Starr Gazing: Masterful

We baby boomers sneered at prior generations' relentless, reflexive and unreflective vacation style: "If it's Tuesday, it must be Sweden." But of course we have mimicked it with far less jollity, as we haul our teenagers across the college campuses of America in the increasingly feint hope they will find any place--to the tune of $40,000 a year--they can call home.

So next week I embark on that vacation ordeal of five colleges in four days (and maybe a sixth if I don't mind a little 150-mile detour because no inconvenience is too much for our angel). Just call our sojourn: "If it's Friday, it must be Ithaca."

That final stop will mark my first visit to my alma mater in 20 years and only my second since I graduated. My most remarkable academic achievement at Cornell was becoming the only person to flunk Geology 101, "Rocks for Jocks," an academic haven for the university's national-championship hockey team. In the critical rock-identification test, I couldn't tell granite from schist and, to boot, was unlucky, reaching the table with salt rock after the telltale taste had already been licked off.

I will have no choice but to recall that failure, as I will inevitably stroll over one of the magnificent gorges, my former geologic labs, which cross the campus. My preference, though, would be to recall loftier academic moments. And to that end, I am dining with my former Russian-lit professor, Patricia Carden, who was a most wondrous teacher. (And that isn't just a warm memory of our Tolstoy seminar with those icy vodka shots followed by chunks of brown bread.)

Yet I confess to some trepidation regarding this reunion. I would hope she recalls me as a young man with a spry, precocious intellect that presaged sky's-the-limit possibilities. Ok, maybe just a little promise. Today, 35 years later, while I have had a successful career, I find myself fretting over the inevitable "What exactly do you do?" question. That moment when I'll say: "I watch sports."

With my family out of town, I spent much of the past weekend brooding about a life spent watching sports. Not to mention a lot of time actually watching sports. There are plenty of reasonable justifications for this pastime-bordering-on-passion, particularly now as sports has embedded itself ever deeper into this country's emotional fiber. Still, on a pleasant spring Sunday when I could have been cycling with my brother on the back roads or rereading Dostoevsky on a patch of the Public Gardens or, if I insisted on being indoors, checking out the Gauguin exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, I never left the house, sitting on my butt for six hours watching the final round of the Masters.

I must say, though, that turned out to be a splendid decision. I have been privileged to see Nicol Williamson play Hamlet, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellan dance to Strindberg's mordant tune and Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons duel Stoppard. Yet none have provided any more compelling drama than the saga writ by Phil Mickelson on Sunday over 18 holes at Augusta. Indeed it was pretty much perfect TV, an inadvertent gift to the American sports fan from Ms. Martha Burk. The protest she launched against Augusta for not having female members didn't move the club's board on membership. But it did prod the hosts, wary of commercial backlash for its sponsors (and filthy rich to boot), to make the Masters a commercial-free championship.

The absence of commercials allowed the tournament to play as classic drama, instead of at the staccato tempo of most TV sports, where the flow is continually interrupted to sell SUVs and beer. Usually, the little gestures that make for the grander tale are missed in the quick cutaways to commercial breaks. Not on this Sunday, though. We caught every nuance, every grimace, every smile. The gesture that sold me--and firmly entrenched me in Phil's corner--came on the second hole after Mickelson had rung up his first birdie, only to see it matched by coleader Chris DiMarco. Mickelson's reaction: a high-fist salute to his rival. How could you not succumb to this man who, desperate as he was for that overdue major victory, still relished and respected the competition?

If Mickelson's grand finale on the 18th green was the perfect putt, right down to the tantalizing curl as it kissed every millimeter of the lip of the cup before it went down, then CBS host Jim Nantz demonstrated the perfect pitch. Nantz is much underrated as an announcer, and he is particularly masterful at golf, where his understated style props up the story lines without smothering them in hyperbole. When you've got the greatest player never to have won a major--when you've got a guy with a monkey on his back (that, at times, was every bit as visible as Jimmy Stewart's big rabbit, Harvey)--you don't need any hype--certainly not as Phil stumbled, then rallied and, finally, with such palpable joy, came from behind to triumph.

Mickelson's victory was hard earned, never ordained. Golf is a demonic game and its gods are too busy wreaking havoc to spare any time for mercies. If anyone doubts their disruptive powers, look at Tiger's less-than-masterful performance. Sure, I realize that one man's struggle is most golfers' career year. Yet for all his protestations otherwise, Tiger is clearly not himself, or at least not his former self. His rejuvenation may require nothing more than a little swallowed pride, which is small potatoes when compared to the psychic travails that have laid David Duval low. Among all the Tiger contenders and pretenders, he once loomed largest. British Open champ just three years ago, Masters runner-up twice, Duval is now on golf's sidelines, ranked 308th in the world after a season in which he missed the cut 16 times in 20 tournaments.

Phil has tasted more than his share of the game's despair, what with all the close calls, the occasional yips at critical moments and, above all, the faulty mindset that said going for broke at all times was the only way to play the game. But the Masters should prove to be his coming-out party and, if Woods continues to falter, the perennial also-ran may soon be the man. And though it is only sports, Mickelson's Masters was something of an epic tale. Maybe not quite "War and Peace," but surely a drama worthy of my day.