My Trip To Augusta National (Also: My Trip To The Masters)

Last week my father and I made the pilgrimage to the cathedral of golf. It resides in a little town on the eastern border of the great state of Georgia. I somehow won two tickets through the lottery on my first try.  Our passes were to the Wednesday practice round of The Masters tournament held annually at Augusta National Golf Club.  There was never a doubt that I was going with my father.  We arranged our plans months ago and it all came to fruition last week.  I had extremely high expectations.  I told all of my friends and all of my friends fathers that this was indeed a bucket list moment in my life.  Every year I typically go all Jim Nantz for the tradition, the azaleas, etc.  And up until about three days before I left, that was still the plan.

Then the national conversation on the tunamint shifted from “will Tiger win or not?” to “will Augusta invite new IBM CEO Virginia “Ginni” Rometty to be a member?” 

For whatever reason, I usually am not interested when conversations about country club membership arise in the media spotlight.  I’m a white guy from a suburban background who grew up caddying at the best country club in Colorado (Cherry Hills, for the record).  Additionally I went on to fulfill every stereotype possible by going to a private university with a majority white student body and joining a fraternity.  I know every argument on both sides of the debate when it comes to the ideas of clubs, private membership, and fraternities.  For whatever reason, this was the first time I engaged in serious thought about whether any of this mattered when it came to Augusta National and The Masters. 

—–

The drive my dad and I had heading to Augusta was something straight out of a cheesy golf movie. Shortly after crossing the border from South Carolina (where we were staying) into Georgia, we crossed a body of water and the bridge was literally blanketed in fog/clouds. It was so thick we couldn’t even see the hood of our white Chevy Malibu rental car. I wondered aloud whether we were passing into heaven (only half sarcastically). It was like that the entire way across, a sort of welcome message sent from the golf gods.

Driving south from McCormick, South Carolina on the pine tree-lined GA-28, you just sort get spit out into the city limits of Augusta and the parking lot to the golf course is maybe a mile from there. You park your car and have a short walk to the gates of the golf course. The first thing that must be noted about Augusta National is that they have this tournament down to a science.  The complex method of dozens of attendants guiding drivers through various carved out lines of cars was the best system I’ve ever seen employed to get people into a sporting event. And it’s like that for every aspect of the course: concessions, merchandise, crossing fairways, etc.

It’s important to note that at no point can an individual from outside the walls peer in to get a glimpse of the golf course. From what I remember it’s a combination of high walls and Georgia pines that literally and figuratively prevent the outside world from looking in.

The patron gate is located at the northwestern corner of the property and you’re welcomed by a large entrance that looks like something that belongs at a prestigous southern horse track.  This is where the patrons (it’s important to remember guests are not fans, they’re patrons) pass through security and get tickets scanned before being allowed free reign over the grounds.  From the gates it’s a downhill right turn into what can only be described as a sort of welcoming village. 

In this village lies the famous golf shop where I happily dumbed twelve months worth of allocated savings into an Augusta-themed wardrobe.  This next piece of advice is key for anyone who’s going to make the visit themselves.  Purchase your memorabilia in the morning and then go next door where they allow you to check your goods until the end of the day, free of charge.  This way, you don’t have to lug all your gear around with you the whole day.  It’s really a brilliant set-up if you think about it.  Immediately after spending way too much money on Augusta shirts they offer you free checked bags and then the building immediately across the street is the first concession area. There you’re greeted with by-far the cheapest food and drink prices in all of sports.

Any hesitation about the new hole in your wallet is greeted with the pleasant taste of a $1.50 sandwhich washed down by a $3.00 domestic beer.

—–

I’ve written before about my struggle with my fraternity background.  I don’t go all-in on the frat bashing, but I completely understand many of the concerns that arise when people discuss them.  There is an unhealthy amount of drinking.  There is a concerning lack of diversity and progressive thinking.  There is an emphasis on a certain style of dress.  But there are also benefits, chief among them is that you’re be forced to be social and interact with others, which I will argue to the death is a good thing in college.  I also found that it pushed me to be more successful and to take pride in my own personal decisions and actions.  A sort of accountability factor, if that makes sense.

All of those same mixed feelings started coming back when I delved into the Rometty issue.  Here is this golf course that I have watched on TV literally my entire life.  I revere this golf course.  I talk about it like normal people talk about their religion.  If I could pick one course to play my last round of golf on before I died, it would be Augusta National.  There’s always a “but” when you speak about Augusta National though.  “But, they historically discriminated against people of color.” “But they’re rumored to be anti-homosexual.” “But, they still don’t allow women to be members.” 

Is it possible to love a place that historically represents so many terrible things? 

Is it possible to separate the golf club from the tournament?

—–

After the concessions, the golf course is only a few steps away, situated next to the famous manually-updated leader board.  The end of the welcoming village comes out about halfway into the fairway of hole one which rises uphill in both directions to the green and tee box.  There are literally thousands of people just hanging around and because this was a practice round, pictures were permitted.  From the entrance you can either walk up the right side of number one to the green, cross the fairway into the heart of the golf course straight ahead, or go uphill towards the one tee box.  Should one choose the latter option, the actual clubhouse and members-only section lines the walk all the way.

From the tee box on number one, it’s a fascinating setup.  You can see holes number 1, 9, 10, and 18 only.  If staring out onto the first hole, the clubhouse, cabins, par three, and practice green are directly behind you.  Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s a writer looking to find meaning in seemingly meaningless things, but I couldn’t help but see a sort of alpha and omega, beginning and end metaphor. 

Augusta National as God of golf.

—–

Bill Simmons likes to say that the most dangerous words in all of sports are “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”  Among defenders of Augusta National’s policies, this is sadly one of the three chief arguments.  The others being that the club is essentially a fraternity where real gender issues would exist if a woman became a member and that it’s none of our business who is a member .  Among those three arguments, the idea that a club has a right to only invite individuals that they want does make sense.  The other two? Not so much. 

Doing things because that’s how they’ve always been done is as stupid idea as there ever was.  As to their being gender issues that would make it impossible for women, that’s the case anymore.  The CEO of the historically male-dominated IBM is a female, after all.  To say that the CEO of a company like IBM couldn’t thrive in the environment of Augusta National is ridiculous.  If anything, she’s too qualified.

But what exactly does qualify a human being to be a member of Augusta National?  We all have a general idea of what it entails.  But in one of the most fascinating parts of this situation, no one, outside of the current membership, can definitively say they know. No one can definitively tell how or why an individual is extended membership.   And no one can definitively give a complete list of Augusta National’s membership. 

We know that a typical member is male.  He is usually white.  He is rich.  He usually has achieved an enormous amount of success in many different aspects of his life.  We also know that Augusta National has historically extended an invitation to the CEO of IBM ever since the company first became one of the tournament’s corporate sponsors.

Ginni Rometty is white.  Ginnie Rommety is rich.  Ginny Rommety has achieved an enormous amount of success during her career.  Ginni Rometty is the CEO of IBM. 

Which makes it all the more infuriating as to why Augusta National would exclude Rometty from their ranks.  The only thing that precludes Ginny Rometty from being extended membership to Augusta National is that Ginny Rometty is a she.  And don’t convince yourself that she’s secretly been a member all along and that we’ll find out in fifteen years that she was a member all along.  You’re not a member unless you’re wearing a green jacket.  There is no halfway middle ground here.  You either don the jacket during the tournament or you don’t.

—–

There are three areas of the golf course which stand out best in my memories.  The first is the aforementioned spot at the area above the first tee box.  It’s on a high hill above the property and the golf course spreads out below, although you can only see four holes (1, 9, 10, and 18). 

Hole #12, with #13 in the background

The second area is behind the green on hole 17.  There’s a grandstand there where a patron can view what seems like the entire golf course.  From a certain vantage point there are seven holes (2, 3, 7, 8, 15, 17, and 18) to be viewed and it is as spectacular as it sounds.  If I were to ever land a ticket on the weekend, I would most certainly park myself in that grandstand around lunchtime and soak in the tournament.  You’d see everything–the best possible spot to take in as much action as possible.

The final area if the famed Amen Corner.  Standing behind the tee on hole 12, a patron can view the players trying to save par at the 11th, play the entirety of the most pressure-filled par 3 in golf at the 12th, and see the all-important tee shot on the very eagle-able 13th.  If ever there was a snapshot to summarize the beauty of this golf course, it would be taken at Amen Corner.

—–

Please don’t misunderstand the point.  There is a false notion that there are serious business deals being made during rounds played at Augusta National which women are missing out on.  Apologies if this ruins anyone’s fantasy, but the titans of American industry are not controlling world policy from the fairways of the club.  I caddied for five years of my life at the most powerful club in the state of Colorado and not once did I ever see two members negotiate a business deal.  Get this idea out of your head.  It’s ludicrous.  The truth about country clubs is that most members struggle to find a regular group of players to play with.  Once he finds one, he’ll settle in with that regular foursome and literally play with them until he dies or resigns membership.  The only time he dares stray out of that group is to entertain guests.  Most of that time is spent making sure said guests don’t become the latest round of gossip in the men’s locker room, depending on the amount of idiocy they dared to exhibit on the club grounds.

Virginia Rometty isn’t getting screwed out of business deals.  She’s getting screwed out of playing the club at her own leisure, without a male member there to “host” her for 18 holes.  She’s getting screwed out of wearing that damn green jacket.  And she’s getting screwed out of playing the greatest golf course that man ever built, a course that should represent success, prestige, and personal achievement not discrimination, anachronism, and misogyny. 

The tragedy of Augusta National is that all of those words become synonymous.

—–

If there’s one word to describe the actual golf course, it would be paradox.

Augusta National is simultaneously the most intimate and loneliest golf course on the planet.  It is located in what I presume is the heart of downtown Augusta and yet you can’t see into the course from outside the gates, and you can’t see what’s beyond the fences once you’re in it. 

There is really something to be said for the famed “roar” of the patrons at the golf course.  The first time you experience it, all of the explanations and mythology surrounding the act makes sense.  You can be standing in an area of the course where you can only see a single hole, but somehow you feel remarkably close to all of the noise, as if you could just cross through some pine trees and be there in an instant. 

I got goosebumps when it first happened to me.  We were walking down hole number ten when the golf course absolutely erupted in the direction of hole 16.  We just so happened to be passing a member wearing one of the famed green jackets.  To no one in particular he smiled and remarked that there was only one thing that could explain that noise, and that was a hole-in-one.  A quick internet search when we got home revealed that Martin Kaymer had in fact accomplished the feat, on one of the infamous practice round “skip” shots no less.

Perhaps the layout of 1, 9, 10, and 18 is intentional within the theme of the paradox.  When playing those holes, it has to feel extremely lonely to the golfers.  This is especially true with holes 10 and 18 where the individual is completely isolated from the rest of the course, left to his thoughts and prayers while completely enveloped by pine trees.  The tee shots on these holes act as extra emphasis.  Number ten is hidden behind the rest of the golf course while  the tee shot on 18 serves as a sort of metaphorical gate back into reality.  And yet they’re all right next to each other in terms of the layout, easily viewed side-by-side from the top of the hill.

The theme holds true on the first four holes of the back nine where the patrons are only allowed to watch the action from one side of the hole and a remarkably far distance from the golfers.  It’s by far the most isolated stretch of holes and they run along the edge of the property for the entirety of the east side and most of the south side.  It may surprise some to learn that it’s actually difficult to view the green on hole 11 because hills to the right side of the green distort most of the view of the front half of the green.  It also might surprise some to learn that you can’t get anywhere close to the 13 tee.  And yet once again in a paradox, the view at the 12 tee box that allows a person to see all of these three holes might be the best view in all of golf.  The separation and distance somehow creates intimacy.

It also becomes apparent how close all of these holes are in proximity and what little distance stands between the course and the patrons.  While we were there, the golf course was playing at 7,435 yards and contained only a single par four under 440 yards.  It’s extremely long and yet it’s somehow all extremely close together. One of the most famous shots in the history of the golf course is Tiger Woods’ chip in at hole 16 back in 2005.  On TV, hole 16 looks like it has acres of real estate off the backside to the left where Woods left his first shot in the final round.  In reality, the golfer is about arm’s length away from the patrons and there are five holes packed into that back section of the grounds (5, 6, 15, 16, and 17).

 

The list of paradoxes doesn’t end there either.  Majors typically reward low-risk strategy, Augusta rewards high-risk strategy.  The longest holes on the golf course are the easiest to score on (the par fives).  It’s considered the hardest golf course in the world and yet there’s no rough.  It’s a tournament shrouded in tradition and yet a golfer with the most nontraditional swing ever is now champion.

——

If there’s one word to describe my feelings about Augusta National, it would be conflicted.

Upon learning that I had been awarded tickets last year, I promptly closed the door of my office and jumped up and down in the air for at least five minutes.  I then immediately got in touch with my dad to let him know what his plans were going to be during the first full week of April 2012.  I texted all my friends.  I dropped the obligatory facebook brag. I would finally be going to the golf course that represented nearly all of my childhood memories about watching golf, a game which I adore and love. 

At the same time though my thoughts were a complete mess in the days before the trip.  Would it be possible to reconcile how I feel about Rometty getting snubbed with the experience of being on the golf course?  Is it possible to ignore all the things wrong about Augusta National with everything that is so right about The Masters?

The experience of actually getting on the grounds doesn’t make it any easier to decide.

Immaculate doesn’t even begin to describe the condition of that golf course around the tournament.  The only flaws to be found are in the recently made divots from the golfers.  Everything else on the golf course is perfect. 

But then again, there’s a distinct breed of people who make up the patrons at Augusta National.  It’s fair to split it 50/50 between people that are absolutely humbled to be standing on the course they grew up watching on TV.  You recognize them because of their puppy eyes, giggles, and their habit of pointing to any and every area of the golf course, probably recalling one of their favorite memories.  I throw myself and my dad into that group and I have no beef whatsoever with these people. 

The other half is a different story. 

The other half is group of people, entirely made up of men who walk with an aura of entitlement, as if it was their birth right to hang out on this course.  Never mind that most are first-timers who only got tickets through the lottery.  Never mind that it’s a practice round.  These guys are easy to spot.  They’re likely wearing boat shoes even though they’ll have to walk long distances during the day.  They’re likely wearing a ridiculously colored polo shirt.  They’re most definitely holding and/or smoking a lit cigar, a pastime I had no idea existed, much less is permitted, on this golf course.  They make that ridiculous cigar-smoking face.  You know the one.  They squint they eyes, purse their lips, and stare at the lit end of the cigar like it’s a magnificent work of art while rotating it back and forth between their thumb and forefinger before bringing it up for an exaggerated inhale.  Comments on the supreme taste of the cigar usually follow.  In other words, douche bags.

For every fan who feels blessed to be on the grounds, there’s one boorishly blowing cigar smoke into the crowds.

—–

The day I returned from the golf tournament, Grantland’s Brian Phillips delivered one of the most important pieces ever written about the tournament.  While I must confess, I still am not quite 100% sure that I get Phillips’ message, I do feel confident that I’m getting the majority of it.  One great point he makes is the peculiarity of people enjoying something is so inherently critical of itself.  The example he uses is in reference to the TV show Mad Men and how fans of the show seem to romanticize the era (the 60s) that the show is so obviously critical of.  It’s the same problem that the movie Wall Street had.  That film was supposed to inspire a generation of people to prevent the ugly world that greed created but instead inspired a group of people to become real life Gordon Geckos.  Attending The Masters should make every golf fan feel like they’re a small child entering Disney World for the first time.  Instead it seems to attract a unique brand of douchiness.

Unfortunately it doesn’t lead to any concrete resolutions, only further conflict.  It still isn’t really clear whether the beautiful lessons Mad Men portrays can be fully separated from the ugly realities of 1960s American society.  One can’t be entirely independent of the other.  It also isn’t clear whether the beauty of The Masters tournament can be entirely separated from the ugliness Augusta National represents.  None of this is fair.

Love and hate.  The Masters and Augusta National.

If only it were that simple.

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