Thursday, April 05, 2007


Today marks the start of the Masters Tournament, quite possibly the most prestigious tournament in the world of golf.

Beginning Monday of this week, the competitors began playing practice rounds. Yesterday, the Par 3 tournament was held. Today, the real action begins: the first of four eighteen-hole rounds, the last and most dramatic of which will be played on Sunday.

The Masters Tournament is held at the Augusta National Golf Club, a private - and extremely exclusive - club. It is not a PGA Tour event; it is subject only to the iron whim of the club’s directors and membership. Except on the players’s bags and clothing, you won’t see commercial logos anywhere at the Masters Tournament. Soft drinks are sold in green cups bearing the Masters logo. Pro shop merchandise is reasonably priced; for that matter, the snacks sold at the course - including the famous Augusta National Pimiento Cheese Sammitch - are also reasonably priced. It’s refreshing to see a golf tournament that is not, seemingly, run by Corporate Whores.

Not that there isn’t Corporate Whoring taking place. It’s there, but it’s subtle. ANGC makes its money from hefty membership fees and gargantuan TV rights payments, enough so that several years ago, they elected to have the tournament televised commercial-free so that sponsors would not get caught up in the then-current controversy about female membership [i.e., there is none]. Ya gotta have deep pockets to give your sponsors a free ride.

I’ve been to the Masters Tournament twice: in 1992 and 1993, the latter year accompanied by She Who Must Be Obeyed. Not the practice rounds, mind you: the Real Thing, the tournament proper. We would typically show up mid-day Friday and catch the afternoon play that day, then see all the action Saturday and Sunday. One of the rare benefits of working for the Great Corporate Salt Mine, I suppose.

The Masters Tournament is held the first week in April, when the dogwoods, azaleas, and other Flowering Species are at their absolute peak in Augusta. The course itself is unbelieveable. Fairways are manicured, seemingly, by hordes of guys with nail clippers and tweezers, so perfect are they. The fairways would serve quite nicely for greens on any other golf course; the greens themselves are like pool table felt. Bunkers are impeccably maintained.

In those years, play on the front nine was not televised. The only way you ever got to see those holes was to actually be there in the flesh. And the back nine, with the legendary Amen Corner - Holes 11, 12, and 13 - was more beautiful than any television show could convey.

To walk that course was like being in the Great Cathedral of Golf.

There is no major sport that permits its spectators such close contact with the players. We positioned ourselves, that Sunday in 1993, alongside the seventh green, a location that also commanded a view of the approach to the second green. Every player had to walk within two feet of us on his way to the eighth tee. Try doing that at the Super Bowl.

There is no other sports event with the level of spectator civility seen at the Masters Tournament, either. You can place your folding chair in a favored spot, walk away for four hours, and come back to find your chair untouched - no matter how huge a crowd has gathered in that area. Cameras, cellphones, and the requesting of autographs are all verboten, although the rule against cameras is relaxed during the practice rounds. Rules are strictly enforced, the penalty being expulsion. What with Masters passes being jealously guarded family heirlooms, that’s not something anybody dares risk. Hence, you will never see a more well-behaved bunch of spectators (“patrons,” in Augusta Nationalspeak) in any other sports venue. Even the nobs who go to watch the tennis at Wimbledon are Neanderthals by comparison.

You wanna go? Practice round tickets are sold by lottery, so with luck, you may be able to score tickets for 2008 - provide you get your request in by July 15. But the Tournament itself is a lot tougher. For that you need a Tournament Badge that allows you entry for all rounds Thursday through Sunday. These are sold to those on ANGC’s patron list - a list which was closed due to demand in 1972. A waiting list began in 1972, and was closed in 1978. It reopened in 2000, and it too is now closed; no applications for Tournament Badges are currently being accepted. Many patrons scalp their tickets - last I heard, the going rate was $2000 per badge and headed north fast - but if they are found out, they get booted off the list. As a result, people are careful who they sell their tickets to...and this tends to keep patrons very well-behaved.

The field at the Masters Tournament consists of the cream of the crop, the best golfers in the world, all present By Invitation Only. Under the tenure of the new Chairman of ANGC, Billy Payne, it’s likely that Tournament invitations will be extended to all PGA Tour event winners, a welcome change. But don’t go there expecting to see Annika Sörenstam anytime soon.

No comments: