A lot of sports fans would tell you spring begins with baseball’s Opening Day. In some cities, that might be accurate.
Others might point to March Madness. The calendar tells us this is the most accurate seasonal measuring stick, at least for the transition from winter to spring.
For me, spring doesn’t start until the Masters.
I’m not much of a golfer, but there’s just something about that early-April major in Augusta, Ga.
Maybe it’s the soothing music that CBS uses. Maybe it’s the deep green and those perfectly manicured fairways. Maybe it’s the reverent hush of the crowd before every big putt.
It could be any of those things or many, many others. So forgive me for writing about the Masters — but it’s a special event in sports.
Even if you’re not a fan of golf, or the Masters in particular, yesterday’s final round could have been epic.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were paired on the final day of a major for the first time since they walked the fairways at Augusta National together in 2001.
Woods is the greatest golfer of our time — as almost everyone knows — and has a chance to be the greatest ever. Mickelson is the man who should be Woods’s toughest competitor, though their rivalry has never fully blossomed.
So for a few hours yesterday, we could have seen a rare sight in modern sports: one-on-one competition between the best in the world and a “great duel” according to the CBS announcers.
It didn’t pan out that way.
The best moment came on their second shots on the par-5 15th hole. Tiger’s shot gave him a great chance at eagle. Phil’s chance came just moments later and he stuck his ball between Tiger’s and the pin, as if to say, “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
Then they both missed their eagle putts.
The final round at Augusta was as exciting as ever, but not because of the Woods-Mickelson pairing. They both played well, but not well enough to take over the event.
It just showed us how desperately the sport — and all sports, in general — needs a fierce individual rivalry.
This era has no Ali-Frazier or Magic-Bird.
We’ve had Woods vs. all, (at times Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and others). We’ve had Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. We’ve had Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal.
But all of those rivalries are missing one key element: unpredictability. For a rivalry to be great, both competitors need to have a shot at winning on any given day.
With Tiger and his train of rivals, the advantage always goes to Woods — yesterday’s result being a rare exception, of course.
With Brady and Manning, one is up and the other is down. Rarely do their teams meet as powerhouses. Plus, it’s hard for an individual rivalry to play out in a sport like football. There is too much going on and too many moving parts.
Federer dominated Nadal for years, except on the clay courts of the French Open. Their rivalry may have peaked during last summer’s five-set epic in the Wimbledon final. But Nadal’s recent dominance suggests that match in England was just the point where their two paths crossed, rather than merging.
For someone who has never seen a great one-on-one rivalry firsthand, those lackluster pairings and yesterday’s scene at Augusta are disappointing. There’s something special about greatness matching greatness. It’s hard to embrace an individual sport where the best in the game is unrivaled.
For sports like golf and tennis to regain their popularity in this country, there needs to be a new generation of one-on-one rivals. The same could be said for the NBA, which is still looking for the next Magic vs. Bird. Boxing is made for true rivalries, but the sport isn’t honest enough to produce them anymore.
Young sports fans in America probably don’t realize how much they’re missing by not having great individual rivalries to follow. Those were gone before we started spending our weekend afternoons in front of the TV.
If an individual rivalry does blossom again soon, I just hope our generation will be able to appreciate it.
— Sandals can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.