Welcome to Walt’s World
In 1940, Walt Disney released a deranged masterpiece called Fantasia. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony becomes an Arcadia landscape of pastel colours full of cute fawns, majestic winged horses with sweet little winged foals – and also pretty girls with bare breasts. These then step out of their bathing pool and, in a great cinematic coup, reveal themselves as centaurs. Or perhaps centaurettes.
It has always seemed to me that the course at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, where the year’s first major, the Masters, begins on Thursday, is the nearest we’ll ever get to seeing Disney’s lunatic land for real. As the golfers walk through the pastel blooms, you almost expect to see the centaurettes emerging from Ike’s Pond and coyly shaking themselves dry.
Every hole is named for a flower: Flowering Peach, Magnolia, Carolina Cherry… I don’t know if any actual fruit has ever been plucked from those trees. The dogwoods and azaleas come in an eye-blinkingly improbable range of colours: a Disneyfication of nature that seems to have taken its inspiration from the Andrex aisle at the supermarket. Even the grass is an impossible shade of green. The place is a combination of heaven and an airport lounge: nothing like a real place, and with the faint threat that you’ll be there for a long time.
Everything comes in marinated tradition… though you have to understand that in the US, “traditional” means that it started before the Second World War: The Masters has been going at Augusta for 83 years and we’re supposed to bow down and worship the place for its antiquity: the Boat Race, which took place last Sunday, was first rowed in 1829.
The idea of the Masters is that it’s not special, it’s unique. Augusta sees itself as a platonic ideal of a golf club: all the rest are pale shadows. Everything is green here – even your sandwich wrappers and drinks cup. The winner gets a green jacket, eased onto his shoulders by the previous winner. After a year he must return it to Augusta – handy if he wins again.
There’s the champions’ dinner; there’s the pre-tournament par-3 competition, and there’s the crazy liberalism of it all: black members were permitted as recently as, er 1990, and they even started to let women in after 2012.
Perhaps in a secular era we still need a sacred place. Perhaps modern life has created a reverence vacuum that Augusta can fill. They even call the pivotal part of the course Amen Corner… so, as you watch the sport unfold later this week, be prepared for plenty of reverent remarks from the commentators. Augusta is a place where people wear their holy face.
And beneath the Andrex trees, and alongside – occasionally inside – those lapping waterways where the centaurettes may or may not lurk, the sport continues with the quiet desperation that is as much a part of golf as dimples on the ball. And that’s where the fascination, however uneasy, kicks in.
The lawns may have been cut with scissors, and probably were, the flowers may have been painted overnight by gardeners working for the Queen of Hearts, but behind the surreal colours of all those polo shirts the hearts of the golfers are pounding with hope and fear, eaten up by the terrors of defeat and the still greater terrors of victory. Above their heads the blue jays scream their joyful screams.
By Simon Barnes, published in the Radio Times 1 April 2017Simon wrote his first piece for The Times in 1982 and became chief sportswriter for the paper in 2002 and continued writing for The Times until July 2014.