George Peper: Rooting for the Story at the Masters

These days, it’s not so much who wins the Masters but how the victory unfolds

The Masters is once again upon us, and along with it comes the perennial question we ask ourselves and others: Who are you rooting for?

There was a time when that question was easy for me to answer. Back when I was at GOLF Magazine, I simply pulled for the player who graced our April cover (a player chosen two or three months earlier, partly because he was a decent bet to win). If he flamed out, I pivoted to the guys we had under contract as “playing editors,” along with any member of the field who happened to be profiled in that April issue, especially if we’d touted him in a cover line.

In those days, you see, newsstand sales were a big deal, and having the Masters champion on the cover could boost sales by several thousand copies. In the digital era, however, the number of magazines sold at newsstands is minuscule, particularly at airports, as everyone reads e-books, watches downloaded or in-flight movies, or pecks at computers and tablets.

Illustration by Michael Witte

At LINKS, blessedly, we have no axe to grind. No cover boys—no cover lines—no playing editors, and the only player profiled in our Spring 2024 issue is Brandel Chamblee, whose Masters appearances now come as a broadcaster (although it’s worth noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Brandel’s sharing the first-round Masters lead with Davis Love III, Scott McCarron, and Nick Price; he finished T18).

No, these days I try to do what responsible people in the sports media are supposed to do: root for the best story, the outcome that will bring the greatest joy and excitement to the greatest number. Generally, that story involves a beloved, or at least highly regarded, player and/or a dramatic, closely contested performance. Some examples from Masters memory: Nicklaus’s sixth victory in 1986 at age 46; Augusta native Larry Mize’s miracle chip at No. 11 to beat Greg Norman in ’87; Ben Crenshaw’s emotional win in ’95; 21-year-old Tiger Woods’s 12-stroke blowout in ’97; Charl Schwartzel’s five-birdie walk-off win in 2011; and Tiger’s post-surgery comeback in 2019—magnificent stories all.

That said, with everything that’s gone on in pro golf during recent months, most notably the PGA Tour’s recent partnership with Strategic Sports Group bringing a $3 billion cash infusion (much of which will go straight into the pockets of the marquee players), I must admit it’s harder than usual to get excited about pulling for pro golfers. With 10 figures headed their way, they don’t need my support.

All the more reason, I guess, to root for a story. And if the first few events of 2024 are any indication, this could be a storied season. We began in Hawaii with a pair of feel-good wins by Chris Kirk and Grayson Murray, each of whom had returned to form after battling through the demons of alcoholism.

They were followed by a history-making performance from college sophomore Nick Dunlap, who became the first amateur in 33 years (and the youngest since Chick Evans in 1910) to win a Tour event.

These days I try to do what responsible people in the sports media are supposed to do: root for the best story, the outcome that will bring the greatest joy and excitement to the greatest number. Generally, that story involves a beloved, or at least highly regarded, player and/or a dramatic, closely contested performance.

Next, and almost as improbably, came Matthieu Pavon, a 31-year-old Tour rookie from Toulouse, France, who birdied the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines to become the first Frenchman to win an event on the U.S. Tour. Then, at the AT&T Pro-Am, we witnessed history once again as reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark posted the lowest score ever shot at Pebble Beach (a 60, including 28 on the front nine, on a day when the average score was 69), roaring from six strokes behind to take the weather-shortened title.

The best battle came in Scottsdale, with Nick Taylor chasing down Charley Hoffman and then birdieing the tough 18th hole three straight times (twice in the playoff) to win. And speaking of stirring conclusions, how about Hideki Matsuyama firing what was arguably the greatest final round in Riviera history—a 62—to take the Genesis Invitational and $4 million.

Then the West Coast swing concluded with yet another Cinderella story as 29-year-old Tour rookie Jake Knapp—whose world ranking two years ago was 1,476th—won the Mexico Open at Vidanta in just his ninth Tour start.

Stories such as these will be hard to top, but the Masters has a way of producing fairy tale finishes. So what to wish for this year? Take your pick:

  1. The Impossible Dream: 48-year-old Tiger Woods hobbles heroically to a record-tying sixth green jacket and his 16th major title.
  2. Against All Odds: History is made as Stewart Hagestad (or one of the five other amateurs in the field) becomes the first amateur to win the Masters.
  3. Mission Accomplished: Rory McIlroy, after more than a decade of frustration at Augusta, becomes the sixth player in history to complete the career grand slam.
  4. Brilliance: Gary Woodland, a year after brain surgery, scores a triumph of the human spirit.
  5. True Grit: A few months ago, Will Zalatoris’s career was imperiled by a crippling back—now he’s the Masters champion.
  6. Boy Wonder: Twenty-year-old phenom Nick Dunlap becomes the youngest player to don a green jacket.
  7. How Swede It Is: Ludvig Åberg, the first Scandinavian to win the Masters, might just be the next Tiger Woods.
  8. Three Down, One to Go: Collin Morikawa (or Brooks Koepka) joins an elite club as the winner of three of the game’s four major titles.
  9. The Lion in Winter: At age 53, Phil Mickelson once again summons the magic, becoming the oldest Masters champion and equaling Arnold Palmer’s four wins.
  10. Richly Deserved: $400,000,000 Man Jon Rahm, unspoiled by his wealth, returns to successfully defend his title.
  11. Number One Hands Down: With his second Masters and seventh title in 26 months, Scottie Scheffler is unquestionably the best player in the world.
  12. Nice Guy Finishes First: Rickie Fowler—or Tony Finau, Tommy Fleetwood, Max Homa, Sahith Theegala—scores a big one for the good guys.
  13. Battle Royal #1—Bullfight: Brooks Koepka vs. Bryson DeChambeau.
  14. Battle Royal #2—Ryder Cup Reprise: Rory McIlroy vs. Patrick Cantlay.
  15. Battle Royal #3—Justice Triumphs: Anyone beats Patrick Reed.

Bottom line, I don’t care who wins, as long I’m thoroughly entertained.

Thank you for supporting our journalism. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the Spring 2024 issue of LINKS Magazine. Click here for more information.