Matt Bradshaw coaches basketball and golf at Watertown High School and works part time in the pro shop at Windtree Golf Course.
If those are his two favorite sports, this is his favorite time of year. March Madness has just ended basketball season and the Masters are bringing golf to the forefront this weekend.
A tradition unlike any other, as the CBS promo says every year, the Masters are the gateway from winter to spring, with the colors of the season popping up in spectacular fashion at Augusta National Golf Club.
“It’s the most recognizable course in the world,” said Lebanon Golf & Country Club pro Audie Johnson. “You’ll have people who aren’t golf fans but who know about the Masters. It’s the only major that plays the same course every year. It’s got some history because of that.
“It’s the first major of the year and it so happens everybody is getting their golf clubs out of the closet. It’s the time when the most people are interested in golf. Our membership usually grows faster this time of year than any other.”
Johnson said he’s been to Augusta National about 10 times over the decade, often taking LGCC members. Bradshaw has also been – once.
“I was fortunate enough, me and my dad, to go down to Augusta three years ago,” Bradshaw said. “It’s hard to believe in this day and age, television does not do the place justice. It’s beautiful. It’s an unbelievable piece of God’s handiwork in the middle of Georgia.
“I’ve had the chance to go to major championships in the PGA and played a PGA course [at Valhalla, where the PGA Championship has made several stops in Louisville, Ky.], but none of them hold a candle to Augusta. Everybody needs to go and appreciate it one time. The members are very hospitable. It’s definitely anti-whatever you would think of a country club to be.
“I love the four major championships [Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship]. Each one is fascinating for different reasons. But the Masters, the weather warms up, the flowers bloom, the grass gets greener.”
Neither men have played the famed Bobby Jones-designed course, though Johnson has taken LGCC members to play another course in town. He says the best time to go to Augusta National during Masters week is during the practice rounds early in the week.
“That’s the best time to go if you want to get close to the pros, get pictures, autographs,” Johnson said. “It’s a free time when you can take your camera around and take a bunch of pictures.
“That all changes when the tournament opens on Thursday. It’s much more serious then. If fans want to stand or sit in a particular spot, they have to get there early in the morning,” Johnson said.
“On Thursdays nobody talks, nobody takes any pictures,” Johnson said. “Some people go there and sit down [on a coveted spot] all day.
“For a spectator, the practice rounds are really the best time to go.”
Golf appeals to people in different ways. It’s a social sport. Businessmen “work” while getting in 18 holes, hatching deals. It’s a way to make friends. It’s family time.
“Golf is something I was able to do with my dad growing up,” Bradshaw said. “He was good about taking me to play golf with his work buddies.
“I’m 37 now and it’s something we still get to do – father and son. It’s something I’ve passed on to my three boys and daughter. It’s something we get to go do together. You don’t get to do that in a lot of sports.”
“It’s a sport that not everyone can play,” said Caroline Hendrick, a Lebanon High sophomore who plays on the Lady Devil team. “I’ve met a lot of friends through golf I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s a great game, especially once you learn to play it.
“You can play it all your life and teach your kids the sport.”
It’s a unique game in that, unlike almost every other sport, there are no officials [except at the big-time pro events]. Players, who may try to get away with stuff out of sight of referees in other sports [and if successful, more power to them], police themselves. Honesty is a hallmark of the game. Many years ago, the late Lebanon High coach Randy Vanatta was emotional when he recounted a self-reported scorecard violation by one of his players at the district tournament, costing the Blue Devils a championship.
It was a bitter defeat, but Vanatta didn’t consider it unfair.
“It’s rules,” he said back then. “That’s what makes the game great.”
“It’s a trustworthy, honest sport,” Johnson said. “It’s up to me to call the penalty.”
The rules of Augusta National prohibit, with the exception of the pros during the Masters, anyone other than members and their guests from playing there. Blacks were excluded from club membership until 1990 [though a few African-American pros played the tournament previously] and women weren’t admitted until last year when two [including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice] accepted invitations.
That means women rarely get to play the course. That doesn’t mean they can’t dream.
“It’s definitely a dream,” Hendrick said. “I don’t know if I’ll get there.
“Hopefully, they’ll be able to have women play in the Masters. I’ll be excited for those women when they do play in the Masters.”
Of course, while men and women may play together informally and in local tournaments, at the highest ranks of the game men play on the PGA Tour and women on the LPGA. Could there be a women’s version of the Masters at Augusta?
“Women don’t get as much credit as men for some reason,” Hendrick said. “It would be nice if the women had a Masters tournament for them.”
Johnson and Bradshaw said that despite changes in recent years, they won’t hold their breath in anticipation of women playing the course regularly, in the Masters or the creation of a companion event of the one held since 1934.
“I don’t believe that will ever happen,” Johnson said. “I don’t believe there will ever be a ladies’ tournament at Augusta.
“They’re not open year around. They’re the most exclusive club in the world. Most of the money comes from the Masters. They have all the members they want. They probably have a 30-year waiting list.
“They don’t need any more exposure. They don’t need any other event. They’re always trying new things, but not for growth. There’s room for only so many.”
Bradshaw answered with a rhetorical question.
“At Augusta National? Not in my lifetime,” he said. “They’ve been so slow to react to what the public considers political correctness.
“I don’t think they care what the public’s political correctness on this is. I think they’re happy with their one tournament. They’re very much into conserving their history and conserving their identity of what the tournament is.”
Which is, a tradition unlike any other.