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Augusta National a world of its own, and a better experience because of it

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – So much is different about golf in 2019 – New rules! New technology! New controversies! – and yet here at Augusta National, on a sunny, 77-degree day, it’s all still wonderfully the same.

The same vibrant colors. The same free parking and $1.50 egg salad sandwiches and $4 beers. The same power brokers under the oak tree and the same first-tee ceremony and the same rules that prohibit running and autograph hounds and the yahoos who scream, “Get it the hole!” after the tee shot on a 570-yard par 5.

The rules about proper decorum are printed right there on the Masters pairings sheet – with a quote from Bobby Jones, about the importance of good behavior and how distressing it can be to applaud a poor shot – and Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said that patrons here recognize it’s a “place of respect and beauty and honoring the traditions and values of the game.”

“It’s not like most Tour events, where if you get the ball in the air, you’re the man,” Tiger Woods said, laughing. “We do have our names on the golf bag, so we’re able to get the ball in the air. But this is different.”

And thankfully, we could use this one-week reprieve from what has been a contentious start to 2019. The new “streamlined” rules have created only more dissension among the ranks. The Tour’s social-media focus has led to a deteriorating fan experience. Temper tantrums and caddie payouts and 6-inch non-concessions have all dominated the headlines, enough to turn Matt Kuchar from a golly-gee gentleman into one of the game’s leading villains. (Imagine reading that sentence six months ago.)

But this is the safest place in the world for Kuchar and Co., where the professionals and amateurs are treated like royalty, where they’re protected from hecklers and sheltered from the media, where they’re surrounded by the familiar.

Woods is renowned for his tunnel vision, and yet even he noticed how, year after year, the same people surround some of the holes here, how they proudly display 50 years’ worth of badges. 

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“This is unlike any other golf tournament,” Woods said, “and my relationship with the event and the patrons, not only myself, but all the players here throughout the years, has just been special.”

As extravagant a spectacle as the Masters has become, to be on the grounds here is still delightfully minimalistic. Even this millennial scribe has come around on the cell-phone ban. Sure, it cuts us off from you, dear reader. And yes, it makes coordinating coverage with colleagues infinitely more difficult. But being untethered is also therapeutic – it heightens the other senses that can make storytelling so powerful.

The technological void also creates a better spectator experience. There’s a reason why the roars here seem louder – because the patrons don’t have their faces buried in their phones, uploading their latest Instagram story, they are free to clap and cheer.

“That’s something that does set us apart – we’ve now become the only outlier in golf as far as not allowing cell phones,” Ridley said. “But I think it’s part of the ambiance of the Masters. I think we’ve got that right.”

That, of course, runs counter to the Tour’s latest marketing push, but the players and caddies here have embraced how life at Augusta is about as anti-Live Under Par as it can get.

Playing a Masters practice round this week, caddie Harry Diamond turned to his boss, Rory McIlroy, and said: “How good is it that people aren’t looking at their phones?”

“And I think people can learn from that,” McIlroy said. And he would know: He’s currently reading Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” on how to achieve balance in an increasingly tech-saturated world.

“I think it’s cool to see that Augusta has upheld that tradition,” McIlroy said. “I think it’s a great thing.”

At regular Tour events and even other majors, the gaggle inside the ropes – media, tournament VIPs, honorary observers, ShotLink volunteers, security – at times seems to outnumber those following outside. But not here. It’s just players and caddies and a few cameramen, with a couple of ball spotters hugging the rope line.

“There’s no other distractions inside the ropes,” Woods said. “It’s just us playing, and you see some of the greatest golf you’ve ever seen here. I think that’s one of the reasons why.”

And there will be even more great play this week, just as there was last weekend, where Jennifer Kupcho summoned a couple of epic shots Saturday in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

From the patron rules, to the masterful design of the holes, to the restricted inside-the-ropes access, the Masters always delivers pure, unadulterated golf – even in these ever-changing times.

How refreshing.