The Masters: A contradiction unlike any other
Posted April 11, 2013
"The Masters; a tradition unlike any other."
(Thank you, CBS, for ingraining that phrase, as well as the holistic spa, elevator music into my brain.)
It's far more than just the first of the four major golf championships of the season. In many ways, it's the unofficial start of the golf year. The green jacket also serves as sort of an international symbol for the sport similar to the claret jug.
Only, it's so much more complex.
The claret jug is the most famous trophy in worldwide golf, given to the winner of each year's Open Championship. It's the world's Open, uniquely inclusive and accessible to all. Or, in many ways, exactly the opposite of The Masters.
While the Open Championship is golf in the raw, contested over courses shaped by the effects of nature and the erosion of time, Augusta National is a heavily-controlled, highly-manicured, man-made cornucopia of colors. But, one man's "Valley of Sin" is another man's "Amen Corner," and both are special and sincerely interested in moving the game forward.
It's just a little harder to pin Augusta National Golf Club down as to which direction they're going to take.
Augusta National and its incredible tournament are exclusive. Not all are welcome and that's been the case since the club and the Invitational began in 1934. It wasn't until 1990 that the club invited and accepted an African American member. In fact, it wasn't until 1975, more than a decade after the PGA Tour's "whites only" rule was lifted, that Lee Elder became the first black player to compete in The Masters. And, it wasn't until last November that the club invited and accepted a female member. In each case, you could easily argue that neither would have happened were it not for extreme public pressure.
That exclusivity extends to what many consider to be the greatest golf tournament in the world. Ninety-three players went to the post to start the 77th Masters, an invitation-only event. In contrast, 156 players were in the field for the 2012 Open. In reality, there were thousands more around the world who attempted to make the grade through local qualifying tournaments stretching from Texas to Tokyo.
The control of The Masters isn't just about club membership or each year's contestants. The club also lords over the way networks can televise the event, the language commentators are permitted to use and the number of hours of coverage. At Augusta, the fans are called "patrons." Use other terms at your own peril. While the total TV time has increased some over the years, it still falls woefully short of the amount of television coverage of the other three major championships.
It's their tournament and they can – and will – do what they wish.
But they also keep ticket prices incredibly reasonable. A four-day badge sets you back only $250 and concessions are cheap by sporting event standards. Sandwiches, soft drinks and beer can all be had for less than $4 each, as opposed to the gouging you'll find at virtually every other sporting event. Again, the tournament belongs to the club and if they choose to be nice to their patrons, while the U.S. Open digs into your wallet, they are to be commended for doing so.
The club even controls when their famous azaleas bloom. In the event of unseasonably warm weather in March, they bring in tons upon tons of ice and pack the ground around the bushes so the flowers won't bloom until the TV cameras arrive. Is that silly? Well, considering the course's botany is one of the reasons for it's notoriety, it's hard to argue against the practice. Again, it speaks to the amount of control the club has over every aspect of the tournament.
Yet for all of it's stuffed-shirt tendencies, it's exclusionary history and the club's iron-fisted control, it also has a let-your-hair-down, lampshade-on-the-head fun side. The practice round tradition of skipping tee shots across the pond fronting the par-3 16th hole is among the greatest spectacles in sports. I mean, we've all done it – unintentionally, of course. But none of us have ever made it all the way across to dry land. Last year during a Tuesday practice round, Martin Kaymer made a hole-in-one.
And each year on the Wednesday prior to the start of the competition, the club puts on a Par-3 Tournament which is quite possibly the most relaxed, family-friendly occurrence in golf. While there is a trophy for the winner, it's far from a serious event. The players will routinely allow their children or, in some cases, grandchildren, to take swings. This year, one of the tournament favorites, Rory McIlroy, allowed his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, to hit a tee shot and she proceeded to chunk it into the water right in front of the tee.
She received a standing ovation.
Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters are really a walking, living, breathing contradiction. Exclusive yet inviting. Controlling yet permissive. Stuffy yet fun. The club is anything you want it to be. There's plenty to make you angry, as evidenced by decades of ignoring societal issues of fairness. But in a world of greed, they still don't seem all that concerned with squeezing every ounce of blood out of the proverbial stone.
They also put on one heckuva golf "toonamint."
It truly is a tradition unlike any other.