Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National
Beneath Augusta National, the world’s most exclusive golf club and most venerated domain of cultivated grass, there is a vast network of pipes and mechanical blowers, which help drain and ventilate the putting greens. The SubAir System was developed in the nineteen-nineties, by the aptly named course superintendent Marsh Benson, in an effort to mitigate the effects of nature on this precious facsimile of it. When the system’s fans blow one way, they provide air to the densely seeded bent grass of the putting surface. This promotes growth. When the fans are reversed, they create a suction effect, and leach water from the greens. This promotes firmness. The professionals who arrive at Augusta every April to compete in the Masters Tournament, the event for which the club is known, expect to be tested by greens that are hard and fast. Amid all the other immodesties and peculiarities of Augusta, the greens, ultimately, are the thing. Herbert Warren Wind, who for decades covered the sport at this magazine and at Sports Illustrated, once asked a colleague, on arriving in Augusta, “Are they firm?” The antecedent was understood. In 1994, Gary McCord, a golf commentator for CBS, the network that has televised the tournament for sixty-three years, said on the air, “They don’t cut the greens here at Augusta, they use bikini wax.” He was banned from the broadcast.
It is by now hardly scandalous to note that Augusta National—called the National by its members and devotees, and Augusta by everyone else—is an environment of extreme artifice, an elaborate television soundstage, a fantasia of the fifties, a Disneyclub in the Georgia pines. Some of the components of the illusion are a matter of speculation, as the club is notoriously stingy with information about itself. It has been accepted as fact that recalcitrant patches of grass are painted green and that the ponds used to be dyed blue. Because the azaleas seem always to bloom right on time, skeptics have propagated the myth that the club’s horticulturists freeze the blossoms, in advance of the tournament, or swap out early bloomers for more coöperative specimens. Pine straw is imported. Pinecones are deported. There is a curious absence of fauna. One hardly ever sees a squirrel or a bird. I’d been told that birdsong—a lot of it, at any rate—is piped in through speakers hidden in the greenery. (In 2000, CBS got caught doing some overdubbing of its own, after a birder noticed that the trills and chirps on a golf broadcast belonged to non-indigenous species.)
You hear about this kind of stuff, before your first visit, just as you get the more commonplace spiel that everything is perfect, that the course is even more majestic in real life than it is on TV, and that, in spite of all the walking, you’ll put on five pounds. Pimento-cheese sandwiches, egg-salad sandwiches, peach-ice-cream sandwiches, MoonPies, underpriced beer. You are urged to adopt the terminology favored by the tournament hosts and embraced by CBS. Spectators are “patrons.” The rough—longer grass that lines the fairways—is the “second cut.” (And it is controversial, because its abundance contravenes the wishes of the patriarchs, who designed the course to have a dearth of rough. Gary McCord may have been onto something.) The traps are bunkers, and what appears to patrons and television viewers to be the whitest sand in golf is technically not sand but waste from feldspar mines in North Carolina.
Augusta National is sometimes likened to Oz. For one thing, it’s a Technicolor fantasyland embedded in an otherwise ordinary tract of American sprawl. Washington Road, the main approach to the club, is a forlorn strip of Waffle Houses, pool-supply stores, and cheap-except-during-the-Masters hotels. In the Hooters parking lot during tournament week, fans line up for selfies with John Daly, the dissolute pro and avatar of mid-round cigarettes and booze. But step through the club’s metal detectors and badge scanners, and you enter a lush, high-rent realm, where you are not allowed to run, talk loudly, or cheer a player’s mistakes. Order is maintained by security guards, who for decades were provided by the Pinkerton detective agency. (Though Pinkerton was acquired by a Swedish company called Securitas, in 1999, many patrons still refer to the guards as Pinkertons.) In 2012, a fan who stole onto a fairway to take a cup of bunker sand was thrown in jail.
I showed up on a Monday afternoon before the tournament, just as a series of storms swept in, and as the spectators, there to witness the first rounds of practice, were being herded off the grounds. Owing to the threat of lightning, play was suspended for the day and the club was closed to visitors. The throngs poured out of the gates into the real world, just as I was leaving it. I took refuge in what the club calls the press building, a recently constructed Taj Mahal of media mollycoddling. This columned, ersatz-antebellum megamansion, in operation just ten days a year, has got to be the fanciest media center in sports. It has state-of-the-art working quarters, radio and television studios, locker rooms, a gratis restaurant with made-to-order omelettes for breakfast and a bountiful hot lunch, as well as a grab-and-go counter with craft beers, artisanal cheeses and jerkies, and a full array of Augusta’s famous sandwiches, each wrapped in green paper.
Such generosity and care, for the journalists, reflects the role that so many of them have played in burnishing the mythology of the Masters; it also suggests an effort to keep them away from the course and the clubhouse. The press is provided with every disincentive to venture out. The gang’s all there. Even the bathrooms are capacious, and staffed with attendants. Each member of the media has a work station with a brass nameplate, a leather swivel chair, a pair of computer monitors, and a surfeit of real-time tournament footage and information—far more data than one would be able to gather out on the golf course, especially because, outside the press building, reporters are not allowed to carry cell phones. (The phone ban, strictly enforced and punishable by immediate removal from the grounds, applies to patrons and members, too. One morning during the tournament this year, a story went around that the club had done a spot inspection of staff headquarters and found that an employee had hidden a cell phone between two slices of bread.) The golfers and the tournament officials appear dutifully for press conferences; why bother heading out to the clubhouse to hound them for quotes? No phones are allowed at the press conferences, either. The club wants control over sounds and pictures—the content. The club can tell who’s who, and who’s where, by RFID chips affixed to each press badge.
The working area faced the practice range, which the players had abandoned, once the rain began hammering down. As dusk approached, the rain briefly let up, and a battalion of men in baggy white coveralls—the official caddie costume at Augusta—fanned out across the range, to retrieve the hundreds of balls that the players had struck there earlier in the day. In the gloaming, these white jumpsuits, moving irregularly amid the deep green of the manicured grounds, brought to mind an avant-garde film about a lunatic asylum: the inmates, in their hospital gowns, out for a constitutional.
The course was still closed the next morning. I caught a ride to the clubhouse on a golf cart with a member, a so-called green jacket, named John Carr, an oil magnate from Ireland, who told me that he was on the media committee.
The members in attendance during the tournament (and at dinner, whenever they visit) are required to wear their green blazers. The club’s founders decreed, in the earliest years of the tournament, that any members present had to make themselves available to patrons who might be in need of assistance. The jackets tell you who the members are. It is an oddity of the place that its members insist on secrecy—there are some three hundred, but there is no public list, and omertà is strictly enforced—and yet here, at the biggest golf tournament of the year, they parade about in uniform, wearing name tags: Roger Goodell, Sam Nunn, Rex Tillerson.
The jackets themselves never leave the grounds; they hang in the members’ lockers. Each winner of the Masters gets a green jacket, too, which is presented immediately after the victory by the club’s chairman and the previous year’s winner, in an awkward ceremony staged for television in the basement of a house called the Butler Cabin, near the eighteenth hole. The solemnity surrounding this perennial observance suggests the initiation ritual of a really square fraternity. Jim Nantz, the longtime host of the CBS broadcast and of the Butler Cabin sacrament, has perfected an air of unctuous self-satisfaction that signals even to the casual viewer that there is something batty about the whole enterprise. The way that Nantz repeats the tag line—“A tradition unlike any other”—assumes a sinister, cultish edge. Everyone associated with the club seems to take all this very seriously. On the official Masters podcast, the host, Marty Smith, said to the celebrity chef David Chang, as though reciting a prayer, “The respect for the grounds and the reverence for the event permeate us as human beings and we thereby disseminate that same respect to our peers.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Chang replied. “It almost restores my faith in humanity.” As one long-standing media-badge holder told me, after he’d spent ten minutes singing the club’s praises on the record, “These guys are out of their fucking minds. They think it’s supernatural.”
A friend who used to play at Augusta every year during non-tournament weeks (his father was a member) told me that, at dinner in the clubhouse, you could see the power of the green jacket in the body language of the guests, as they fawned over their host. Yet there was also a certain gelding effect: “Dad was not a humble man, but he was always nervous at Augusta. He didn’t want to break a rule. The club turned these high-powered men into boys.”
Carr seemed free from such concerns. He led me straight to the clubhouse, into the grill room, where other green jackets were milling about. The clubhouse dates back to the eighteen-fifties, though it has been renovated and expanded through the years; its dimensions are modest, its décor restrained. It sits atop one of the finest wine cellars in North America. Soon Carr was greeting others, and then he was gone. I did not feel welcome, so I kept going, through the first door I saw, which opened onto a patio that looks out toward the first tee. The patrons massed and flowed on the other side of a rope line, some thirty yards from the porch; in the space between stood an immense oak, its trunk some twenty feet in circumference, its branches cabled up and sprawling into a canopy that created a swath of shade. So this was the famous Tree, the default meeting place and schmoozing ground. The area, though closed to the public, bustled with members, managers, agents, journalists, players past and present, caddies, and a range of V.I.P.s. “This is the gathering of golf,” Jerry Tarde, the editor of Golf Digest, here for his fortieth consecutive year, told me. “Under the Tree, all of golf passes you by.”
Beyond the Tree, out in the sun, the air was thick with moisture baking out of the ground. The course was evidently playable, but the spectators’ paths through it and along the fairways were slick and shiny with mud. Amid the squelch, you could hear the low roar of the SubAir system. Here and there, vents in the ground emitted a rush of warm exhaust. A patron stood astride one, a little obscenely, drying his pant legs. Where there was pitch, patrons in less sensible shoes wiped out in ways that made my ligaments wince. Descending the right side of the tenth fairway, while following the practice round of a Mexican amateur named Álvaro Ortiz, a large older man went heels up and splashed down in the mud. Nearby, another man—a lawyer, apparently—said to his wife, “I’d file in a heartbeat. Take about twelve minutes to get a settlement.” The mud, or maybe the drying agent, gave off a reek of sewage. Years of watching the Masters on television had not prepared me for the smell of shit.
By the following morning, the air had dried out and the grounds sprang into a kind of sharp autumnal relief—a pretense of perfection. At the driving range (which, like the press center, is new, sprawling, and used pretty much only during the tournament; the members warm up elsewhere), the pros, many with a coach or a manager present, hit balls. Behind them was a wide grandstand, at the rear of which patrons made half-whispered comments, knowing or otherwise, about the array of swings and flight paths. To look from face to face was to regard a study in contentment, or even, thanks to the pervasive cigar smoke, self-satisfaction. Everyone there, it seemed, knew that this was the place to be; the aura was all the more intense because of the unquenchable desire to take and post look-where-I-am cell-phone photos.
Tiger Woods was at the far-right end of the line, in a mint-green shirt and gray pants. He had his driver out—the club that hits the ball the farthest, the one you use off the tee. He has had intermittent trouble with it through the years. Errant drives make life difficult. Still, Woods had been playing better and better since last year’s Masters, after a decade in the weeds with injuries (most notably his back, on which he’d had four surgeries), painkiller addiction, the collapse of his marriage, and the subsequent sordid revelations of all the philandering that had occasioned it. Some golf writers talked about his career in terms of pre- and post-hydrant, a reference to the night, in 2009, when his now ex-wife, going through his phone, found out about one of his affairs and chased him out of the house. He fled in his S.U.V. but, zonked on sleeping pills, immediately crashed into a fire hydrant, whereupon she smashed the back window of the car with a golf club. From there, his life went off the rails.
Some commentators thought, or wanted to believe, that Woods could contend at the Masters this year—he’d won four times already—and even a casual know-little like me couldn’t help noticing that, on the day before the first round, he was roping his drives, one after another, each soaring toward the water tower on Washington Road on a clean, almost identical trajectory—a slight draw, right to left, which suits the doglegs of Augusta. Occasionally, after a drive, he wandered ten yards or so out onto the range to fetch his tee. With the others hitting nearby, this looked heedless, like a movie colonel not flinching amid a mortar barrage. Utterances of “Tiger” popped up out of the murmur of the crowd—hundreds of white people just standing there staring at him.
After a while, he went to work on his wedges. The crowd moved with him, while some broke off to line the path he’d be taking from the range to the clubhouse and the course. Momentarily averse to such gawkery, I hung back and watched a couple of golfers I’d never heard of; I recognized, not for the first time, that the mechanics and variables of the golf swing are a mystery to me.
Still, it was a soothing place to hang out. I’d been told that the recorded birdsong played on a loop, and so for a few minutes I listened intently, but I didn’t have the ear for it. Earlier, I’d been told by a guard that there was a bird speaker in a nearby magnolia tree. Now I followed one chirping sound to a holly bush. I eased my head carefully into a gap in the prickly leaves and, to my surprise, scared up an actual bird. Pulling my head out, I saw that I was being watched closely by a couple of Pinkertons. “A real bird!” I said to them. The Pinkertons remained expressionless.
The Masters is the only one of the four major tournaments that is staged at the same place every year. The other three—the U.S. Open, the P.G.A. Championship, and the Open Championship (known as the British Open)—are organized by various governing bodies and rotate among an evolving roster of courses, some of which are open to the public. The Old Course at St. Andrews, in Scotland, the so-called home of golf and an inspiration for the layout at Augusta, is a public course. So is Bethpage Black, on Long Island, the site of two recent U.S. Opens as well as last month’s P.G.A. Championship. The 2019 U.S. Open, which takes place this week, is at Pebble Beach, in California, also a public course.
Augusta is obstinately private. Its leadership, embodied by its chairman, who serves for an indefinite term as a kind of sovereign and is the only person authorized to speak about the Masters, invariably deflects questions about club matters by saying that they are club matters. The club operates as a for-profit corporation. No one knows how much money it makes or has—except that it’s a lot, judging by the investments the club continually makes in the tournament, the course, the physical plant, and the expansion of its real-estate holdings. No one, anyway, is pocketing cash. Still, the high profile of the Masters, as an athletic competition and a cultural event, has often made Augusta National’s desire to be otherwise left alone seem risible, especially in light of the prominence—in business, in politics, in public life—of so many of its members. It’s a remarkable, if dodgy, achievement that the club has managed to maintain the private-public charade for as long as it has.
Augusta National opened in 1932. Its founders were Bobby Jones, the amateur golfing champion, and Clifford Roberts, a Wall Street stockbroker. Jones, an Atlantan, and a lawyer, with an English degree from Harvard and an engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, was, except for Babe Ruth, the era’s most revered sports figure, and is still considered, in the precincts where such mythologies pertain, the quintessence of the humble and graceful gentleman-athlete. As he grew disenchanted by fame and by competitive golf, Jones sought to establish a world-class private club in his home state—a winter course. Roberts, a flinty, fastidious martinet with a hardscrabble background and a knack for making himself indispensable to powerful men, befriended Jones and took up the cause. In Augusta, they found three hundred and sixty-five acres of a defunct commercial nursery called Fruitland, which had been owned and operated by a Belgian family called Berckmans. (The owner before that was a slaveholder, and some evidence suggests that slaves were housed on the property.) Jones and Roberts hired a British designer named Alister MacKenzie to lay out a course, and Roberts set about building a membership. At first, he had a difficult time getting more than a handful of men to join, owing both to the remote location and to the Depression. In the first decade, the operation was basically broke. The failure to attract members led Roberts and Jones to abandon grander plans—for squash and tennis courts, a “Ladies’ course,” a new clubhouse, and the development of estates adjacent to the links.
The tournament, first held in 1934, was Roberts’s gambit for attracting attention, members, and money. He persuaded Jones to come out of retirement to compete in it—an instant lure to fans and players alike—but at first Jones wouldn’t agree to calling it the Masters, finding the word too grandiose. A pivotal development, in the life of both the club and Roberts, was the membership of Dwight Eisenhower, who, at Roberts’s behest, first vacationed there with Mamie in 1948 and was thereafter besotted with the place, despite a rickety golf game. Jones’s health was declining, and Roberts adopted Eisenhower as his (and the club’s) principal means of advancement. Roberts served as Ike’s financial adviser and executor, and, after Roberts helped arrange his run for President, as his bagman. During his Presidency, Eisenhower made the club his Mar-a-Lago, visiting twenty-nine times; Roberts had a house built for him on the property. Eisenhower and his son were shareholders, along with other members, in a lucrative international Coca-Cola-bottling venture called Joroberts, run by Roberts and Jones, who were set up in the business by the Coca-Cola chairman and early Augusta member Robert Winship Woodruff, known as the Boss. Augusta National is still Coke country, although, in keeping with a Roberts edict of yesteryear, no brand names are visible at the concession stands.
The golf establishment tends to remember Roberts as a sour figure, a charmless tyrant, and a canny sycophant—the bad cop to the faultless Bobby Jones. Given access to the club’s archives, my colleague David Owen, in “The Making of the Masters,” from 1999, painted a more nuanced portrait of Roberts, from his dismal, itinerant farm-boy childhood to his death, by self-inflicted gunshot, on the grounds of Augusta National, in 1977, next to Ike’s Pond, which he’d had built for Eisenhower to fish in. Owen dismisses or, at least, parses some of the nastier Roberts legends. But, clearly, the club and the tournament owe their exacting standards and often peculiar, now widely venerated traditions to Roberts’s obsessive attention to detail and stubborn insistence on a certain way of doing things.
Because of him, the Masters is probably the best-run sporting event in the world. “They have established the gold standard in terms of the conditioning of the golf course,” Brandel Chamblee, the commentator and former pro, told me. “I’ve yet to encounter anyone who is curt or rude. I don’t know how you can find fault with this place.” A standard of etiquette, attributed to Jones and strictly enforced, is printed on the sheets that patrons carry around, with groupings, tee times, and a course map: “ ‘Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player’—Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. (1902-1971), President in Perpetuity.” The concession stands run smoothly, and the prices are famously modest: a buck-fifty for a soda or a sandwich, four dollars for a beer. You could say that it’s a prelapsarian paradise, a dream of a bygone America of good manners and affordable delights. You could also say that this America never really existed, except as a figment of privilege and exclusion, and that the conjuring of it, on such a scale, is a kind of provocation.
As a televised event, the Masters is peerless. You don’t have to be a golf fan to enjoy it, or to enjoy napping in front of it. The apparatus for all this footage—the camouflaged camera towers, the buried cables, the hidden microphones—is hardly noticeable when you’re there. The club maintains tight control over the broadcast, and has been awarding one-year contracts to CBS since 1956. The Masters could fetch more on the open market, but Roberts, and subsequent chairmen, have exchanged higher rights fees for control, which, in the end, has enhanced the event’s prestige and ultimately its earning power. Originally, only the final four holes were broadcast. Later, coverage expanded to include the “second nine,” as the back nine is called at Augusta. (Jones felt that “back nine” evoked an image of one’s rear end.) Now the entire tournament is televised, and this year an app carried every shot by every player in the field. Because the players compete on what is more or less the same terrain, year after year, they do so in the context of bygone feats and failures, a folklore of shots made or missed, so that the way each successive champion tackles, say, the par-three twelfth is analogous to the way generations of folk musicians interpret “Long Black Veil.”
And yet they do so in an oligarchs’ playground, rather than in coffee shops. Augusta National has more in common with the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive men-only encampment in the California Redwoods, or the World Economic Forum, in Davos, than it does with Wimbledon or Fenway Park. From the beginning, even though subscription fees were modest, it was a club for the rich and powerful. The majority of the members, then as now, were from outside the South. In the early days, the Eastern Wasp establishment prevailed. Now it’s the C.E.O. class, which, of course, remains mostly white and male. Many of those C.E.O.s are Southerners, and supposedly the Atlanta contingent still holds sway. “The Masters is a Southern institution the way the Vatican is an Italian one,” Tarde said.
The chairmanship certainly has some of the pomp of the papacy. The writers used to get an audience with the chairman, but now there’s usually just a press conference in an auditorium. On Wednesday, the current chairman, Fred Ridley, a real-estate lawyer from Florida and a former amateur golf champion, submitted to his, with a few dozen members assembled at the back of the hall, like a convocation of cardinals—all in their green jackets. Ridley was onstage, flanked by two committee members. The reporters addressed him as Mr. Chairman, or Chairman Ridley. He talked for a while—about the recent death of the writer Dan Jenkins, the rainy winter, future construction projects, and the success of the final round of the women’s national amateur championship, which Augusta had hosted the week before, for the first time—then opened the floor to questions.
The first came from a reporter right in front of him: “Chairman Ridley, when I watch other tournaments on television, I notice lots of cell phones, I notice lots of yelling. Will you please talk about the decorum in place at Augusta National that sets the Masters apart?”
“Thank you,” Ridley said. “I think that’s something that does set us apart.”
So it was that kind of a press conference. Only one question, occasioned by the women’s championship, came in with a little bite: “In hindsight, was it a mistake to be so restrictive for so long?”
“We can always look back and say we could do better,” he replied. “I don’t think it’s particularly—well, it is instructive. It’s always instructive to look at the past.”
The history of the club, like that of so many institutions in the Deep South/United States/world, is fraught with backwardness and bigotry. Charles Sifford, a prominent black golfer in the sixties, once quoted Roberts as saying, “As long as I live, there will be nothing at the Masters besides black caddies and white players.” No one has been able to corroborate this statement, but it does describe the state of things there for decades. (Owen, for what it’s worth, unearthed examples of Roberts expressing his hope that black golfers would soon qualify for the tournament.) It wasn’t until 1975 that a black player, Lee Elder, made the field, and only in 1990 did Augusta invite its first black member, Ron Townsend, an executive at the Gannett Television Group, to join. (One does not apply for membership; the invitation just comes when it comes, though there are back channels for communicating a desire to be considered.) Among its early members were Jock Whitney, who financed “Gone with the Wind,” and Freeman Gosden, best known for performing, in black-voice, on the radio program “Amos ’n’ Andy.”
But it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to chalk this up merely to geography. The game of golf has its own ugly history with regard to African-Americans; the Professional Golf Association, the sport’s governing body in the United States, had a whites-only rule until 1961. There are plenty of private clubs in the Northeast, for example, that have fewer black or Jewish members than Augusta National does, and there are still a handful of prestigious clubs that do not accept women—but those clubs do not put on the world’s most prestigious professional tournament.
This was the core of the argument made by Martha Burk, the head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, in her campaign, prior to the 2003 Masters, to pressure the club’s chairman at the time, a South Carolina banker named Hootie Johnson, to accept women as members. Johnson, insisting on the club’s right to privacy and self-governance, and citing such single-sex organizations as the Boy Scouts and the Junior League, dug in, as did the media, most notably the Times, which made Augusta National an A1 staple. In an editorial, “America’s All-Male Golfing Society,” the Times urged Tiger Woods, who had won the previous two Masters, to boycott. “It’s frustrating, because I’m the only player they’re asking,” Woods said. “They’re asking me to give up an opportunity no one ever has—win the Masters three years in a row.”
One finds now, in the back and forth of this saga, foreshadowings of the cancel-culture wars of today. As Alan Shipnuck recounts, in “The Battle for Augusta National: Hootie, Martha, and the Masters of the Universe,” published in 2004, the club hired a Washington consulting company, WomanTrend, run by Kellyanne Conway, which produced a survey whose finding was that Augusta National’s membership policies were not topmost on the list of women’s concerns. Burk—reasonably, once you see the questions—derided it as a “push poll” and “highly unethical.” Two days later, Jesse Jackson entered the fray: “We strongly support the movement to end gender apartheid at Augusta National Golf Club.” In the end, Woods, too, came out in favor of admitting women. In a press conference, Johnson replied, “I won’t tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn’t tell us how to run our private club.”
Eventually—and somewhat amazingly, looking back from the reputation-strewn battlefields of 2019—it all just sort of went away. To let its sponsors off the hook, the club announced that it would stage the 2003 Masters by itself, without them—opting, once again, for control over short-term profit. And then, nine years later, the first two women were admitted: Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, and Darla Moore, a financier from South Carolina.
Around midnight on the eve of the first round, while killing cockroaches in my room at the Rodeway Inn, I got a text message from an acquaintance who works in finance. A client of his had cancelled at the last minute, which left him with a spare pass to Berckmans Place. He offered it to me.
Berckmans is the Oz within Oz, a lavish dining-shopping-and-drinking complex accessible only to those who have been approved by the club to buy passes, at a cost of ten thousand dollars for the tournament. The club built Berckmans seven years ago, behind a wall of greenery southwest of the fifth fairway, to give favored patrons and corporate friends a sumptuous refuge from the elements and the throngs, and presumably to capture some of the revenue it had been ceding to off-campus entertainments.
The Masters may be America’s top corporate-hospitality event; because it’s a golf tournament, it attracts a clubbier cohort than the Super Bowl or the Final Four, and because the competition lasts four days rather than two minutes, like the Kentucky Derby, it can please more of them. Kenny Dichter, a founder of the jet-lease company Wheels Up, called the tournament “Coachella for C.E.O.s.” “This is where we entertain our premium-experience guests,” Andrew Chason, an executive at Creative Artists Agency, told me. “The prestige, the privacy, the beauty of the grounds, the traditions, the quality of the production—it can’t be beat.”
Wheels down: out pour the premium-experience guests. A certain kind of Instagram feed fills up with photographs of rich people, famous people, lucky people, flashing the Gulfstream grin. The catch is that the hotels, restaurants, and caterers of the city of Augusta (known to many Georgians, however unfairly, as “Disgusta” and to Roberts as a “little tank town”) aren’t really up to the task of taking care of all these people, in the manner they may be expecting. And so a luxury pop-up culture has sprung up outside the gates. Augusta homeowners cover their annual mortgage payments and landscaping bills by renting their houses to the out-of-towners, who, in turn, host clients and friends for spectation by day and dinners and other festivities by night. Celebrity chefs are flown in. Even the journalists get in on it. The press building’s bigger names often have a full slate of paid appearances, entertaining diners with pro-level patter and off-the-record scuttlebutt. This practice may explain why journalists are so deferential to the tournament—it’s their meal ticket, too. C.A.A., which represents a number of top golfers, produces a dinner series; this year’s, managed by Danny Meyer, featured nine chefs and a sommelier and staff, for a group of just thirty people. Mercedes and the other two domestic tournament sponsors, I.B.M. and A.T. & T., are provided with so-called cabins (which could as easily be called mansions) on club property, down by the tenth fairway. Various fixers and event planners put together elaborate itineraries, which sometimes include a round of golf at a nearby club, such as Sage Valley, across the South Carolina border—a highly regarded Augusta National clone, founded in 2001 by a real-estate magnate who had given up on being invited to join the real thing.
A Berckmans badge might be part of the program. Just after sunrise, I arrived at the acquaintance’s rental house, not far from the club, and boarded a van with some of his clients, the executives of a large entertainment company. Not long afterward, the van pulled up to a pavilion, where a dozen or so attendants stood smiling and waving to us. “Welcome to Berckmans!” a security guard called out. “Bird songs too loud? I can turn them down for you.” Signs indicated that phones and photography were prohibited inside.
At the metal detectors, two men behind me, whose golf shirts identified them as employees of a prominent private-equity firm, asked if I’d carry an extra folding chair of theirs through security. Everyone is allowed one chair. Presumably, these two were carrying additional ones for their superiors, or else—could it be?—angling for an unfair advantage. As soon as the grounds open each morning, chair holders—first members and their guests, then the general public—fan out across the course and secure their viewing spots; you leave a chair behind, usually with a name tag or a business card affixed to it, then wander around in the expectation that it will be vacant, or immediately vacated, when you come to claim it. Sometimes the chairs stay empty, like barely used country houses.
Berckmans operates for just one week of the year. This is astonishing to contemplate: it’s a small indoor village, reportedly ninety thousand square feet. There are shrines to various touchstones of Augusta National lore and a vast, immaculate store that sells Masters merchandise, one of several on the grounds. Sweaters, hats, shirts, jewelry, club covers, platters, pens. You can buy official merch only on site; Augusta National sells nothing online or outside the gates. You might guess that this restriction would cut into sales, but scarcity fuels desire, or so it appears, judging by the queues at the shops and by the patrons lugging around clear-plastic shopping bags stuffed with purchases for the people back home. The club doesn’t share sales figures—it doesn’t even reveal how many tickets are sold—but a popular estimate is that it moves fifty million dollars of merchandise in that one week.
In some ways, Berckmans is just a food court, but exclusivity can be mind-altering. A badge holder pays for nothing. People who can afford a meal at any restaurant in the world derive a thrill from dining without being handed a check. There are five restaurants: Ike’s; Calamity Jane’s, named for Bobby Jones’s putter; MacKenzie’s Pub, for the course architect; the Pavilion, outside; and Augusta’s, a sprawling Art Nouveau palm-frond-and-tin-ceiling seafood emporium, where you can get raw oysters, étouffée, and bananas Foster. For breakfast, our host chose Ike’s. There were hooks under the table on which to hang our ball caps. “The little things,” he said. A TV on the wall carried a live feed of Jim Nantz, off air but on site, having his hair strategically restructured. At the buffet, we heaped our plates with biscuits, grits, eggs, French toast, and candied peaches. I thought guiltily of my colleagues at the press center, having to make do with omelettes and no hooks for their hats. As I hid in a john to jot down a few notes, I noticed that the restroom attendants cleaned the stalls after each patron’s use. (Later, I overheard a man talking to his wife on a courtesy phone: “Guess what: every time you go, there’s a guy who runs in and cleans the toilet.”)
Berckmans guests occasionally find themselves staying all day: oysters, Bloody Marys, air-conditioning, golf on TV. Why bother going out to watch the disjointed, partial, live version? The clincher, for many, is the Putting Experience, along the northeast side of Berckmans—replicas of the seventh, fourteenth, and sixteenth greens, with Augusta National caddies on hand, in their coveralls, to help the civilians manage what, up close, look like preposterously hilly putts. After breakfast, there was a queue of people waiting their turn to test the greens. Condoleezza Rice, in green jacket and tan slacks, was there to greet them one by one. (The man on the courtesy phone: “A former Secretary of State out there saying hi to everybody? Honey, it’s crazy!”)
Depending on your area of interest or expertise, you might recognize prominent citizens in golf-fan disguise. A patron who knew his hockey Hall of Famers, for example, could introduce himself to Chris Chelios and Lanny McDonald. One who knew his media magnates might note that Fred Ridley was having lunch with Brian Roberts, the chairman of Comcast and the head of the club’s digital-technology committee.
One Berckmans badge holder I didn’t recognize but whom a younger patron pointed out later, by the sixth green, was a thirty-one-year-old social-media personality named Bob Menery, who has made a name for himself by posting profane mock-narrations of sports highlights, in a dead-on sportscaster’s voice. Towering over him was his girlfriend, Katie Kearney, a swimsuit model and former Miss Missouri. Menery and Kearney had been invited to the Masters by a Lebanese businessman named Ahmed Tayeb. There were dinners (one hosted by a Saudi golf magnate, another with Ireland’s fifth-richest man); parties (at C.A.A.’s, Menery had a rough go of it after mistakenly eating a housemate’s pot gummy); a round at Sage Valley (Menery shot his best-ever score, a seventy-five); and multiple late-night sessions at Hooters. As I chatted with Menery and Kearney, we were joined by their friend Jena Sims, an actress and former Miss Teenage Georgia, and the girlfriend of Brooks Koepka, the No. 1 golfer in the world, who had recently lost twenty pounds in advance of an appearance with her in the Body Issue of ESPN the Magazine. Menery and Koepka liked to kid around with each other about their attractive girlfriends. When Menery, outside the ropes, heckled Koepka about this during an early round at the Masters, Koepka laughed, but Menery got the Pinkerton glare. “You don’t fuck around here,” he told me. Last year, Menery posted a video on Instagram in which he crank-called the club pretending to be Bill Gates (who is a member), ludicrously demanding a tee time in the midst of the tournament. Now he was hoping that no one remembered this stunt; he was having too good a time, making too many connections, and, like nearly everyone at Augusta, sorely hoping to be invited back. On Sunday, he watched the final round on the flatscreens at Berckmans, leaving vacant the folding chairs that a runner had placed for him and his housemates by the eighteenth green early that morning.
Right outside Berckmans, you slip into the flow of regular patrons, a river of well-to-do white people in golf clothes. But what had previously appeared to be the most homogeneous crowd I’d ever seen suddenly seemed to contain some intriguing variety, relative to the clientele at Berckmans. The frat boys and young jocks, with stacks of empty beer cups (the cups are collector’s items); the slightly dotty elderly golf fanatics, with their binoculars and old Masters badges and long-standing viewing spots at the sixteenth hole; the sunburned Brits on boys’ trips, smoking 100s in the shade. Still, you see a lot of khaki shorts, ankle socks, and golf shirts. Sometimes you can tell people apart only by the corporate logos on their left breast: Hitachi Chemical, Mercy Care, Strategic Wealth Specialists, Newton Center Chiropractic, South Bay Construction, Arborguard, True Temper, Twisted Dune, The Citadel. Everyone had the look of someone who was used to telling other people what to do.
Here and there, I struck up amiable conversations with well-mannered men from all over the country. A carnival concessionaire from Austin. An art-frame conservator from New Haven. A white-water kayaker from the Smokies. I eavesdropped on greetings and farewells:
“What’s up, General?”
“Good to see you, Bud.”
“You guys be safe.”
Tim Jones, a senior project manager at a steel company in Louisville, told me, “Never been anywhere like this, where everything’s A1, from the hand towels in the bathrooms to the grass. I called my son. I told him, ‘This isn’t a golf tournament. It’s a cultural event where the Southern United States has its chest stuck out and is saying come down and visit.’ It’s been a hundred and fifty-five years since the Civil War, and yet we want to let people know we’re a strong people, a hardworking people, a proud people.”
A guy named Rick Foor, from Fort Mill, South Carolina, on hearing that I was from New York, asked, “Are you left of Trump?” He let me know that he was busting my chops. “So, but seriously, what’s the deal with A.O.C.?”
I had another conversation about Ocasio-Cortez, and the perils of single-payer health insurance, with a large-bodied fund manager from New York. We met at a concession stand as we were both reaching greedily into a freezer for peach-ice-cream sandwiches, the last two in stock. (An old Augusta hand had given me some advice: “Follow the fattest fucker you see and he’ll lead you to the peach-ice-cream sandwiches.”) After a couple of bites, the trader threw his out. “It’s too mushy,” he said. “Yesterday I had one, and it was the best thing I ever had.” (Another pro tip: remove the cutlet from a chicken sandwich, put it in a pimento-cheese sandwich, then, before eating the new sandwich, carry it in your pocket for a few holes.)
At one point, a young man told me, “My uncle dropped dead last year on eleven. This is the one-year anniversary of his death.” Then the uncle introduced himself. Johnny Pruitt, age fifty-four, from Bluffton, South Carolina. He’d gone into cardiac arrest in the gallery and was out for twenty-five minutes before paramedics revived him. The family were gathered here to celebrate his resurrection. “I bow down at Amen Corner,” he said. “I had goosebumps coming through the gate this morning.”
Amen Corner, so named by Herbert Warren Wind, is the crux of the course, comprising, strictly speaking, the eleventh green, the twelfth hole, and the tee shot at thirteen. A stand of pines juts into the course here and provides a sociable vantage over hallowed ground and consequential golf. On Friday afternoon, fans watched balls arrive suddenly from the left and land on or near the eleventh green. Then came the players. The scoreboard—updated by men standing behind it using placards featuring each competitor’s name—would tell you whom to expect, if you didn’t have the grouping sheet. No matter where you were, Tiger Woods approached as if on a rising tide, behind the leading edge of the throng that was following his round. Agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation preceded him, and then, as shouts of “Tiger!” rippled out ahead, the man himself came striding along, with his familiar air of purpose and annoyance. He was in the second-to-last group and near the top of the leader board, and a buzz was starting to build that he might in fact be in the running.
To great fanfare, he birdied eleven and walked toward the grandstand, and the twelfth tee. Twelve is a famous, picturesque par three, Augusta’s Matterhorn. To land a ball on the green, you have to hit it over a creek and short of an embankment of azaleas. Great players have come to grief here. Woods, though, hit his tee shot to within a half-dozen feet of the flag. Pandemonium. And then, from seemingly everywhere, came the sound of a siren. There was lightning in the area, and everyone had to evacuate the course. The crowd groaned. Puttus interruptus. Woods rushed across the bridge to the green, marked his ball, and disappeared offstage, behind the azaleas, as the multitudes emptied out of the grandstand and the glades of Amen Corner and streamed back toward the exits—there was no place on the grounds for them to take shelter, in the event of a storm, unless they had passes to Berckmans. The sky darkened.
A few patrons lingered among the pines. “I’m staying here till they make me leave,” one man said. He smoked a cigarette and admired the vivid slaty light. After half an hour, far off, a cheer went up, and suddenly the crowds were returning, some people at a run, to reclaim choice spots in the pines. The atmosphere had got rowdy, strangers striking up conversations like old friends.
A start horn rang out. Woods was waiting by the twelfth green, where he was soon joined by his partners. But after a long delay he missed his birdie putt. Soon a heavy rain arrived, and the SubAir system kicked in.
On Sunday, a threat of afternoon storms, possibly even of tornadoes, prompted the club to make the unprecedented and therefore surely agonizing decision to move the start times to early morning, and to send the groups out in threesomes, rather than the usual pairs. Woods lucked into the final group, a tactical advantage.
The patrons in the galleries had a range of rooting interests. Some cheered for Rickie Fowler, who is widely acknowledged to be the American contingent’s leading young mensch, or for Phil Mickelson, whom many writers privately described as its reigning jerk. I stood next to an executive from Adidas and his fiancée, whose interests were best represented by the rising star—and Adidas athlete—Xander Schauffele. Go, Xander! A South African contingent went berserk for Louis Oosthuizen. But the contender who inspired the roars was Woods.
Early that morning, in the press building, I was flipping through a recent biography of Woods, by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict. Skipping, as one will, to the dirty bits, I alighted on a section describing his serial infidelities of a decade ago, and some text messages he’d sent to a porn star named Joslyn James, the first of which read, “Hold you down while i choke you and Fuck that ass that i own.” The rest were worse. This was the man whom everyone was roaring for. There was something Trumpean about it all—a suggestion not of redemption and forgiveness but of indulgence, or abandon.
It can seem weird how enthusiastically the golf world roots for Woods, even though so many of its citizens, especially the ones closest to the tour, aren’t especially fond of him. People like to witness greatness, maybe, or to partake of excitement. He’s good for business, people said. One golf executive told me, “It’s easier for everybody when Tiger is winning.” This, too, seemed Trump-y: forbearance, in the name of lucre. It’s perhaps worth noting that Woods and Trump, who is closing in on two hundred rounds as President, have been both playing and business partners; Woods is designing a course for Trump’s property in Dubai.
In 1996, a year before the first of Woods’s Masters triumphs, his father, Earl Woods, told Sports Illustrated, “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” including Mandela, Gandhi, and the Buddha. He referred to Woods as “the Chosen One.” It was soon clear that the son’s ambitions didn’t align with the father’s. One can argue, and many have, that no man is duty-bound to lead the struggle, or that merely by dominating a mostly white field, often in places that have historically been closed to people of color, Woods is doing more than his share to advance the cause. It’s always been hard to parse the extent to which his popularity is a function of his being a pioneer, as a black man in a white world, or of his reticence about this.
Now, two months after the Masters, as Woods and most of the rest of the field have teed it up at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, we know that the people got what they wanted. We may even remember what happened on Sunday. On the twelfth hole, the steady Italian Francesco Molinari, ahead of Woods by two strokes, hit his tee shot into the creek. The patrons, now more like a mob, avidly cheered his mistake, in violation of Bobby Jones’s rules of comportment. In the CBS control room, a producer exclaimed, “Game on!” And then Woods lofted his tee shot safely onto the fat part of the green, made par, and walked onto the next tee box in a tie for the lead. This time, there was no siren, no lightning. Overhead, the private jets were coming in low, presumably to fetch the premium-experience guests. As Woods made his way down the thirteenth fairway, Amen Corner emptied out for the last time, the crowds following him, shouting his name.
Almost two hours later, Woods sealed the victory with a bogey on eighteen, then made his way to Butler Cabin, to retrieve his green jacket. In a sitting room inside the clubhouse, his mother, his children, and his girlfriend had assembled to watch the ceremony on TV. Pinkertons guarded the door. In the grill room, a semicircle of members, still wearing their own green jackets, stood rapt before a flatscreen in the corner. They applauded when Woods slipped his arms into the jacket—the same one he’d won in 1997. He’d get to take it off the premises for another year.
In the parking lot, a group of reporters interviewed Woods’s caddie, Joe LaCava, who was leaning against the back of a courtesy Mercedes S.U.V. “I’m happy he won today,” he said. “It might’ve bought me a couple more months.” Fans and commentators spoke of Tiger’s miraculous comeback. Mostly, in their telling, and certainly in his, what he’d come back from was debilitating back pain and other injuries, rather than the collapse of his marriage, his public image, or his emotional well-being. But it was all there, as subtext. Knowing what we do about America’s capacity for forgiveness, or for willful forgetting, we can maybe allow, with some ruefulness, that the restoration of his body was more astonishing, after all. A few weeks later, at the White House, Trump draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Woods’s neck. The ribbon got twisted, and no one thought to straighten it out. ♦