April 10, 2014

The Masters: Author pins 1975’s hold on Augusta

HEADING INTO this week’s Masters, the big story was the absence – for the first time in his professional career, due to back surgery – of Tiger Woods, he who moves the needle on TV viewership for the PGA Tour.

HEADING INTO this week’s Masters, the big story was the absence – for the first time in his professional career, due to back surgery – of Tiger Woods, he who moves the needle on TV viewership for the PGA Tour.

Opinions on the impact broke down into two groups: those who cite a 50 percent drop in the numbers when Woods misses a regular tournament, and those who counter with, “But this is the Masters.”

Count Gil Capps among the latter.

“I think the Masters holds its own, ratings-wise. I don’t recall a falloff (in viewership) when Tiger wasn’t in contention. … Now, if Tiger is in contention down the stretch of a major, it has a benefit, but it’s more the whipped cream and cherry on top.”

Capps’ opinion here carries more weight than most. First, as associate producer for NBC’s golf coverage and as managing editor at Golf Channel, the Hickory, N.C., native and one-time owner of a Charlotte golf newspaper has worked every Masters since 2003, for USA Network and “moonlighting” for CBS prior to his NBC/GC gig. He has also managed coverage of 19 U.S. Opens, with No. 20 in June at Pinehurst No. 2 in his home state.

Second, having researched and written his new book, “The Magnificent Masters: Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and the 1975 Cliffhanger at Augusta,” Capps brings more historical perspective than those who believe the Masters began with Woods’ win in 1997, changing the game’s face forever.

Capps doesn’t disagree with that last part – he ranks the ’97 Masters as the greatest, followed by 2001 (completion of the “Tiger Slam”) and 1975 – but he knows there was fascination with Augusta National before Woods and will be when he hangs it up.

“People have always tuned into the majors, and always will,” Capps said. “That goes back to Jack, who I believe created the idea of the majors as the most important events of any year.”

That was especially so in 1975. Nicklaus (for those born after 1986) was the game’s kingpin, its dominant figure by a healthy stretch. But entering that year’s Masters, the Golden Bear had not won a major since the PGA in 1973, the same year Miller won the U.S. Open with a then-record final round of 63 and Weiskopf captured the British Open.

They were golf’s Golden Trio, and while Nicklaus was No. 1, Miller and Weiskopf were younger and coming on strong.

“Jack thought of them as his biggest threats,” Capps said.

His book offers well-researched profiles of all three then and now (especially Weiskopf), but the heart of “Magnificent Masters” is 1975’s legendary final round, Nicklaus outlasting the others in a Sunday shootout for the ages.

“That was the day the Masters captured the public imagination,” Capps said, “the day it finally edged past the U.S. Open. No doubt, from then on, it was the greatest tournament in golf.”

And Nicklaus was the unchallenged greatest player – until Woods came along.

The two men’s styles of dominance differed greatly. Where Nicklaus often played conservatively, “hung around” and “let others fall around him,” Woods always was the aggressor, winning each of his 14 majors from in front or, at worst, tied for the lead.

“If he was up by seven, he’d try to win by 10,” Capps said. “Jack did what he needed to do (to) win by a couple (of shots).”

Capps suggests the Tiger Era, while dominating, has lacked the challengers that made 1975 special.

“What if you had one Masters in the early 2000s, with Tiger and Phil (Mickelson) and Ernie (Els) going neck-and-neck?” he said. “That would equate to the 1975 trio, where they were all there at the end.

“That’d probably be considered the greatest Masters ever … but Tiger never had this with the others.”

Now, Woods sidelined this week and, at 38, dealing with baggage physical and mental, we might be at the beginning of the end of the Tiger Era.

“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Capps said. If so, is Nicklaus still the GOAT (greatest of all time)? We might never know.

“In 1975, Jack was (already) the greatest; all the numbers, career goals had already been reached,” Capps said. “Tiger is in a different spot; the last few years, and majors, he seems to almost be trying too hard. Catching Jack has become almost too important.”

During Capps’ research, Nicklaus told him, “If there had been someone out there with 20 or 21 majors, I’d have probably gotten there.” Certainly, like Woods now, he would’ve tried – and, perhaps, stumbled over some of the landmines that plague the current No. 1.

Different times; different men. Capps points out the enormity of Woods’ quest – “for him to get five more majors, he has to match how many Mickelson has won in a career,” he said – and can’t resist one more mention of 1975.

“There’s definitely one guy who wishes Johnny or Tom had won (the Masters) in 1975,” Capps said. “One less than 18 (majors) would be a better number for Tiger to be looking at.”

Perhaps Woods instead can spend his upcoming recuperation reading Capps’ book, getting a different perspective on his career – and his target’s.

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