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LOOKING AT the L.L. Bean catalog, you would never guess that that Maine seller of sturdy, plain-Jane goods uses a Madison Avenue advertising agency, but it does. And so it is with the clubhouse of Augusta National Golf Club. You wouldn't think that the club hires interior decorators, but it does. As on the course, everything is thought out: the green-and-white cushions on the porch chairs; the perfect balance of memorabilia between Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts (the club's cofounders) in an upstairs dining room; the pictures of urinating dogs above the urinals in the second-floor men's room. Who needs fine art when you have an oil portrait of Cliff Roberts by Dwight D. Eisenhower?
Talk about the patina of age. The clubhouse, minus its various wings, is the original manor house of Fruitland Nursery, the plantation on which the course was built. The house dates back to 1854, and you can't buy the aural pleasure of the creaking spiral staircase, although Lord knows some modern developers, trying to market old-money nonchalance, would like to. On that staircase you pass portraits of some of the club's founding members with given names not in common circulation today: a Burton, a Grantland, an Alton.
During the Masters, the members graciously open the clubhouse doors to several hundred lucky souls who can wander around pretty much without restraint. Those so favored include former winners, the players and their families, plus certain swing coaches, equipment manufacturers, course architects, officials, agents, psychologists—and the working press. (Thank you, Grantland Rice.) At a corner table one day last week was Jerry Tarde, the editor of Golf Digest; Tom Fazio, the course architect; Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist; and Dan Jenkins, the writer. Oh, if white-starched tablecloths could talk!
Actually, it's a pretty good bet that that foursome talked ... golf. All during the Masters, throughout the clubhouse and across its back lawn, the subject is golf, which is maybe why people so look forward to the week. It's also the best gathering of golf people anywhere all year, with a single and iconic meeting place: a bulging oak tree, older than the course and held up by a series of cables, situated between the back door and the 1st tee. During the tournament's long days, the tree is ringed by a collection of knapsacks, news camera tripods and water bottles. The week's most-heard declaration is, "I'll meet you under the tree."
In the shade of that oak is, in effect, the golf industry's biggest cocktail party, although there is little drinking. It's a schmoozefest. Vinny Giles, the fair-skinned former U.S. Amateur champion and agent, used to park himself under that tree and spend the week there, setting up golf games and accomplishing nothing and everything on behalf of Tom Kite, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III. Last Wednesday afternoon (it's during the Par-3 contest that the under-the-tree population reaches its peak) you could see Chuck Rubin of Assured Management and Rich Lerner of Golf Channel and John Solheim of Ping and about 200 other boldface golf names. Fuzzy Zoeller made his unfortunate fried chicken remarks in 1997 about 12 yards from the tree. Each of the Big Three—the King, the Bear and Laddie—will sometimes stop for a chat on his way in or out. Many players, after doing TV interviews, will, too, Tiger not among them. Like a shark, he never stops moving and will typically enter the clubhouse accompanied by two police officers before climbing the spiral staircase two steps at a time and popping into the ultimate retreat, the champions' locker room.
The merely fortunate—those lucky enough to be on campus but lacking clubhouse badges—are kept at bay by a thin, green-and-white nylon rope and very few security guards. You'll almost never hear the shrill call for an autograph request on the veranda at the clubhouse. You will hear, sotto voce, green-coated men ( Augusta National members) and blue-blazered men ( USGA officials) discussing the above-the-hole green speed at 9 and the site of the 2014 U.S. Open, among other weighty issues. It's a busman's holiday, really.
The food's good. There are three places to eat in the clubhouse, four if you're a player, five if you're a former champ. Adjacent to the players' locker room is the pine-paneled Grill Room, where there's a bar, two flat-screen TVs, two telephone booths and a collection of clubs donated by former Masters champions, including a wood-shafted putter from Cary Middlecoff, a one-iron from Arnold Palmer thinner than your butter knife and a persimmon-headed, steel-shafted, leather-gripped five-wood from Raymond Floyd. How's this for a morning? You breakfast on a massive waffle ($4), with the Masters section of The Augusta Chronicle (free in the clubhouse) lodged beside your coffee while watching Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal, Tommy Aaron and David Graham walk by (priceless).
On the opposite side of the clubhouse—in another wing, really—is the Trophy Room, where there's a buffet lunch that features, among other things, various Southern staples including fried chicken, black-eyed peas, biscuits, turnip greens and peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Most of the waitstaff, in the Trophy Room and elsewhere, is African-American and remarkably courteous. (A sign in an employee area of the club reads: PRESERVE THE "MYTHICAL" MEMBER EXPERIENCE.) A little after three, at the end of lunch, you'll see waiters and waitresses and busboys lined up for the Trophy Room buffet. You'll see many of the same faces, year after year. But it's not a total time warp. Taking a child's milk order, James Lawrence, a waiter who has logged decades at the club, wants to know this: whole, 2% or skim? There were fewer options in Cliff Roberts's day.
There's much else of interest in the clubhouse: the Crow's Nest (the hangout in the attic for amateurs), black-and-white photographs of the original nursery, various portraits and busts of Jones and Roberts and Eisenhower, aerial photos of the course, bookshelves crammed with golf books, many with a Masters link (Power Golf by Ben Hogan; Winner, about Billy Casper, the 1970 Masters champion; A Golfer's Life, the Arnold Palmer autobiography). The genius of the clubhouse design is that it brings you back to golf in general, and golf at Augusta National in particular. In April that's especially welcome. You take a break from the world beyond Washington Road. Who doesn't want that?
Maybe the best place to eat in the clubhouse—try to find someone to argue against this—is the second-floor porch, with its view of the course impeded pleasingly by the great oak. On any given day during Masters week you might see, sitting in a green wicker chair and having lunch, Mike Kern (golf writer for the Philadelphia Daily News) or Charles Coody (the '71 Masters winner) or Charlie Yates ( Augusta National member, scion of an Atlanta golfing family). On days with no wind you can smell the cigar smoke wafting up from the lawn below. You can hear the TV people snapping to attention when Phil Mickelson stops to take some questions. At your table are some rites of spring, National-style: a bottle of Aunt Nellie's Old-Style Sauce; the gooey remains of peach cobbler and ice cream; a waiter asking you how your winter was.