Why the Masters Is a Chance to Savor Nonmodern Pleasures
In material terms, here is what I took away from my first and perhaps only trip to the Masters last year:
Four official Masters cups.
Two official green folding Masters chairs.
One official green Masters umbrella.
One official mostly green Masters poster.
One official green Masters cap.
One unofficial Masters pine cone picked up and pocketed at Amen Corner.
Impulse acquisitions? Absolutely. But the Masters does it like no other competition when it comes to laying the psychological foundation for the need to match memories with memorabilia.
Masters nostalgia may be unlimited, but Masters supply is by design severely restricted. Tickets are exceedingly hard to come by and no off-site or online purchase of official souvenirs is available. Once you have braved the wait to enter the main store at Augusta National, you are ripe for the plucking even if you are a semi-jaded, not particularly materialistic sportswriter who before that visit to Augusta National had covered most of the other major global sports events.
But the Masters stays with you for reasons other than the loot.
The Masters is a throwback, although not entirely in the ways I anticipated. Yes, there are the manual scoreboards, the absence of commercial signage and the 20th-century food prices ($1.50 for a pimento cheese sandwich; $1 for coffee). Yes, there is still a severe shortage of female members, even if women sans the members’ green jackets are a constant presence during the week.
Still, for all the rules (items like backpacks, flags and selfie sticks are banned), there is still a whiff of old-time freedoms in the air.
There is smoke, actual smoke, as patrons and some of the protagonists light up and puff cigars as if this were a black-and-white movie.
There is also — and this is where the Masters gets it just right — the freedom to strike up not just a match but a bona fide conversation with the person standing next to you outside the ropes who is for once not too preoccupied with more-pressing modern matters like taking a photograph that can be shared immediately with his or her buddies to emphasize what a great time he or she is having right there, right now, in person.
The pace at the Masters seems leisurely not because the patrons are prohibited from running. It feels leisurely because, with cellphones banned all week and cameras banned during the tournament, people have the time and emotional availability to communicate face to face; to process what they are seeing without the compulsion to forward it; to share the old-fashioned way, with a neighbor rather than a follower.
The ban may seem hopelessly outdated to a fan who has to trek into the woods to make a call from the rows of fixed telephone lines that the club makes available. It may seem seriously overbearing to the unnamed pro golfer who told Golf Digest that his coach was thrown out for taking a video of his swing with a BlackBerry.
Fifty-two weeks of this would be insufferable, but something is gained by losing the technology. People skills still matter here, and plenty of events — sporting or nonsporting — could take the hint even if the Masters is one of the few that are too big to be concerned if the internet connection fails.
Last year, the lack of technology on the course was more than compensated for in the clubhouse as cameras recorded the emotional conversation between the surprise champion, the British golfer Danny Willett, and his wife, who was back in England after having recently given birth to their first child, and shared it with a global audience.
That all-access moment seemed too much in step with the times for a place so intent on keeping the troops marching to its own beat.
There is also the contrast in fortunes and fortune, such a staple of the American and the Augusta experience.
If you need a reminder, take a walk outside the club: past the strip malls and the fast-food restaurants; past the sidewalk evangelists and the backed-up traffic; past the very modest homes and unmanicured lawns just a few blocks removed from the golf nirvana where a stray leaf on a fairway looks out of place.
The former major champion John Daly turned up during my stroll. Still unable to earn a spot or an invitation into the tournament, he was hawking his own official merchandise (“Grip it and rip it” ball caps) out of brown boxes on makeshift tables set up outside the Hooters restaurant on Washington Road, home during Masters week to the Miss Green Jacket Swimsuit Contest.
As Daly was meeting and greeting the dwindling faithful in a parking lot, it was impossible not to notice the huge billboard across the street bearing the image of one of the tour’s current stars, Jason Day, following through after a big swing: a larger-than-life reminder of Daly’s former larger-than-life role.
Golf (and life) being full of surprises, one wondered if he might make it back to the right side of the street one day or at least back inside the bubble where the pine straw and the privileged meet all that green.
Augusta National is artificial, unique and gorgeous by stubborn, judicious design. It is a beautiful course with a cruel streak, as Jordan Spieth re-emphasized last year with his splashdowns at Rae’s Creek and the 12th hole.
The National, as locals call it, is much hillier than it looks on television or any other screen, and has grander vistas and more blind shots than you might imagine.
The clubhouse — full of books and photographs and, rather disappointingly, gas fireplaces with ersatz logs — is nowhere near as majestic as the real-deal oak tree that stands in front of it, providing a shady meeting ground for all those extended chats that the Masters encourages as long as someone is not pulling rank or lining up a putt.
It is (let’s not get carried away) just a golf tournament. Nothing is timeless, no matter what some commentators in an overwrought mood may suggest. But one of the true treats of the Masters is that it gives its visitors the undistracted time to savor their visit.
One year later, that is the true takeaway, no matter how much stuff I purchased on-site because it could only be purchased on-site; no matter how that pilfered pine cone looks on my shelf.