AUGUSTA, Ga. — There’s a big ol’ bunch of juicy stuff you’ll never learn about the Masters by watching this weekend’s goody-two-shoes TV broadcast. After covering 39 Masters, I just thought you ought to know.
First, some context. The Masters is my favorite golf tournament. It’s more beautiful and dramatic in person than it is on TV because Augusta National isn’t just hilly, it’s almost mountainous, except that there’s nothing remotely like a mountain here.
The Masters is also the greatest tournament golf course on earth. No other place consistently brings out so much drama, such swings of fortune and score, and does it by entirely legitimate golf methods, not trickery. The rest of the world has been copying, but not equaling it, since 1933.
But a lot goes unsaid about the Masters or only gets mentioned around the edges. So let’s talk, just us golf lovers, before the orgy of weekend fun.
Bobby Jones made the Masters the greatest venue for golf spectators on earth. He created natural amphitheaters, sweeping downhill holes and spectating mounds. In 1978, you could follow the leaders here on the weekend and, with foresight, cover the tournament while walking with the “patrons.” Since the Masters doesn’t allow reporters inside the ropes, you have no choice but to become an expert on the crowd’s experience because it is also your own.
Over time, crowds here are ever larger. No figures are given. The Masters adds some mounds to help with viewing. And the property is so vast that it just swallows the additional numbers. But the overall effect on the patrons has been very large, in my opinion. What was once a fabulous walk in a golf paradise, with the ability to watch the majority of the shots by the tournament leaders and superstars is now merely average by the standards of modern golf. At best.
Are crowds two or three times as large as they were in 1978, or in 1986, when I chased Jack Nicklaus on every shot from the 12th hole through the last putt at the 18th and saw almost every one? I won’t pretend to know. But standing in the 10th row of spectators — or in popular spots, the 20th — at a course that doesn’t allow periscopes, isn’t “a tradition unlike any other.” It’s a spectating experience — for seeing actual golf — exactly like every other. Or worse.
If you want to perch on a chair beside one hole all day, or sit in a grandstand, or simply soak in the whole scene more than watch the golf, you’ll be delighted. But if you actually want to see the tournament, stay home and watch it on TV. That’s what plenty of “patrons” do. I hear them in the Sunday crowd at No. 2 or 3 every year: “Let’s go home and watch the rest.”
The U.S. Open, which I’ve covered 37 times, generally does a better job of not over-stuffing its site with too many fans per usable yard of viewing space. I’m allowed inside the ropes to cover the leaders, but many times don’t bother and walk with the crowd. We can see. Like you once could at the Masters.
If you’re lucky enough to get to a Masters, and it’s pure bucket list for golf fans, you might not need to go to many more. Facilities around the course expand enormously. But on the course itself, every year feels just like 1978. And probably 1958, too. What will 2036 look like? Just like 2016.
Even when holes are changed, or lengthened by 70 yards as part of the Tiger-proofing of the course many years ago, you can barely tell. Whole mini-forests of trees are imported. Yet every leaf seems to have been there for generations. Reporters laugh in disbelief at the architectural changes done by (very expensive) magic. It’s Brigadoon. That also means the Masters whispers: “I’m immortal. You aren’t.”
Some say the Masters practices ancestor worship in ways such as its it’s ceremonial first drives. But what the Masters really practices is institution worship — and the institution is itself. Can trees be narcissists? If any could, it would be these.
You know it rains in Georgia in April. But you may not know how miserable rain makes the Masters. In very wet years, and there have been plenty, the whole place stunk like my grandfather-the-farmer’s pigsty. It’s inescapable. There’s fertilizer, mulch, pine needles and sloping hills that get mucked up by thousands of feet. It’s no scandal. But I bet your TV has never said, “The Masters stinks this year.”
Also, there are no birds, squirrels, insects or any other living creature indigenous to planet earth at the Masters. Nowhere on the property. Well, okay, there must be some somewhere. But the Post’s Dave Sheinin and I made a multi-day quest for a single bird sighting. So far, none. Those bird calls that you sometimes hear on the Masters broadcast? The source remains undiscovered.
Never, anywhere, have I met more friendly people in every service capacity. It’s a combination of Augusta National edict, true Southern hospitality and good business sense, too. But it goes hand-in-hand with the most intense security — and a general sense that every inch of the place is under surveillance or control — that I’ve seen in sports. A friend and I were standing near the clubhouse and were asked, politely, to move five times in 10 minutes. We’d go 15 yards, but we’d still be in some unmarked invisible “path” that had being kept free. “The Singapore of the South,” I said. “Beautiful, rich, perfect — but don’t break a rule. And there are rules for everything.”
Many enjoy that Masters winners are usually one-name stars such as Jack, Tiger, Phil and Jordan. This event breeds stars who are multiple winners here, thus building both their brand and Augusta’s. But it’s partly a rigged game. The Masters invites about 65 fewer players than other majors; even the 89 men here include a squad of amateurs, international players and former champs who have no chance. The best of the best are here. But many very good pros who could spring a one-week upset, and ruin a green jacket for a Rory, are not. No birds, no bugs and no bums are allowed.
Now that you’re as wised up as I can make you, ditch any cynicism, get on your biggest golf grin and enjoy one of the most exciting weekend feasts in sports in the manner for which it was not intended by Bobby Jones — on the best big-screen TV you can find.