At Augusta, history is the 15th club

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Masters Tournament presents a big stage for the best golfers in the world. There will be big drives, big roars, big putts and big leaps; unless, of course, Phil Mickelson repeats as champion. Air Lefty barely got off the ground when he made the 18-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole to overtake Ernie Els a year ago.

"I think what's amazing is that out of all those photographers that were there, none of them seemed to catch me at the apex," Mickelson said in a television interview for "Fantastic Finishes," a documentary that will air on CBS this weekend. "So it was a much higher jump than I've been given credit for."

Whatever you say, Phil. Just the fact that his leap has already made an indelible mark says volumes about the allure of The Masters. Whatever happens over the next four days on the rolling hills of the former Fruitland Nurseries, the golf world will remember it.

There are several reasons why The Masters grabs such a hold. You can have the vernal equinox. For a large part of the Northern Hemisphere, spring begins Thursday morning, when the first group tees off. (Play has been delayed at least two hours by rain and lightning.)

The Masters also has the longest lead time of any major. The anticipation has been building since Vijay Singh won the PGA at Whistling Straits nearly eight months ago.
Most important, The Masters is the only major held on the same course every year. The memory of the players is long.

"I can remember all of the bad shots I hit," Padraig Harrington, the Irish dark horse, said Tuesday. "It's amazing, and I can remember all the bad shots everybody else has hit here. That's one thing about Augusta. You carry the baggage of all the other players out there. ... Who can forget Seve's [Ballesteros] 4-iron in the water on 15 (in 1986), standing there with a 4-iron on Sunday off the downslope? What's the first thought that's going to come into your mind?"

Ballesteros' 4-iron in the water opened the door for Jack Nicklaus to win his sixth Masters.

As Shaun Micheel began to explain why he wanted to lay up at the par-5 15th during his practice round Tuesday, he said, "I hit 3-wood. That goes back to what Chip Beck did [in 1993]."

Beck, trailing leader Bernhard Langer, chose not to go for the green in two. He laid up and never lived it down. Langer won by four strokes.

There are so many moments ardent Masters fans know like they know their home course.

Nicklaus' birdie bomb at the 16th on Sunday in 1975, with caddie Willie Peterson blocking the view of the camera as he celebrated.

Nicklaus again, putter upraised, as the birdie putt at 17 turns toward the hole on that Miracle Sunday of 1986.

Ben Crenshaw, bent over with emotional exhaustion, after he putted out for his victory in 1995 only days after his mentor, legendary Harvey Penick, died in Austin.

History is the 15th club in every bag this week. The fans love to follow the former champions, who have a lifetime exemption. Take the two older gentlemen, drivers in hand, chatting as they walked down the 15th fairway Tuesday afternoon. Tom Watson, 55, walked stiffly, the driver swaying in his hand, while Nicklaus, 65, touched the ground with his driver head as he walked.

They looked like nothing more than two businessmen racing the sun to finish a quick nine, except for the healthy-sized crowd that awaited them at the crosswalk, cameras in hand and cheering aplenty.

Local knowledge runs neck-and-neck with local custom, which can veer suspiciously close to fun.

"As uppity as a lot of people think this place is," Micheel said, "it's nothing like that. They want you to have a good time. They want the fans to have a good time."

During practice rounds, the gallery at the par-3 16th demands that the players attempt to skip a ball off the lake and onto the green. The players gleefully oblige, or at least try.

On Wednesday came the annual Par-3 Contest played on the nine-hole, par-27 Augusta National built in 1958. The Par-3 is known chiefly because since its inception in 1960, no player has ever won it and The Masters in the same year.

The Par-3 has its own entertaining quirks. In the past, players have teed off simultaneously. Family members often serve as caddies, including, on Wednesday, 5-year-old Chase Hensby, son of Mark, and 4-year-old Sean Maruyama, son of Shigeki.

Mark Hensby used a junior bag, bringing six clubs and a putter.

"This is fun," Hensby said -- and here's something rarely written -- as he held his caddie in his arms after the round. "It's a great thing to do. It gets you in a relaxed mode for tomorrow."

There's a custom that the caddies attempt putts on the ninth green. Before Chris Riley's father, Mike, stood over his son's 18-foot birdie putt Wednesday, Ryan Palmer took the flagstick and placed it on the ground behind the green as a backstop.

Palmer got his laugh, and after he picked it up, Mike Riley stroked the putt into the center of the cup.

"I hit no more golf balls in my life," Mike Riley said afterward. And how long will that putt be in six months?

"Forty-seven feet, from the back fringe," Riley said with a straight face.

Another tradition that appears as if it will continue this year is unwelcome. As of Wednesday afternoon, there's an 80 percent chance of rain. If play is suspended, it would make the seventh year in the last eight that bad weather has interrupted play.

If a lot of rain falls -- and the forecast says an inch is possible -- this will be the third consecutive year the substantive changes Augusta National made to this course in 2002 will not exact their complete toll on the field.

That would be fun to see, but as The Masters proved a year ago, even a soggy Augusta National can provide a memorable finish.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com.