It’s the dawn of a new baseball season, so of course I’m thinking about golf. Notwithstanding the fact that the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners played a couple of real games in Tokyo, baseball’s Opening Day is upon us. Since the conclusion of the World Series last October, anticipation has been building for the new season. Come March 28, all the teams will be in action. That’s the earliest starting date ever, but it’s a true Opening Day.
I challenge you to find an equivalent in golf. When does golf season begin? In many parts of the country, it never ends. Even in places where courses shut down for half the year, many who play the game avidly choose to flee to warmer climes to indulge their passion as full-blown snowbirds or as temporary escape artists who sneak off for golf blowout getaways.
In baseball, nothing builds excitement for Opening Day like the offseason. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? That premise works in a host of other sports as well. Having a distinct season and off-season creates regular rhythms and rituals as well as a cooling-off period when the season ends. The slate can be cleaned. Then, when the new season rolls around, everyone is recharged and re-energized to start up again.
But what if, like baseball, we take our cues for opening day from the professional game? Trying to identify golf’s opening day by looking to the PGA Tour or your favorite player’s schedule (since golf is an individual, rather than a team game) brings on total confusion. Only a devoted fan of the sport would know or even truly feel that the 2019 season officially began on October 4, 2018, the start of the tournaments that count for the season-long FedEx Cup. Otherwise, you could sensibly argue that the season begins at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua on Maui, when the winners of “last year's” tournaments kick off competition for the first time in the New Year. Since many of the best pros skip the events in Hawaii, the case can be made that the season really starts with the Desert Classic (long known as the Bob Hope Desert Classic). Eventually, almost all the pros come out for a tournament somewhere in California or Arizona, but with winter in full thrust and football dominating the airwaves, I’d argue it doesn’t feel like the golf season starts until the Superbowl is over and the tour moves east for the “Florida Swing.” (It’s worth noting that the revised PGA Tour schedule has been compressed largely to avoid competition with football in the fall.)
Alas, for those of us who live in the northern half of the country, Florida conditions are still very much a flight of fancy or an honest-to-goodness TSA flight away. Chances are some snow may still be on the ground when the Honda Classic or The Players are televised. Which brings us to what many people consider the true Opening Day of the golf season: The Masters.
What’s great about The Masters is it transcends the insular golf world. Even non-golf fans are aware of The Masters, and no matter where you live in the country, you can sense that when it’s “Springtime in Augusta,” springtime is already at hand or just around the corner. Non-fans probably even recognize those distinctive notes from the song that has become known as “Augusta” and is always accompanied by sun-dappled images of Rae’s Creek and the pristine, glistening green Augusta National playing field.
When I think of Opening Day in baseball, I think of traditions. Baseball may be beleaguered by the slow pace of its games, yet on Opening Day its image is affirming and joyous. That’s what Opening Day is for most sports, but it’s true for baseball above all others. It’s a day of exuberance all across the country. “Wait ‘til next year” has finally arrived, and hope springs eternal as civic pride is in full bloom. How many renditions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” will people sing to themselves? Will the president throw out the first ball, as tradition decrees? And perhaps most indelibly, there’s the image of baseball connecting with young kids. Yes, the little kid comes out in all of us, as eager fans pound a fist into their mitt while skipping hurriedly to keep up with the procession filing into ballparks all over the country. When I was growing up, a friend who lived in New York always got to go to the Yankees' home opener with his father. I thought he was the luckiest kid on the face of the earth. It was so special a day he didn’t have to go to school.
Baseball is not alone in its Opening Day celebrations. The NFL has turned its season opener into a true Kickoff Party, complete with televised musical performances. In college basketball, countless schools have adopted “Midnight Madness” celebrations that bring out fans for the first practice of the year and whip them into a frenzied state for the new hoops season.
Going back to the Masters, the traditional opening of the tournament occurs when the Honorary Starters hit their ceremonial tee shots. It’s a touching moment, but bittersweet when we consider how old Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are. On top of that, it’s The Masters, so any celebratory spirit is rather restrained (the TV presentation is predictable and announcers steer away from saying much of anything controversial). Moreover, though The Masters is golf’s most-watched tournament, unlike baseball or other sports where anyone can get a ticket for opening day, admission to the grounds at Augusta National is so rarefied that unless you are well connected, you literally have to win the lottery to get in to see the tournament in person.
Of course, maybe these comparisons aren’t fair. Maybe you live and play somewhere where there really is an opening day to the golf season that you look forward to. If your course closes for part of the year, it must reopen. Is there much hoopla when it does? Does your club do anything special for Opening Day? If you are in a league, do you get the butterflies and chomp at the bit to go out and play on opening day?
My brother-in-law just got his letter for the golf league he’s been in for the last 20+ years. It runs from the first week of May until the end of August. In the “Schedule of Weekly Events,” the first entry is simply “warm up and get acquainted round.”
The letter arrived in his mailbox as it always has. As pieces of mail go, this is one he eagerly anticipated. But he’s a devoted golf nut. What about the casual fan or the infrequent player? While baseball has Opening Day to call wider attention to the sport, provide a fresh start and bring new fans to the game, is golf missing out by not having its own, overarching Opening Day? Does professional golf’s murky season and constant parade of tournaments all year round somehow diminish enthusiasm for the game? Would you (or do you) play better and enjoy the game more when you have some time away from it? Would the game be better off if, after having a break, everyone could respond to a call on a true Opening Day to “Play Golf!”?