A week ago Thursday I found myself with a cold beer and two pimento cheese sandwiches in hand while sitting at the world famous Amen Corner at Augusta National golf course.  Not too shabby.  Did I mention I was getting paid for this?  And did you see the prices for those sandwiches?  Well guess what… the beers were only $3.00.  I now have a full set of twelve Masters plastic cups in my cupboard.  Life is good.

The above isn’t necessarily a story, it’s just an excuse for me the brag about how every so often my general awesomeness exceeds itself.  What is a story, or more accurately a collection of stories, is the Masters itself.  I’m a stories guy.  I believe strongly that he who dies with the most stories - rather than toys -wins, as stories are life experiences rather than tangible items that can be replicated.  Stories bring people together around a pint or a (fire) pit.  Stories incorporate characters and facilitate bonds between them that cannot be manufactured or faked.  While not being a “golf guy” per se, this was only my second professional tournament, I was drawn to Augusta for the mystique of the stories it holds.  I was fortunate enough to attend as a guest of a customer of mine who had grown up just across the river in South Carolina and had spent one week a year of his formative youth on the rolling hills of the most amazing golf course these eyes have ever seen.  He could talk about Palmer’s back nine in ‘86, Norman’s famous collapse, and any other individual stroke taken Thursday-Sunday over the past 50 years.  My gracious customer spent the first day of the 2011 Masters serving as my personal onsite tour guide and connoisseur of stories that act as the building blocks to the legacy that is Augusta. 

  • Apparently the Masters as we know it, with its aura and mystique, is a fairly recent (last forty years) event.  Sure this year was the 75th tournament but as late as the 60s and early 70s it was a good tournament but not the greatest of all time.  Back then getting tickets did not require taking out a second mortgage (people were apparently selling single day passes for up to $2,000 last week) only requiring that you live within an adjoining zip code.  Most everyone I met from South Carolina or Georgia during my visit that lives within 60 miles of Augusta was able to tell stories of how they spent every spring break Sunday to Sunday walking the fabled fairways.  While the Kentucky Derby is always set on the first Saturday of May like clockwork, the Masters always coincides with the local school’s spring vacation schedules so that there would be enough volunteers to host their out of town guests with the Southern Hospitality they deserve.  Even today, the course is littered with local volunteers to run the concessions, sell a reportedly $20 million in merchandise (in seven days!), and walk the course each night to repair divots and spread Augusta Green sand (it’s their patented color) in the tee boxes so tomorrow on TV it looks like it’s the first time the course has been played. 
  • Pimento cheese sandwiches are to the Masters what Mint Julips are to the Kentucky Derby.  Giddy-up!
  • The famed azaleas at Augusta are timed to bloom over the four days of the tournament.  If they begin blooming early they are packed in ice, and if the buds are slow to appear they are heated to ensure a perfect picture for a national audience.
  • The Masters is the only Major that does not travel between courses and thus their TV stands are permanent and all the cables and wiring you may be familiar with tripping over at other tournaments is buried underground keeping the scene serene.
  • CBS is the only TV network that has ever had the rights to carry the Masters coverage but they have always only worked under one year contracts.  The board of the Masters refuses to work on terms any longer so that they have the right to pull the coverage the following year should CBS slip up.  Needless to say they never have.
  • Speaking of TV, for everyone that says they’d rather watch the tournament from the comforts of their living room, all I can tell you is you’re only cheating yourself.  I know tickets are hard to come by (some say the hardest ticket in all of sports), but if you get the chance, you have to go.  I don’t care how Hi-Def or the number of D’s your TV projects, I can assure you that it does no justice to the undulations of the greens and the beauty of the grounds.  It’s a literal video game there.  Granted last Thursday the temperatures were in the mid-seventies and there was nary a cloud in the sky (even they can’t control that) but every detail has been thought of.  The place is filled with pine trees but there are no pine cones on the ground.  There is not a flower that is not at the peak of its bloom.  Every green is hand trimmed each morning.  No stone is left unturned.  Literally.
  • The place is the Disney World of golf courses.  The first hole we visited was #10 and while standing near the green I realized everyone around me had a beer in hand already and I had yet to identify a single vendor.  It’s almost like those Magic Eye pictures we wasted the late nineties staring at where on the surface all you see are the grasses and flowers and sunshine, but looking a little deeper tucked in all the nooks and crannies are concession stands and bathrooms in the most convenient and logical places.  Were you to drop a wrapper on the ground and sneeze it will be gone before you look down again, but you have no idea who picked it up.  I can’t stress enough that they have hosting a golf tournament ‘mastered’ at Augusta. 

**Note: I can see the picture in the link above but still have no idea what it is.  They’re balloons right?  But what’s the goofy thing on the left then?  Are they flowers buds? **

  • As noted above, they have patented their own color (Masters Green) and re-paint every building each year whether it needs it or not.  Even the sandwich bags are colored appropriately.
  • They spend a remarkable amount of money to keep things as nostalgic as possible.  Upon entrance each patron walks through metal detectors and all phones and cameras are confiscated.  If caught with electronics on the course the attendee is kicked out and their tickets are revoked for the remainder of the tournament (if not longer).
  • It’s kind of refreshing with no video scoreboards and instant replays and people on their phones talking through backswings or flashes going off with each putt.  The only way to know what is happening elsewhere on the course is to keep tabs on the manually updated Leader Boards or listen for the roars rolling through the pines.  Very Wrigley-esque. 
  • Because of the endless hills there really is no bad view on the course.  There’s no reason to be more than 3-4 people deep at any one spot because the crowds are limited and you can see the action from anywhere.  It truly was built as a tournament course with the spectators in mind.
  • There is absolutely no advertising at Augusta National.  Today’s PGA golf tour is filled with logos on each tee box, corporate tents, and gift bags filled with a bunch of junk you don’t need.  That all gets filtered out at the Masters.  You drink Masters beer – imported or domestic.  You eat Masters potato chips.  A guy in my group walked in with a bottle of water that they said he could keep but he had to remove the label.  With Augusta being in Coca-Cola’s backyard you would think it only natural they’d be able to worm their way in the door somehow, but sorry, Masters Soda only (or so I assume… you really think I tried ordering a soda while I was there?).
  • There are no motorized vehicles on the premise except for those which the Members scoot around in.  The Members at Augusta fit the profile of those smarmy people in life who are easy to hate.  It’s a collection of the highest of high ranking leaders of industry who can only join by invitation.  They’re all white males in 50-80 year old silver fox category and they wear green jackets like they earned them or something.  The situation is very akin to the owners of clubs in Vegas who watch the party from some room above the dance floor with a cigar in hand that everyone assumes is a huge douche but you would also trade places with them in a second.
  • The Members run the show at Augusta.  They stay at the cabins on the grounds and go wherever they want.  The course was originally built around normal people’s houses that were bought out over time.  Reportedly there’s one non-member family that held out and still maintains a residence in what is now the parking lot.  You can only play Augusta the remainder of the year in the company of a member but interestingly the course is only viable to play on February through June.  The grass is some special rye seed that is thick like carpet (you never see any dirt below it) but it’s meant for colder climates and burns out in the Georgia summer heat.  I guess the whole place is brown by the 4th of July but again, the whole point of existence is for these four days.
  • When not golfing or acting like frat boys hosting the party, rumor has it the Members like to play a few hands of cards back in the clubhouse.  Nothing wrong with that right?  Especially when once a year a group of multi-millionaire golfers come through looking to enjoy the Masters experience.  In Vegas they call these kind of people ‘Whales’.  There was a story circulating the driving range while we were sitting there about Phil Mickelson’s famous experience with a member.  For those not in the know – myself included until this trip – the big knock on Phil is that he has a slight gambling problem.  I have no personal knowledge on this subject, and this is just what I heard, but Google ‘Phil Mickelson’ and ‘gambling’ and decide for yourself.  The story goes that Phil got in a couple hundred thousand dollars to a member after a late night card game in the clubhouse.  When the Member asked Phil to pay up, he just laughed and walked away.  The Member reported the incident to the Chairman who promptly made a call to Phil who had moved on to his next tournament and the phone call reportedly went like this:

                    Chairman: Phil, I’m glad you took my call.  Listen, I know you and the boys

                     like to have some fun in the clubhouse, and while we don’t official

                     condone gambling on the premises, we know it happens and all we

                     ask is that everyone settles their debts.  Now I understand we’ve had

                     some issues in that department.  I’d like to remind you that the Masters

                     is still an invitational tournament and we don’t have to invite everyone

                     back next year.  I’m glad you understand our position on the matter.

        The next day a check with six digits was put in the mail.  That’s cool…

  • The famous Augusta roars are very real.  It’s cool to hear a cheer arise from 500 yards away and have the people around you say, “sounds like a birdie.”
  • Tiger’s roar is noticeably different than others.
  • The Masters encourages an international flair.  While there are 150+ golfers on the PGA tour only 40-50 get invited to Augusta each spring.  The rest of the field is comprised of amateurs or the winner of the Italian Open or other obscure tournaments that may not be in the mainstream.
  • Last year’s US Amateur Champion gets a free pass to Augusta and stays in the Crow’s Nest above the clubhouse.  They get all you can eat service and legend has it that Arnold Palmer took full advantage of the free pass.  Sam Sneed famously said that Arnold literally ate all that anyone could eat during his stay.  This year’s Amateur Champion – Peter Uihlein, whose father is CEO of Calloway – slept in the same bed as Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods, & Mickelson and teed off in the last group with last year’s Masters champion (Phil) as tradition dictates.    

 

I can go on and on here but I think you get the picture.  Keep in mind I don’t know the difference between the Mcilroy that was leading going into Sunday and the one Kevin Costner portrayed in Tin Cup as of last week.  It’s almost to the point that I’m not sure that I’d even want to play the course (but of course I would if given the opportunity) as I wouldn’t want to damage it – and the greens would just kill me.  The place has that kind of power that it had this sports fan tuned in for the rest of the weekend reminding everyone around me how the TV isn’t doing the picture justice.  I think it was said best by one of the guys who shared the virgin visitor experience with me on our way home.  Going to Augusta National was like meeting a lifelong friend for the first time.  Couldn’t have said it better myself.