The cheers are just as majestic as the colors
Standing in the second fairway, Rory McIlroy could see the final round begin to unfold at Augusta National.
Better yet -- or worse -- he could hear it.
The silence was shattered by an enormous cheer to his right. McIlroy turned to see Charl Schwartzel with both arms outstretched in the third fairway, and it was clear the South African had holed out for eagle.
He turned back to the left moments later when another big cheer came ripping through the Georgia pines from the seventh green.
Another birdie for Tiger Woods.
Sunday at the Masters last year produced the kind of theater that gives Augusta its reputation as the best golf course not just for watching golf, but for listening to it. The roars came from everywhere, so many it was hard to keep track.
Moments later, another Masters phenomenon happened -- five cheers in succession, all because of one putt.
Two men were at the fairway crossing on the par-5 eighth, having to wait as Geoff Ogilvy and Fred Couples approached from the tee. Suddenly, there was a roar from over the hill near the green some 250 yards away, so loud that it could only mean one outcome.
Woods had made eagle.
As the gallery was still buzzing, another cheer could be heard from around the 18th green, then one cheer after another in the distant, about 30 seconds apart -- from Amen Corner, from the seventh green, then one more the 15th green. Each cheer was the result of fans watching the scoreboards post Woods' eagle, putting him at 10-under par and tied for the lead.
Ogilvy heard plenty of cheers for himself on the back nine when he ran off five straight birdies to tie for the lead, yet he still remembers the sequence of sound as he stood in the eighth fairway.
"There were people at the bottom of the hill who could see Tiger hit, and they'd go walking off somewhere else," Ogilvy said. "They hear the cheer 10 minutes later and they know it's an eagle. And then you heard it go across the golf course. They went off in sequence. It was pretty cool. That's the fun part about that place."
Augusta National is largely linked to color. Green jackets. Pink azaleas. White dogwoods. Yellow jasmine.
But for all the blazing blooms among 80,000 plants that contribute to the beauty of the golf course, perhaps the greatest appeal of the Masters is something not seen at all.
"You can't compare other tournaments with the Masters," K.J. Choi said. "There's something about the Masters that's different -- the roars, the cheers. They're more passionate than what you can feel at other tournaments. They're all around you. It's like you're in a dome."
With so many people lining the fairway, all that could be seen of Couples was his visor as he went for the green on the par-5 13th in 1998. The sound told it all -- anticipation as the ball was in flight; a burst of cheers when it clears the tributary of Rae's creek; more anticipation as it caught the slope, the decibels increasing as it rolled toward the cup. The sound alone would have suggested the ball stopped 4 feet away. Replays confirmed it.
That's the beauty of the Masters.
Nicklaus won twice at St. Andrews. He beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont. He was respected universally, but cheered the loudest at Augusta, whether it was that 45-foot birdie putt he made on the 16th in 1975 or his famous charge on the back nine in 1986 to win for the sixth time.
"I was a couple of groups ahead of Jack in 1986. I remember those roars," Curtis Strange said. "It's incredible coming through the trees. They can't ever create anything like that in sports. And it's not just fun for the fans, it's fun for the players."
Then, at age 58, Nicklaus had one last Sunday charge in him that came up short. Woods and Davis Love III were in the group in front of Nicklaus that day, and Woods said it was "the only time I've heard it super loud."
"We were trying to win the tournament, just like he was," Woods said. "But he got off to a great start. He chipped in for birdie on 3, birdied 6 and we were walking up to the seventh green and it was just going berserk. We were backing off shots pretty much all day, because Jack was on a run. It was awesome."
The loudest single moment for Woods was on the 16th green in 2005, when he had a one-shot lead Sunday and went long of the green on the par 3. His chip went away from the flag toward a hill, and then came back down the slope until it ran out of speed at the cup, pausing for two full seconds before gravity tugged it in.
Two reporters figured the Masters would come down to the final hole, so they left early to get a spot in the tower next to the 18th green that is reserved for press. They didn't see the shot. They only heard it -- the first cheer, growing louder, the pitch in the fans' voices rising, rising, rising ... and then a collective groan. And before silence could settle in, BOOM!
"I don't know why the sound is different there," Stewart Cink said. "We get big crowds at other places, too. But there's very few idle fans there. Other places, you get people chit-chatting, people texting. You have hot dog fans, beer drinkers, people there to look at other people. At Augusta National, you have people there to watch the Masters. All the eyeballs are on the golfers.
"And when you see a dramatic shot, everyone is watching. And everyone reacts."
Cink was asked if he could tell by the cheer what happened, and who did it.
"Only with Tiger Woods," he said. "The eagles he makes sound different than the eagles other people make. When he makes an eagle, the place is shaking. It's pretty cool."
There were concerns five years ago that Augusta National had become so much longer, and so much tougher, that it really had become golf's cathedral because it was too quiet. There were not enough birdies. There was not enough reason to cheer.
Now, however, Augusta seems to get it just right. There is a constant pursuit of birdies and eagles, which results in bogeys or worse. There are roars. There are groans. But there is noise, and it is unlike any other in golf.
Tony Navarro has been runner-up as a caddie four times -- with Raymond Floyd in 1985, with Greg Norman in 1996 and 1999, and last year with Adam Scott.
"No other place does it make you tingle," Navarro said. "Maybe in other sports, but not in golf. You hear roars, and you know who it is. You can tell when someone made a long putt, holed a shot, made a hole-in-one. That front nine was magic last year. It was going off. Tiger was in front of us. Schwartzel was right behind us going crazy. It's the greatest feeling."
For all the cheers that Woods has heard in winning four times, there was some role-reversal last year in the third round. He was preparing to play his approach to the green when the tree-rattling roar behind him forced him to back off his shot. McIlroy had made a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th.
That's part of playing in the Masters.
"I've never heard the back nine with so many roars," Luke Donald said about last year's final round. "It seems like every other shot I was over, I had to back off because of another roar. You want to make your own noise. It was Augusta as it should be."
One of the most chilling moments wasn't for a shot, but rather a change in the leaderboard.
It was Saturday afternoon in 1998, and someone was making a charge. First, the workers swapped out the numbers in the boxes on the white leaderboard. The sequence started with a green 3 (over par), worked down to 0, then switched to red numbers. The last thing to change was the name.
The panel was pulled back as workers behind the manual scoreboard reached for the name to put in that slot. Some 10,000 people stood watching, curious to see whose name would appear. The silence was broken by a lone voice.
The ground shook that day.