the media center on Monday.) Rory McIlroy was the first man in the arena, at 9:30 a.m. sharp. Leading off with the game’s preeminent spokesman represented cagey scheduling, guaranteeing a packed house even though the assembled scribes were bleary-eyed from late nights and bloated on press room breakfasts. (The vanilla pancakes are particularly scrumptious.)
McIlroy addressed the elephant in the room, saying, “I think the more face time you get with [LIV golfers], the more comfortable you become in some way. I’m going to go play nine holes here with Brooks [Koepka] in a little bit. And look, it’s a very nuanced situation and there’s different dynamics. You know, it’s OK to get on with Brooks and DJ [Dustin Johnson] and maybe not get on with some other guys that went to LIV, right? It’s interpersonal relationships, that’s just how it goes.”
The big revelation of this session was how extremely on-line McIlroy is, despite previous pledges to spend more time in the analog world. He referenced a buzzy Golf Digest article about Augusta National’s expansion plans, name-checking the author, Joel Beall. McIlroy made a joke about Gary Player’s recent ranking of the Masters as his least favorite major championship, and he called by name even the most obscure typists, which can be construed as courtesy or high-level brown-nosing, depending on your bent.
Jon Rahm arrived hard on McIlroy’s heels; the press conferences were scheduled rat-a-tat every 30 minutes…with the exception of a long lull after Tiger Woods’s, allowing reporters to file their semi-mandatory Eldrick stories (and cram in lunch in the media center’s sit-down restaurant; the grilled caprese sandwich with pesto and balsamic vinegar pairs nicely with the Southern fried chicken). Per the prevailing custom, Rahm did not wear a hat, a nod to Augusta National’s strictly enforced gentility. Hat-head is always a thing on Masters Tuesday, and Rahm’s was particularly unfortunate. “I keep my hat on as often as I can,” said Justin Thomas, a nod to both the logo that helps butter his bread and his rapidly expanding forehead, “but I respect the rules if places want me to take it off. I have no problem with it.” In regards to Rahm, one Twitter wag referred to his ghostly white forehead as evoking Uncle Fester from The Addams Family.
Anyway, Rahm was particularly charming talking about himself being a “golf junkie,” saying, “I’m up at 5:30, 6:00 in the morning looking at reruns of tournaments on YouTube. I love the game, and I love learning about it. When we were in the last Ryder Cup, I was talking to Shane [Lowry], and Rory kind of stopped me and he said, ‘By the way, he’s going to do this with the 15 next shots from your career that you can’t remember.’ So yeah, I just love it.”
Rahm also addressed a manufactured talking point that a few reporters were pushing a little too hard: that he, McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler constitute a neo-Big Three. (This Tour-centric view conveniently ignores Smith.) “We have a very long way to go,” Rahm said, sensibly. “It could be the start. But still a long way to go.” He did allow that the fine play of the others is a motivator: “I was there on Sunday with Scottie when he won in Phoenix. You never like that feeling. So when I went to L.A., I definitely fed off that in that Sunday round.”
Masters rookie Tom Kim was up next. He radiated ebullience, which makes sense given that the day before he had played a practice round with the Hall of Fame trio of Woods, McIlroy and Fred Couples. “I did not put the group together,” he said. “That’s impossible, probably, for me.” He admitted that, internally, he feels much older than 20, alluding to “Clooney years,” presumably a reference to the silver-haired actor. Easy, grasshopper.
When Woods strolled in, the temperature in a big, soulless room went up. He remains both a superstar and an enigma, and the Masters will always define his legend, including his unlikely made-cut last year returning to the course after a horrific car accident nearly led to the amputation of his right leg. After a lifetime of grinding, Woods spoke movingly of his newly enlarged perspective. “The joy is different now,” he said. “I’ve been able to spend more time with my son, and we’ve been able to create our own memories out there. And to share some of the things that I experienced with my dad, the late-night putting or practice sessions that we did at the Navy Golf Course, I’m doing with my son. It’s incredible, the bonding and the moments that come because of this sport.”
The Masters announced earlier in the week that its tees are mowed to 5/16”, fairways 3/8” and collars 1/4”. A hatless Woods appeared to have all of these different heights in the sparse rough atop his head. Father Time remains undefeated, and Woods, playing in his 25th Masters, sounded uncharacteristically reflective, saying, “I don’t know how many more [Masters] I have in me. So just [want] to appreciate the time that I have here and cherish the memories.” He did have one note of optimism for those who fear he can no longer contend with so few tournament reps. “I know the golf course,” said the five-time Masters champ. “So I’ve been able to recreate a lot of the chip shots at home in my backyard or I’m at Medalist hitting balls off sidehill lies, trying to simulate shots and rehearsing again and again each and every flag location, each and every shot I would possibly hit. I’ve gone through so many different scenarios in my head. You know I don’t sleep very well, so going through it and rummaging through the data bank and how to hit shots from each and every place and rehearsing it; that’s the only way that I can compete here. I don’t have the physical tournaments under my belt. I haven’t played that much, no. But if there’s any one golf course that I can come back on, it’s here, just because I know the golf course.”
Woods is a tough act to follow: Thomas had the lightest crowd of the day to that point—blame the lunch hour—but he offered the most insightful answers. One of the cute traditions at the Master is that each player is paired with a different green jacket to preside over his press conference. Like certain penguins, it is a relationship that lasts a lifetime, increasing the player’s comfort level. Thomas’s guy started things off with a stat: Over the last three Masters, JT has tied for the most eagles/birdies (57). Thomas was genuinely surprised to hear it and blurted, “Sounds like I need to make a lot less bogeys and doubles from that stat you just gave me.” Given all of his firepower, what has kept him from claiming a green jacket? “If I had to put a finger on it, in the past I would say there are times I’m between clubs or it’s a longer hole or maybe it’s a hole like 7 where I get it out of the position off the tee and I’m just making it a little too hard on myself to make pars,” said Thomas, who finished fourth in 2020 and tied for eighth last year. “Maybe I’m trying to force the issue and squeeze a 4-, 5-, 6-iron in there, if I’m in between clubs, challenging a pin, I don’t need to. I’m glad I heard that [stat]. Hopefully that will help me for the week.”
Thomas, who recently fell out of the top 10 in the World Ranking, talked about his ongoing mental battle. “I know I personally can definitely want something too much,” he said. “I’ve wanted to win this tournament too much in the past. I’ve wanted to be No. 1 in the world too badly. I’ve wanted to win golf tournaments too badly. It’s a fine line. It’s a learning experience and a learning process. I think I’m starting to learn a little bit more. But you know, there’s a lot of good that can come out of some negative experiences if you choose to look at it that way. I feel like in the past, especially in this tournament, I’ve come in here so tense and like, Oh, I’m geared up and I’m ready to go, I’m going to tear this place up. And as soon as one thing goes wrong, it’s just, I mean, my mind is in a blender.”
Matt Fitzpatrick was the next player up, at 2 p.m. A certain fatigue had set in, and with no food or drink allowed in the press room, I sprinted up the stairs and slammed a sweet tea to get a sugar and caffeine buzz going. Only 11 of my colleagues turned out, leaving the vast, chilly room feeling a little like a morgue. But Fitzpatrick was chipper; this was the first time the reigning U.S. Open champ had been selected for Super Tuesday and the elevated status clearly meant something to him. For those thinking his poor early season was the result of an Open hangover, Fitzpatrick went into great detail on the bulging disk in his neck that has dogged him since the end of January. He’s recovered now but still slightly discouraged: “So it’s kind of we’re back to the bottom again and just slowly trying to build it back up. So slowly getting there, but you know, it’s just going to take time.” Fitzpatrick was asked who in his circle had lent him emotional support—perhaps his crusty caddie Billy Foster? “Definitely not Billy because Billy was like, ‘Oh, just get on with it,’” Fitzpatrick said, breaking up the room.
By now my butt was sore, my fingers tired, my bladder distended, but I soldiered on. Like Masters Sunday, Super Tuesday demands the grit of a champion. Max Homa bopped in, perhaps a little too perky. “I mean, this is cool,” he said. “I get to tell all my friends I get to do this.” Aim higher, Max. In fact, he is: The fifth-ranked player in the world has never finished better than 13th in a major championship, but a vastly improved short game has Homa thinking he can contend this week…though he’s trying not to put too much pressure on himself. “Expectations is something I work on all the time, as far as diminishing it, and this is a great opportunity to continue that,” Homa said. “I truly believe that if I don’t play well this week, it does not mean I’m not a great golfer, and I’ve been telling myself that pretty much every week. So as much as I know that this is not just any other event, I also have been practicing, essentially mentally, treating each event the same. And I’ve had good success, so I don’t see why that would not continue to happen. It’s a work in progress. But also, I’m starting to learn that everyone is a work in progress, so that’s been kind of nice. You play this game, you think you’re the only one going through little things, and it’s not the case. Everyone has their own battles going on in their head. Confidence is awesome when you have it; when you don’t, it feels like it’s impossible to get back.”
Defending champion Scottie Scheffler bounded into the room like a goofy golden retriever. I don’t remember much of what he said, as I had started watching cat videos on my laptop. Scheffler did confirm that he is still driving the most celebrated hoopty in golf, a 2012 Yukon with 190,000 miles on it. Scheffler has built on his Masters breakthrough with a handful of other wins and a few visits to the summit of the World Ranking, but he remains the most down-to-earth of superstars. Of being the current No. 1, he said, “I wouldn’t say it gives me any sort of special confidence. I mean, it’s a math algorithm. So for me to sit here and tell you guys I’m the best player in the world I think is not really my style.” His only flex was letting slip that two days earlier he took his sister out to play at Augusta National even though she hadn’t touched a club in a year and a half.
At last, the final press conference of the day. In a sadistic twist, the lords of Augusta scheduled Patrick Cantlay, whose anodyne, monotone, life-sucking, content-free interviews have led many reporters to consider a more exciting profession, like proctology. Only seven brave souls turned out for Cantlay, who on six occasions answered questions with “I’m not sure.” For good measure, he also threw in an “I don’t think much about it.” At 3:47 p.m. the press conference mercifully ended, with the moderator’s closing words: “Thank you for your time, Patrick.”
Patrick?! He’s not the one who sat through more than six hours of press conferences! Honestly, it was pretty fun. Come Sunday, there will be only one champion, but everyone feels like a winner on Masters Tuesday. In the words of Homa, “Yeah, it’s definitely a different world when you get to see your name on a press sheet at Augusta National.”
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.