Over the years, I’ve visited Augusta National Golf Club many times and written about it too often to remember. I’ve bandied about terms like “The Augusta Syndrome” and talked about the way the TV images mesmerize golfers every April. I marveled at what Brad Owen and Marsh Benson have accomplished through the years in terms of quality and innovation. I’ve written cynically about Martha Burk, racism, television contracts and every other subject associated with ANGC.
In short, as a golf writer, Augusta, Ga., is always on my mind. But, it took a first-time visitor to finally help me realize the truth about the place.
I was fortunate enough to be part of a Masters-week event for superintendents, salespeople and guests hosted by Milliken Turf Products. It was a terrific, very informal few days featuring golf, beer, poker and, of course, a visit to a practice round on Tuesday. One of my hosts (the marvelous Mr. Miller McClintock of Milliken – just try to say that three times fast) asked me to take one of the guests along with me to the Tuesday practice round since I “knew all about” the course. I was happy to do it.
My new friend, a local distributor rep and former superintendent from Michigan, was a Masters virgin. And, he was probably just as excited as a “real” virgin on prom night. He’d been looking forward to attending the tournament for 30 years. We parked, walked and finally cleared security to find the usual perfect village of Masters shops, concessions (cheese-pimento sandwiches…yum!) before finally setting foot on the perfectly manicured tabernacle of turf that is ANGC. He was, to put it mildly, in heaven.
I regaled him with stories of the history of the place and fed him a lot of B.S. about the various times I’d been there. I introduced him to some people (including English great Tony Jacklin, which was cool). He almost immediately got a picture of Tiger and he got to see Mickelson and a bunch of other stars out on the putting green. We meandered around the course along with 30,000 or so others, taking in the azaleas, the history and the ambiance. He took pictures of a rare patch of Poa on a fairway (he is a turfhead, after all). I pointed out various ESPN, CBS and other media types hanging out under the big magnolia behind the clubhouse. For me, it was a typical Tuesday during Masters week. For him, it was something different.
He was literally vibrating with the excitement of being there. Just like a kid at Disneyland, I thought.
And that’s when it hit me. The Masters is golf’s version of Disneyland. It’s a hyper-realistic artificial creation where Tiger is Mickey Mouse and all the kids want to meet him and get his autograph. You park far away and stand in a long line to get in, yet everything seems to move along pretty quickly. There’s no trash on the ground, thanks to legions of teenagers in yellow jumpsuits who pick up every gum wrapper. The food is good, the stores are well-organized and clean and the workers are helpful and friendly. The surroundings are perfect, from the ornamentals to the hidden TV cables and impeccable white paint on the clubhouse and cabins. All that’s missing is the cryogenically frozen body of Bobby Jones…er, I mean Walt Disney.
My new acquaintance looked and acted exactly like a nine-year-old boy who’d wanted to go to Disneyland his whole life and was finally there. The tournament…the actual golf event…was totally secondary to his visit. We never once talked about who we thought would win or how the course would play. We were just there to experience the place, the aura and the culture of Augusta National Golf Club.
Thus, I reached my conclusion. The Masters is not a golf event; it’s a fabulous theme park for golf junkies that exists for only a week and then, like the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon, disappears for a year. And that’s the way it should be for the happiest, golfiest place on Earth.