SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
April 05, 1971
A skeptical visitor casts a jaundiced eye on the most sacrosanct golf tournament of all and, come Bobby Jones or high water, finds some things he doesn't like
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April 05, 1971

The Other Side Of Paradise

A skeptical visitor casts a jaundiced eye on the most sacrosanct golf tournament of all and, come Bobby Jones or high water, finds some things he doesn't like

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Augusta National is a pretty place. But it is also true that it is probably at its least attractive during the Masters week, with the pastoral quality unavoidably marred by television, press, scorers, committeemen and spectator stands. Spaghetti loops of electronic cable lie all about. Miles of plastic rope are strung to keep the golfers and their golf balls safe from the madding throng. And by the third day or so there are wide areas of dead grass tromped to a pulp by the herds of spectators.

The eye of the experienced beholder overlooks these blemishes. To such a one the turf is lush and green, as it is everywhere in the Southeast in the spring. There are some nice groves of mature, pruned, tree-doctored pines. Banks of azaleas, dogwood, wistaria, camellias and magnolias add splashes of off-white, pink and lavender. Here and there among the flower beds, figuratively thumbing its leaves at ground crews, is some poison ivy, the plant that in the natural course of things would flourish in such an environment. There is a kind of sour botanical mind that after a time begins to look for the poison ivy and even to root for it, as one might root for the Thailand Open champ to wallop Arnold Palmer.

A number of ponds and lagoons have been built on the course. Most of the water in these excavated pits looks the way water should look in such places in early spring: dark and muddy, covered with a film of algae. The ponds at the 15th and 16th greens, on the other hand, are the color of bright blue ink. This is so because early in the morning—before even the earliest galleryites are about—a member of the ground crew comes out and empties a cup of blue chemical dye onto the surface of the ponds. He does this because the 15th and 16th are television holes, and the television people want the water there to look on the color tube as water is meant to look—that is, postcard, calendar, poet's blue. Out of camera view are spillways that drain the ponds, and there the water looks oily, stained and sterile.

As in certain other famous landscapes of the South—Callaway Gardens and Mount Vernon come to mind—at Augusta there is a suggestion that the place was built to conform to a rich, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant concept of what heaven would look like if God only had enough cheap labor.

The Club as Cathedral

For some reason, athletics brings out the human inclination to memorialize and enshrine. At the twitch of a tear duct, the sporting crowd will gold-plate a net through which a 7'8" basketball player has stuffed his 100,000th point, make a museum out of a barroom where the greatest of all left-footed base stealers spent most of his adult life, and name streets, towns or children after halfbacks. The Masters, more than any other golf tournament, turns this idolatrous instinct up to peak volume. An atmosphere of reverence hangs so heavy about Augusta that it seems to have an aroma all its own.

There are a lot of little traditions and touches at Augusta that support the notion that this is a ceremony altogether more serious, pure and holy than the average golf tournament. There is, for example, the business at the finish when, amid pomp and circumstance, the winner is given his green Masters coat and a trophy, while the check for 20 grand is handed over in private. Nobody talks about money here, even if they have a mouthful of it. Nothing official is said about how much the tournament takes in, how much it pays out, how many tickets are sold or how many people attend. You do not take those U.S. Open cardboard periscopes into the Masters, or cameras. Everyone is uniformed at the Masters, from the members in their green coats down to the candy butchers, trap rakers and refuse gangs. The name of Bobby Jones, a Georgia amateur of good family who is credited in the hagiography of Augusta with first thinking of building a new golf course there, is frequently evoked.

It is possible to joke—usually in private—about the solemnity with which the Masters takes itself, or to argue that some of the gimmicks are overly cute, even a bit hypocritical. But it cannot be denied that they are effective. No one, not even a TV director, wants to seem so bush as not to know the proper manners at what everybody agrees—and rightfully—is the classiest golf tournament in America.

"I've been to six Masters and I still worry about not having the right badge for whatever I want to do," says a reporter. "I have this nightmare where I start for the men's room and a guard stops me and says I can't go in. And I never have guts enough to argue."

The reverence is sometimes carried to ludicrous lengths. A man leaning lightly against one of the ubiquitous Augusta National trash receptacles was watching his favorite, Bert Yancey, hit a shot at last year's Masters. When the man, who turned out to be a Midwestern banker, started down the fairway, he found his jacket button had caught the plastic bag inside the receptacle and pulled it off the frame. He looked about guiltily as if he had tracked dirt into a pew, picked up the bag and spent three or four minutes trying to refix it to the wire. He made a botch of it, but he gave it a good try. Meanwhile, of course, Yancey had gone.

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