- Credit: Golf Magic
The Masters is a tournament completely unlike any other Major. To begin with, it is the only one to be held at the same venue every year, Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia and it is organised by that club, rather than any of the golfing bodies.
With a field of 90-100 players and with attendance limited to 40,000 per day, it is deliberately the smallest field and the smallest crowd of all the Majors. The referees for the event are drawn from the PGAs, Tours and Federations from around the world.
Everything about The Masters gives a sense of privilege. It was originally called the “Augusta National Invitational Tournament” and even though today, eligibility for the tournament is clearly defined, the invitation to compete remains as the gift of Augusta Golf Club.
Similarly, those attending are “Patrons” never spectators. While you can apply for a ticket, these are in very short supply as so many are already allocated to members, people of Augusta and notable, though unidentified, others. Up until around ten years ago, these tickets could be passed down through the generations, but now they are just for the life of the Patron.
So, once the privilege is earned, it is guarded carefully and any indiscretion by the ticket holder could result in loss of status permanently. Ticket touts (or Scalpers, as they are known in the USA) are prevalent around Augusta, but are required (by State law) to remain 2700 feet from the club itself. The cost of these tickets can reach tens of thousands of dollars depending on the day and the state of the tournament, but again the original ticket holder faces the wrath of the club for any bad behaviour.
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Behaviour on the course is carefully monitored by a combination of Pinkerton Agency staff and volunteers from the club membership and Augusta itself. You are not allowed to run, lie down, fall asleep, cheer a bad shot or shout out inane comments, such as “get in the hole” at Augusta. Mild infraction of the rules will result in a polite, gentle rebuke, while still being called “sir” or “madam”. More serious or repeated offences will see you escorted from the premises and tickets confiscated and lost permanently.
While the other Majors have recently bowed to pressure and allowed mobile phones to be brought in, The Masters remains resolute and you are searched diligently, not only for security reasons, but also to enable The Masters to protect its brand. For example, all alcohol, cans and any bottles (for example Coca Cola) must have their logo wrappers removed and only the smallest of bags can be carried into the grounds.
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It is once you enter the grounds that you start to appreciate the magnificence of the place. It is like Disney World for golfers. Everything is pristine and tidy and generally gives a sense of space. The advantage of having the tournament held at the same venue since 1934 has meant that they have learned what works and have been able to build an infrastructure for the tournament that is well beyond the means of almost every other golf club in the world.
At most Majors, TV gantries, practice grounds, toilets, car parking, food and drink stalls, walkways and merchandising all have to be set up in the weeks leading up to the tournament. At The Masters, they are all there and all fit in discretely with the golfing surrounds. This all costs a great deal of money of course, but while the other Majors are used by the Organisations to grow the game, either at grassroots or tournament level or both, Augusta National Golf Club decides what to do with the revenue.
Every year I went there, (which I think was around eight times), there were changes and for many years, the Club has been buying up surrounding houses to expand their footprint for that one week a year. In 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that over the last 20 years, Augusta National has spent over $200 million purchasing 100 plots of land totalling 270 acres and expanding its territory by 75%. The huge (150 acres) car park, the only Major where public parking is free, does have the occasional house within it, where the owner has turned down the (usually) generous offer of a sale and the tickets that sometimes go with it.
As well as the golf to look at, the golf course itself is almost a work of art. It is famous for its well-maintained, impeccable appearance: Around the course, the pine straw is imported, bird sounds are played on inconspicuous speakers, and even the ponds around the course were once dyed blue. The Club’s famed flowers, particularly the azaleas and dogwoods, add to the spectacle of the golf course.
This can lead to golfers having an unrealistic expectation of how their own course should look, but Augusta National has all year to prepare the course for this event and no expense is spared. When it is open, the course gets relatively little play, as it is strictly a members only club and there are only around 300 members, most of whom live outside Augusta. The club is closed from the end of April to the beginning of October as it is too hot and the grass on the course (Bent grass) does not do well in the heat.
This also gives the ground staff the time to work on the course. The club employs 30-40 Greenkeepers to look after the grassed areas, as well as a team of around 20 to take care of the horticulture. In recent years, each of the greens were dug up and under soil system known as SubAir was installed. This can blow air into the greens to keep them aired as well as sucking moisture out of the greens to maintain the speeds required. Each SubAir system costs around $30,000.
Not many courses can afford the staff or the equipment needed to present a course like Augusta National. But the week itself more than pays for this. Ticket sales amount to $34.75 million and providing international TV coverage for those who cannot attend, brings in a further $25 million. There are also six sponsors, Delta, UPS, AT&T, IBM, Mercedes-Benz and Rolex, who all spend between $6 and $8 million a year, but this does not give them any signage in view on the property.
Augusta National provides a unique shopping experience. Masters merchandise, whilst expensive, has to be the most highly sought after in golf. Although the queues to get into the shops are long, they are also well managed and they had established one-way systems long before there was any Pandemic.
When the Patrons emerge from the numerous outlets around the course, they are generally laden with bags filled with shirts, hats, belts and all things golf; for many it is that once in a lifetime opportunity and they are going to collect their memorabilia whilst they can, regardless of the cost. Merchandise over the week brings in a further $47.5 million each year.
The food and drink at most sporting events is generally poor on quality and high in price. Not at The Masters. The Club do not want their Patrons to bring in picnics, so they make the food accessible, tasty and inexpensive. Sandwiches range from $1.50 to $2.50, coffee and soft drinks $2, beer $4 and snacks such as crisps, chocolate chip cookies and, my favourite, Georgia Peach Ice-Cream Sandwich are $1.
The other good thing about the drinks is that they come in a Masters logo plastic glass that is yours to take away. I must have 30 or so of them, always useful for barbeques. Despite the low cost, food and drink contributes a further $7.75 million to the coffers. This brings it to a total of around $157 million each year, with the prize fund for the players at around the $11 million mark. That is why The Masters is a tournament like no other and why the venue gets bigger and better for everyone, year on year.
But to the next part of privilege. While being at The Masters itself is a great experience, the next step up is to be a guest in the clubhouse. This is limited to Augusta National members (and their guests) and invited Masters guests. These are generally from golfing bodies, such as the R&A, USGA, the various professional tours, PGAs and Federations, plus former Champions (all are invited to play or attend for life) as well as celebrities from the worlds of film, TV and sport.
The PGA had four passes each year, but as we usually had a party of six or seven and the passes are named, I only had the opportunity a few times, but I certainly enjoyed the experience. One of the main benefits is that you get somewhere to sit down to eat, either in the dining room, which was usually for the breakfast buffet or for lunch and drinks under the parasols on the lawn, where the waiters look after you and you can sit and watch the people outside the ropes trying to spot the famous faces amongst the diners.
I was also invited once to small gatherings hosted by an Augusta National member in one of the “Cabins” discretely spread around the clubhouse and had the chance to enjoy a more personal experience of Southern hospitality.
A modern feature of the Majors are the corporate hospitality villages which feature around some of the fairways and greens. These provide meeting places for event sponsors and other organisations who want to provide invites for their own, sponsors, clients and customers to eat, drink and watch the action either from their balconies or to retreat to the air conditioned rooms and watch on TV.
The Masters resisted that trend for many years, but faced with a need to find somewhere other than the clubhouse for those who needed space for meetings or corporate entertainment, they built a very discrete unit behind the trees on the right of the first fairway. It is so discrete that unless you know it is there, you would not know it exists. Opened in 2013, Berckmans Place cost a reputed $30 million to build and provides a money-can’t-buy experience for VIPs. A ticket for the week costs $6,000 (Some sources say $10,00) but you have to be on the approved list to even have the chance of buying one.
I went there on a few occasions for meetings and it was a very, very comfortable place to hold meetings in. As well as excellent meeting rooms, it has five full service restaurants and bars with varied and excellent menus. It showcases tributes to various parts of Augusta National's history: Bobby Jones naturally features strongly including a framed image of his Sports Illustrated cover (April 6, 1959), his passport, and his Spalding golf balls.
There is a framed version of the large document signed by the 10 contestants who competed in the first-annual Masters Tournament (in 1934) and a framed slice of Ike's Tree. This was the tree (a 100 year old loblolly pine, Pinus Taeda on the left of the 17th fairway). Dwight Eisenhower, an Augusta member from 1948, strongly disliked because he kept hitting it. At a meeting of Augusta National governors in 1956 he proposed that it be cut down.
As Eisenhower was US President at the time, Clifford Roberts, Augusta chairman, promptly adjourned the meeting, thus preventing a decision being made which he knew would have gone against the President. The tree finally fell, by natural causes, in 2014. If all that is not enough, the cherry on top of the cake, is that you have the opportunity to putt on greens replicating the 7th, 14th and 16th holes on the course, with guidance from Augusta National caddies.
All of this wonderland was created following the retirement of Bobby Jones from competitive golf after his Grand Slam year in 1930. As one of the most famous sportsman in the world, Bobby Jones found it difficult to play golf or go anywhere in public without being approached by media or well-wishes. He wanted to create a private club where he and his friends could play in peace and quiet.
His friend and stockbroker, the afore mentioned Clifford Roberts, found a plantation called Fruitlands which was for sale in Augusta. It was purchased for $7,000 dollars in 1931 and Jones, along with Dr Alister Mackenzie set about designing a golf course on the site. Mackenzie was English, he qualified as a doctor and after serving three years as a surgeon in the Boer War in South Africa, he settled into private practice back home in Leeds and became one of the founding members of Alwoodley Golf Club in 1907.
His war experience had given him an appreciation of the art of camouflage and Mackenzie wanted to incorporate his ideas into the layout of the course. However, the club wanted someone with experience and so invited Harry Shapland Colt, a full time golf course architect to submit ideas. Colt supported many of Mackenzie’s ideas, such as undulating long and narrow greens angled from the centre of the fairway, fairly large and free-form bunker shapes, and substantial additional contouring.
Together, they not only designed the Alwoodley course, but went on to work together on other courses and in 1914 Mackenzie retired from medicine (although when the war started he did re-join the British Army as a surgeon, but eventually served in the Royal Engineers in order to use his expertise on camouflage. After the War, he concentrated on his golf course design business and formed Colt, MacKenzie & Alison.
In 1923, he went out on his own and moved to the USA in the late 1920s. Augusta National contains much of the Mackenzie signature style as well as the ideas of Jones himself. Mackenzie designed many other notable golf courses, including Cypress Point Club in Monterey, California, Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia and, more locally, Teignmouth Golf Club. Augusta National was his last design and Mackenzie died before the first Masters tournament was held.
The Club opened in 1933 and Bobby Jones wanted the USGA to hold the US Open there, but the summer temperature in Augusta was deemed too hot for the players, so the Augusta National Invitational was staged in 1934 with the players being personally invited by Bobby Jones. Such was his status in the sport that few refused. The first winner was Horton Smith and it was not until 1939 that its current title was adopted. Bobby Jones played in his own tournament until 1949 when ill health forced his full retirement from golf, but he never bettered his first tournament result, where he finished in 13th place.
There are a number of traditions at The Masters and a number of innovations now common in tournaments that come from The Masters. For example, roping off the course to manage the crowds, scoreboards around the course and the ‘live’ aspect of the scoring showing how the players are performing against par.
Some of the traditions include the famous Green Jacket awarded to the winner. These are supposed to remain at the club and should only be worn there, but Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros are two Champions who broke that rule. The Green Jacket of the first winner, Horton Smith was sold for $682,000 in 2013. His reward for winning that first tournament was $1500.
There is another tradition that helps spectators as well. While Augusta National provides grandstands around many holes that are accessible to all spectators, it also provides areas where you can place your own chair. These can be bought from the shop, in green with the Masters logo, from the merchandise centre, and they even provide a little slot on the back where you can place your business card, or you can bring in your own.
Simply place your chair within the roped off area and you can leave it there all day, returning whenever you want to spend some time watching the players come through that hole. Nobody will remove your chair and, although it is allowed to sit in someone’s chair, when the owner returns, you must relinquish the seat. I found it hard to accept that the chair would not be stolen, but the custom works.
The 18th Green is the area where people try to get to as quickly as possible, without running of course, but we generally settled on the 12th hole (Golden Bell) behind the tee and the 16th hole (Rosebud) behind the Green. Both these holes are par 3s, so four of us could take two chairs to each spot and so share the viewing position. As with the drinks glasses, the chairs are now useful for taking down to the beach.
Another tradition is the Champions Dinner which takes place on the eve of the tournament where the current Champion hosts all the other attending Champions in the clubhouse and designs the menu for the evening. This was started by Ben Hogan after his 1952 victory and there have been a variety of menus devised such as; Haggis, mash potatoes and neeps (Sandy Lyle), Tomato soup, fish and chips (Nick Faldo), Wiener schnitzel (Bernhard Langer), Cheeseburger, chips and milkshake (Tiger Woods) and Paella (Jose Maria Olazabel).
Also taking place the day before the tournament, is the Par 3 competition which takes place on the 9 hole course on the north east side of the grounds, which was designed in 1958. Sam Snead was the first winner in 1960 and players usually get a family member or friend to caddy for them and occasionally take shots on their behalf. There is some superstition involved here as well, as nobody who has won the par three has ever gone on to win The Masters that week. Nevertheless, it is a very relaxed prelude to the main event and much enjoyed by the crowds, as many of the attending former champions are happy to play in the Par 3.
Legendary players are offered the opportunity to start the tournament with the honorary opening tee shot. This was started in 1963 with two Scottish professionals Jock Hutchinson (PGA Champion 1920 & Open Champion 1921) & Fred McLeod (US Open 1908). Since then, all the starters have been Masters Champions (as well as winning many other Majors) with Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player taking the honours, usually until too ill or infirm to take that all important first swing. Sam Snead hit his final shot in 2002 just a month before he died.
There are a couple of traditions that have not stood the test of time as the world has moved on. Augusta National Golf Club, has been a men-only private club since its inception in 1932. Founding members Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts envisioned a club steeped in southern hospitality and charm. A club based on the morals and culture of the male-dominated society of the 1930’s, but that, as well as the traditions of charm and hospitality, that rather elitist society also had very set views on the place of women and African Americans.
Modern players develop a very close working relationship with their caddies, but until 1983, players at The Masters were required to use a caddie supplied by Augusta National. They weren’t alone in this as the US Open had the same policy until 1976, but at The Masters all the caddies were black and wore a set of white overall with the name on their player on their back. The Chairman, Clifford Robertson was reputed to have said “As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
To some extent, this reflected the attitudes at the time within sport in the USA. The major leagues were segregated with a bar on African Americans. The first Black player in American Football was in 1946, Baseball was 1947 and Basketball in 1950, before this time they had to play in their own leagues. Golf was even further behind as it was 1961 before the first African American earned a PGA Tour card.
Augusta National was even further behind and it wasn’t until 1975 that Lee Elder became the first Black player to be invited to play in The Masters. While these attitudes did broadly reflect American society in the first part of the 20th Century, there is no doubt that Augusta National was significantly out of step with its approach to racial and gender equality in the last quarter of that Century.
In 1983, seven years after the death of Clifford Robertson, the Caddie rule was changed, although the white overalls remained. Augusta National accepted its first Black member in 1990 and its first female member had to wait until the 21st Century before Condoleezza Rice, a former Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration was accepted in 2012.
There are those who do not believe that The Masters should be considered a Major. They cite the fact that the small field and the number of invited players without any realistic chance of winning makes it too weak a field to be a true major.
Critics also point out that to allow a private members club, that does not have any allegiance or responsibility to anyone other than its own members, does not fit with the philosophy of modern day sport. It is hard to argue against these points. However, there was never a great plan to organise four tournaments to make up a Grand Slam, this simply evolved by the nature of having national tournaments that were seen by players, public and media, as the most important.
In the early part of the 20th Century, when amateur players could still compete with the professionals, the two Amateur Championships made up the Grand Slam. After WWII, such was the predominance of the professional players that, by general acclimation, The Open, the US Open, the PGA Championship and, because of the high esteem that was felt for Bobby Jones, his ‘Invitational’, which by then had been re-named The Masters, were recognised as the big four championships. This gives the players, spectators and media a sense of history and those who aspire to career Grand Slams can thus measure themselves against the legends of the past.