Nowhere on God's green Earth (and God seems merely a collaborator on this particular swath) could you ever see this many pairs of pleated khaki pants on this many plain ol' guys, who arrive at the rain-drenched photinia-and-magnolia fortress wall of Augusta National Golf Club in a throng numbering as many as 50,000 on some days.
Far below National's 300-man membership echelon, these are the guys who drive in from North Carolina or Texas or anywhere, and sleep four to a room all week at the Super 8 off the freeway exit. These are the guys with extra-large ice chests in the back of Chevy Suburbans with dealer plates, who will sometimes pay several hundred dollars to watch a practice round at the annual Masters golf tournament, and thousands to watch the actual competition.
Packs of striped and checked mercerized-cotton golf shirts pass by, worn by men who, for all that obsession, are sweet-natured, polite and seemingly unred of neck. Sometimes you overhear them cracking wise about people not like them: foreigners, gays, National Council of Women's Organizations President Martha Burk. It has this curious way of sounding innocent, somehow harmless, because it's delivered in the sugary, I tell you whutt twang that seems to be spoken everywhere these days, and especially here.
On the club's hallowed grounds during a practice round this week, men appeared to outnumber women 5 to 1 as a matter of nature. The Masters does indeed have its female devotees, but then you see the line for the men's room, more than 100 guys long and a 10-minute wait, while golf's wives and girlfriends flit in and out of the door marked "ladies."
"Oh, delicious irony," mutters a man sidling up to the long metal trough in the restroom where the guys at long last get relief. "She should come see this," he says. By "she," it turns out, he means Martha, as in Burk, as in the all-consuming "Hootie v. Martha," as in oh, who even wants to get into it?
Men and Augusta: In a way, it's worse than Burk thought. Critics of the club's male-only membership fixate on the members themselves, a super-elite who wear their revered wool-poly blend green sport coats only on special occasions, and then only within the confines of the clubhouse.
Consider instead all those other Masters guys, who, like women, will also never ever be rich enough or powerful enough to be admitted into the club. Most of Augusta's annual pilgrimage of golf nuts will never get to play a guest round on its revered holes, and yet they worship it. These are the Masters fringe set, its groupies, the riffraff who are annually beckoned by pure mystique.
Masters chairman William "Hootie" Johnson could have almost been speaking of them during his only pre-tournament remarks. Hootie -- millionaire banker and man-in-full -- has come to occupy a more special psychic place in the minds of golf guys. Men, according to Hootie (who spoke at a crowded news conference on Wednesday, flanked by several dozen stern-jawed greencoats), prefer to hang out with other men.
"And I don't know how to articulate that or how to explain it," he was quoted as saying in the hometown newspaper, the Augusta Chronicle (whose publisher is a National member). "But it's been going on for centuries and centuries that men like to get together with men every now and then, and women like to get together with women every now and then. And that's just a simple fact of life in America."
Even outside the glory of Augusta National, this city of 200,000 is itself a simple fact of life in America, laid out in the strip malls of unreformable Dixie.
Masters week is a simple guy's simple paradise where men get together with men, with men, with men -- and more than a few blondes, who would also like to hang out with some men. Here on the more populous side of the National's gates, Washington Road teems with chain steak restaurants, Waffle Houses and a sports bar every few hundred yards, along with the vacant lot to which protesters have been ordered by the county commission to confine their dissent.
In this paradise, the Hooters restaurant (a sign on the door reads "No cleats") is always crowded, and even serves breakfast. "Some of the guys during Masters week are really cool," says a waitress with "High Maintenance" on her name tag, "and some guys aren't so cool. It's like it always is with the guys, I guess, only more now."
On the radio, between commercials for top-quality sod grass, 95-Rock is giving away a dozen high-tech golf balls, worth $45, to the ninth caller.
Masters week has the wistful feeling of a frat-party past that has been momentarily reclaimed, or an epilogue to the bachelor party long gone. At night, you can see hordes of golf guys at play. Some of them are slipping the wedding ring into a pocket before they stick a twenty in the garter of an ambivalent but hospitable Georgia peach, who is dancing nude atop a pool table at Showgirls Discotheque Lounge downtown on Wednesday night.
Or the men of Masters are all at the "Par-3" blowout at a bar called Last Call, in a shopping center directly across from the National's main entrance, dancing the churn and chatting up any available woman (the ratio isn't in the guys' favor here, either).
"When a guy says he's into golf," says Jenni Daly, who is 26, from Savannah, and looking through the crowd for her boyfriend, who has disappeared with his golf buddies, "you have to really understand, he's into golf. I know that, because of my dad, my brothers. That's why all these guys are here. I learned a long time ago to just love it, too. It's either go with him or lose him to it." (And with that, she's off to reclaim him.)
The band onstage, which is called either Kitchafoonee or the Swingin' Medallions (the waitress selling Jell-O shots isn't sure), belts out a metaversion of "Brick House" intertwined with "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."
Golf guys in pure dorkdom bliss: Imagine a roomful of car salesmen and limitless beer, and they're all trying to score. Imagine the Rolexes, the pinkie rings. Imagine a perpetual pastel-shirted, loyally Southern world where saddle-oxford golf shoes emit a high sexual charge. This would be the real Masters tournament, the one they don't show on CBS (the bird chirps dubbed in for more effect), and it's one everyone can play.
Earlier Wednesday, on the more refined side of the foliage, fans quietly trod through the muck along the sides of the perfect fairways at Augusta National and watched the golf pros practice. Here, the men of the Masters behave like they're in church. The club's rules insist that golf guys give up their most beloved talisman of the modern age -- the cell phone, which must be checked at the gate, under penalty of expulsion -- but it allows their second most-loved vice: cigars.
Men took in each azalea of the 13th hole and lingered under loblolly pines. They hardly spoke. Mud caked on the cuffs of their khakis, but not just any mud -- unattainable, holy mud.
Is it possible that golf makes men more feminine? Hanging out at the Masters feels like attending a flower show, followed by a light lunch, followed by a frantic session of shopping for clothing in the Masters golf shop. Grown men titter with latter-day Beatlemania at the sight of a pro, and the club has had to put up a sign forbidding autograph hounds beyond the first tee.
In a small exhibit and homage to Masters history across the sidewalk from the golf shop, a woman named Jerri Sagen, from Seattle, has signed the guest book. "My husband has been dreaming of this experience since he was 5 years old," she wrote. "I got him tickets for a Christmas present. This has been the best time of our lives."
"Okay, now, see, why couldn't I have married her," wonders Dave Asher, who says he paid $300 to get a scalped pass into the club for the day, and feels like he got a bargain. He carefully reads everything in the exhibit, from the stats of champions to the engraving on the crystal dishware handed out to top finishers, to each entry in the guest book. He is now on his way to buy his treasured Masters sandwich.
Even the sandwiches at Augusta don't change.
They cost a buck twenty-five, and for many devotees, they embody the simple ways of Augusta. They are always wrapped in green plastic (fans have been known to collect the used sandwich wrappers), and the plain white bread sticks to the roof of your mouth, and pimento cheese is the sentimental favorite.
It is one thing for activists to take on the club and its members. What they're also taking on is all these golf guys, who would rather "drop dead" (a phrase that's been batted about in Augusta recently) than have the symbolism served to them some other way.
It rains overnight, and rains some more, and then rains some more.
It rains so much that people joke this morning that God must be a woman.
As with golf guy humor, a joke isn't really a joke until it's been repeated a hundred times. By 11 a.m., Masters officials decide to cancel the opening round and play 36 holes on Friday. You hear the God-must-be-a-woman joke a half-dozen more times, including on the radio. Some men in green nylon ponchos are piling into a stretch limousine, and one of them notes that the strip club opens at 1 in the afternoon.