Augusta National Puts Patrons First

By Adam BarrApril 9, 2004, 4:00 pm
The movement of the patrons iscontrolled. No, thats not it; too strong, too dogmatic. Itsdirected. No, too antiseptic. The movement of the patrons isencouraged in a way that ensures enjoyment for all.
 
There we go.
 
At no other tournament is word choice so important. The Masters Tournament is golfs annual festival of outdoor gentility, the polar opposite of the 16th hole at the Phoenix Open, a place where even roars are timed, robust, and sanitized of catcalls, Noonans and Davis-baiting.
 
And the patrons are never fans, a crowd, nor, Heaven forbid, a mob. It is not an accident that they are called patrons, like supporters of the arts. Its not just the fact that they buy tickets. Patrons support what Masters organizers have always offered as the art of the golf tournament: That is, the way they think it should be done.
 
Since 1934, hundreds of thousands of patrons have agreed, as have millions of television viewers. The Masters aura represents earthly paradise to millions who have never been there, and is strong enough to withstand a civil rights onslaught that would have crippled any other sporting institution.
 
Now, one year A.B. (After Burk), the dons of Augusta National Golf Club are delighted to move on and move back, back to the tournament they want to present.
 
Inside the ropes, that means a nervy test over a course that has no real equal, ideally a hard, fast, hilly track whose greens offer few effective landing areas. Once you realize how much of the putting surface is actually a dead zone, you begin to understand how Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie meant to counterbalance the absence of rough. Land it wrong here, and you quickly become an also-ran.
 
Outside the ropes, golfs best-regulated, week-long mini-society returns every year like Brigadoon from the mists. For every mindless, beer-swilling, bucket-hatted lout who may trample your foot in Florida Swing galleries, there are ten people here who will adroitly miss your foot, tip their hats, and smile. Im sorry, Excuse me, and Good morning are daily currency amid cups of lemonade and egg salad on white. No running, please, and no autographs past this point. Lines move, sometimes slowly, but complaining would be impolite. And stand, please, when a lady approaches the table.
 
Likely the patrons consider gentility a bargain price for what they get to see. On a crisp day such as those that began this week, there are few more beautiful places to watch golf. A pamphlet penned by Jones himself is still the authority on where to camp to get multiple views. For example, try the back of the first green, where I watched Tom Watson practice short-sided chips Tuesday against the background of tall pines and an impossibly blue sky. (No, better than blue: Azure. No, cerulean. Word choice again.) From there, you can step over to the ninth tee, and then diagonally to the second tee, where an attractive stone wall frames the box. Stand at the rope, look back at the tee, and join in the group head-snap as the ball takes off like an F-14.
 
Still, probably the most coveted viewing spot, the one where people come at opening time to stake out the seating area with folding chairs, is the slope behind the 12th tee. Not only do you get all the action on one of the most famous par-3s in the world, but you get a look at the business end of my nominee for scariest par-4 in major championship golf.
 
The 11th green, dropped down behind a pair of mounds, is a difficult target at best ' all the more now that players can no longer bash the ball off the tee into the right rough. Thirty-six new pine trees (of course, in true Augusta National style, they look as if they have been there for decades) guard the right edge of the fairway. They are golfs newest jail, and they demand accuracy from the set-back 11th tee.
 
Also within view from the slope behind 12 is the 13th tee, but the look is mostly at the players swing, not the ball flight. More interesting, especially this year, is the admirable bloom of dogwood and azalea, colors that make an entrance but see no need to loudly announce themselves.
 
Not everything about the Masters experience feels restful and welcoming. Equipment manufacturer representatives, who are used to strolling onto the practice range to serve their pro clients whenever they feel like it, are constrained here. Their repair trucks must park off-site, leaving them a half-mile struggle through the patrons instead of the usual skip to the end of the range.
 
Its all part of the clubs effort to restrain commercialism of any kind, except their own concession and merchandise sales. Its not that the club wants to squelch competition. No, they just want the purest golf environment they can have. One could argue that the equipment company reps dont impinge on that, but the club is resolute. When one equipment rep bemoaned his plight, we agreed that the clubs seeming extremism on this point is its one defense against the ravages of time.
 
And so it is, for timelessness is one of the primary aims of this event, especially where the patrons are concerned. Whatever else may be happening in sports ' be it in courtrooms or boardrooms ' the National wants none of it inside the walls of bamboo that line Washington Road at the clubs perimeter.
 
This is why patrons rarely complain if their practice day ticket does not admit them to the Trophy Room or under the spreading oak tree behind the clubhouse. Everyone knows his or her place here, and is glad to have it.
 
And the Masters treasures its place in sports, and will alwaysencourage its protection.
 
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