Phil Mickelson celebrates after winning the 2004 Masters . Dave Martin/Associated Press

The Masters is about revealing, exposing, humiliating, improving, discovering, understanding and, sometimes, redeeming yourself. Or it has been the 42 years when I’ve covered it. That’s what we’ll miss Sunday: the humanity – the spectrum of rejoicing, collapsing, coping, choking and recovering – even more than the golf.

As the years pass, the memories of shots fade, but the images, emotions and words of the players themselves become more vivid. The power of the personal story is almost always the unseen driver of the action at Augusta National. The Masters measures the arc of a life, not just the plane of a swing.

If you don’t have a personal demon to exorcise, like Phil Mickelson when he brought his 0-for-46 streak in major championships here in 2004, or a career-long quest to complete like Adam Scott in 2013, when he ended a half-century of frustration for Australian players, then you may not have the extra emotional gear to end up wearing a green jacket.

When Phil finally won that first major title, he leaped in the air and landed in a goofy squat like a 6-foot-2 frog prince. Then he smooched his wife, scooped up a child and loudly told his whole interior truth: “Daddy won! Can you believe it?”

In golf, which is like a globe-hopping circus where the same 150 competitors see each other many weeks a year, the whole field knows all the story lines – who is in disfavor with the gods, who has their blessing.

The two greatest Masters ever in my time, 1986 and 2019, reached their pinnacle not because of the golf, splendid as it was, but by a common theme. The two greatest careers ever, of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, were considered finished – not by a season or two, but by perhaps five years.

Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus watches his birdie putt on the 17th hole that gave him the lead in the final round of the 1986 Masters. Joe Benton/Associated Press

Yet, at 46, Nicklaus won his sixth Masters, shooting 65 in the final round. The last hour, he cried between shots “four or five times” from joy at the cheers and from his unique lust for fun in competition. Woods, at 42, won his fifth Masters with the shattered body of a 60-year-old, a swing rebuilt four times and a personality in at least its third configuration.

Such 600-page narratives take decades to build. Sometimes those story lines we tell ourselves – and that the whole golf world comes to know – arrive with extra and burdensome weight, too.

Greg Norman, who never won a major tournament in the United States, stands for them all. Before the Great White Shark blew his six-shot lead on the final day of the 1996 Masters, he already was the most star-crossed of golf’s top players. What does 331 weeks as the world’s top-ranked player matter when you’ve seen three, or even four, major championships swiped from you by ridiculously wonderful – but, let’s face it, fluky – shots?

On the first hole that Sunday in 1996, as Norman stood over a 6-foot par putt, a fire engine went past, then a bird started squawking and, finally, a jet went over.

“Is that a mocking bird,” I asked Dan Jenkins as we stood by the ropes.

Norman missed the putt.

“It is now,” Dan said.

By the time Nick Faldo won, beating Norman head-to-head, 67-78, for his third Masters championship, he spoke for millions when he told Norman, “I don’t know what to say. I just want to give you a hug.”

• • •

Masters memories, dogwood- and magnolia-scented or not, should never deny the ratio by which pain always predominates. Blame Bobby Jones. The greatest player of his time, with degrees in law, literature and engineering, Jones built his masterpiece golf course with architect Alister MacKenzie so that it would maximize both cheers and tears.

“Bobby Jones has won every Masters,” players say, with awe and respect, but maybe with some resentment, too.

Every hole has razor’s edge decisions. One size never fits all. Can you, at this instant, execute this precise high-risk, high-reward shot under these conditions in your current state of mind and position on the scoreboard? Or is this the time to aim away from the flag, and the trouble? Over and over, golfers must decide, “Go or no?” And to win, many a successful “Go” is required.

And that’s just to get to the greens, which seem to be a mastodon graveyard covered with ice.

In 1978, my first Masters, Hubert Green, the reigning U.S. Open champion, missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the last hole to blow a chance to meet Gary Player in a playoff. Much later, three scribes saw Green walking back alone in the dusk to the 18th green with one ball and his putter.

Gary Player celebrates after making a birdie on the 18th hole to win the Masters in 1978. But don’t forget that Hubert Green missed a 3-footer to force a playoff. Associated Press

“Gotta know,” he explained. “Did I misread it or mishit it?”

The former was forgivable; the latter would be haunting.

Green then did his ritual and drained the putt.

“Mishit it,” he murmured.

Ever since, I’ve remembered that as the Masters Moment, repeated annually: “I’ve got to know.”

Know the truth, that is, about yourself as the world watches.

Eleven years later, on a rainy day, I watched the playoff between Faldo and quality journeyman Scott Hoch.

Hoch, with a tap-in to win, backed away from his putt. “Jesus, hit it,” begged Ben Crenshaw, standing next to me in the clubhouse. As Hoch continued to circle and pace, Crenshaw put both hands to his face in empathetic fear and said, “Oh, my God.”

Hoch, little known until the world learned that his name rhymed with “choke,” missed the shortest putt which, to this day, ever squandered a major.

“It’s a good thing I don’t carry a gun,” Hoch said afterward. “It’s gonna hurt, knowing all … the immortality and all that other stuff that comes with these majors. I’d a been sharin’ that.

“Between my brain and my hands, the message got crisscrossed.”

Golfers evoke more sympathy from me than other athletes because all the things that break are inside. No one even knows what they are, much less how to fix them.

Four years ago, Jordan Spieth, then 22, led the Masters by five shots on the 10th tee. He’d led or tied for the lead entering the fourth round of all four majors in 2015, winning the Masters and U.S. Open. Spieth, a slender strategic artist and putting genius, was cruising toward an almost unimaginably great career.

War has conventions and laws about the limits of cruelty. Golf, unfortunately, does not. As Jones intended, Spieth went bogey-bogey at the 10th and 11th to set up a complete nervous-system meltdown for a quadruple-bogey 7 at the deceitful 12th.

As Spieth left the last hole, cameramen jumped for the close-up.

“Just not in the face, if you guys don’t mind, please,” Spieth said. “Just not right now in the face.”

He was 22 years old.

I’m not sure if I cried. I know I wondered, “Will he ever be the same?” He hasn’t been, exactly. But he won the 2017 British Open. (Hoorah!)

• • •

Almost all golfers, except the very greatest, seem haunted by the ghosts of the players they think they might have been. The most important four inches in golf aren’t the divot at impact. It’s the space bet

Larry Mize jumps in the air after making the winning shot in a sudden-death playoff to win the Masters in 1987. Joe Benton/Associated Press

ween your ears, an area that expands to galaxy width on Augusta’s back nine as everything that’s ever been said about you, or by your own subconscious, become an uninvited playing partner. Watching the ensuing drama – played out in a kaleidoscope of subtle, joyous or infuriated expressions – is a huge part of what makes Sunday at the Masters such fabulous television.

If you haven’t been mocked as dopey for not knowing what day of the week it is, like Bubba Watson, or shamed for your 40-pound tummy, like Craig Stadler, or dismissed as a hometown Augusta boy with no chance whatsoever, like Larry Mize, then you’re probably not going to have the requisite fire in your stomach to finish the job on Sunday.

Sometimes, being undersold, even insulted, helps you bend a miracle shot out of the pine trees to win a playoff, like Bubba; or ignore a Masters collapse early in your career that left you sitting sobbing in Amen Corner, like the Walrus; or hole a ridiculous 110-foot chip shot in the shadows of Amen Corner to break Norman’s heart (again), like little Larry.

After Mize’s chip-in, I passed two locals sitting by a pine tree. They weren’t talking about Augusta-born-and-raised Larry, but his dad: “I ‘spect if old Charlie Mize hadn’t had a heart attack by now, he’s never gonna have one.”

No one could enjoy the irony of being an everyman interloper into this shrine of privilege more than Stadler who, when playing at USC, was told to stop wearing jeans and sandals to play his matches. So he switched to loafers.

After he won the 1982 Masters in a playoff, he retold a friend’s gag that when he was leading on the back nine, “some guys in the clubhouse were stitching two green jackets together.”

• • •

The Masters’ most glowing element may be the way it spotlights the game’s sportsmanship. In 2013, a steady rain turned to a downpour just as Angel Cabrera faced a midiron shot to the 18th green, needing birdie to force a playoff with Scott. With the best Masters shot I’ve seen, he nailed it to 30 inches for birdie.

On the first playoff hole, Cabrera kept the pressure on with an approach to 15 feet on the tough 10th. Scott, carrying Norman and 50 years’ worth of other fine disappointed Aussie golf stars on his back, drilled his approach to 10 feet.

Cabrera, knowing what the shot meant to a continent, gave a big “thumbs up” across the fairway, and Scott gave him one right back. Angel missed; Adam made.

Nicklaus’ win in 1986 always will be my favorite Masters because he let the public and media get to know him, in depth and in his failures. He gave analytical news conferences, and he also would take forever to change his spikes in the locker room and swap stories with reporters – in a different voice, close to his real voice, maybe. He was as admirable and as open as any athlete I’ve met. That carries weight. The worst 10 moments of any life would shame any of us if made public. Or some bigger number. But Jack tried to keep his handicap as low as possible there, too.

However, Woods, a far more complex subject and man, has given me my most vivid Masters memories, and the ones I’ll probably never stop mulling and reframing.

In his first Masters as a pro in 1997, at 21, he already was the betting favorite. But he opened his tournament by shooting 40 on the front nine. At the ninth, he hooked his drive so far left that it ended in deep needles in a pine grove, a few feet from me. There was a delay on the green. Woods went into a deep crouch – more than just like a baseball catcher, but almost into a fetal position. He put both hands over his hat, encircling his whole head and face in his arms. He stayed there, unmoving for several long minutes, everything pulling inward, until the green cleared.

Tiger Woods speaks after he receiving his green jacket in 1997. Amy Sancetta/Associated Press

Then he stood up, shot 30 on the back nine and won the Masters by 12 strokes.

“I wasn’t the pioneer. Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Teddy Rhodes paved the way,” said Woods, who spoke to Elder on the practice range before the final round. “I was thinking about them and what they’ve done for me as I was coming up the 18th fairway. I said a little prayer and a ‘thanks’ to those guys. They are the ones who did it for me.”

Just four years later, the best golf this planet has seen was the Tiger Slam that culminated with the 2001 Masters. I covered three of the four. Nothing I have ever seen approaches that run for dominance of an entire sport. Woods’ level of excellence – built on a lifetime of fanatic unbalanced steel-cold glimmering will power – was a feat that expanded the world’s idea of human possibility. I never expect to see anything as mysteriously powerful up close again. And in hindsight, I am not sure that I would wish it on anyone either. But great artists, scientists, poets, musicians, generals, magnates and others who deflect history – even if just a little – reside in a place they barely try to explain or share with us. They can’t.

Consider this, because I couldn’t get it out of my head at the time: When Woods holed out to win the ’01 Masters, imagine that all five events – the ’00 U.S. Open, ’00 British Open, ’00 PGA Championship, ’01 Players Championship (the so-called fifth major) and ’01 Masters – were one huge combined event. What would the scoreboard look like? Of those who played in all five, Woods would lead Ernie Els by 55 shots and Vijay Singh by 57. They’re the best.

When his Slam was over, that’s when Tiger started to cry. He pulled his cap over his face so he could have a few moments of public privacy. Like that moment in the trees beside the ninth fairway four years earlier, Woods showed a hint – not that we understood it well enough then – that he was not an imperturbable young god but a gifted man who had driven himself relentlessly to his very limits, for his own glory of course, but at physical and emotional risk.

“I’ve cried after wins. I’ve cried after defeats. But I’ve never had that feeling before – all day – (of being) so attuned to each and every shot. When you focus so hard, you forget everything else,” Woods said. “Then I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’ My emotions started coming out … And I started losing it a little bit. I put the cap over my face so when Phil (Mickelson) finished putting out, I could shake his hand.”

Who could imagine that, seven years later, Woods’ private life, public image, mental health, marriage and reputation could unravel. Who would guess that, just as he regained his form and standing in the game, his overworked surgery-ravaged vertebrae and knees would betray him until, finally, every part of his golf game disappeared. And he was left with little but a quest to get back – just once, at least – that seemed hopeless, desperate and sad.

Someone remind me if he made it.

The Masters, nah, we’re not missing much this Sunday. Look back if you wish: There’s plenty to enjoy again. That’ll have to serve until next time they open the gates of Magnolia Lane, and we return to visit a place where anything might happen, and almost always does.

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