Golf: What It's Like to Actually Be at The Masters
After the walk from the parking lot, down Azalea Drive, past the throngs of sign-toting Christian fundamentalists, through the initial turnstiles, past the zealous, tie-clad greeters, by the checkstand, where reluctant CEOs and men of power part with their Blackberries the way a child does its blanket, there is a distinct smell of grass.
It's nothing like the grass you smell while splayed out in your backyard, or after sliding on the soccer field and, interestingly enough, it's hardly even like the smell of a freshly cut golf course.
Instead, the grass at Augusta National smells faintly like it was fertilized and combed through with cool mint toothpaste. Grass that smells this way doesn't exist in real life, but I see it with my own two eyes.
The grass, however, is exactly like everything else at The Masters, where almost everything appears more perfect than reality should allow.
On the course and on the grounds, not a blade of mossy green fairway is out of place, a fact brought to my attention when a particularly 'rural' patron exclaimed to his son, "I dare ya 'ta point out a weed, Billy! Ya ain't 'gonn find one! U'll be searchin' for days!"
Errant leaves and dirt are raked into place so quickly that you hardly notice the young men in their bright yellow grounds crew jumpsuits before they recede quietly back into the shrubbery. Any patches of grass insubordinate enough to brown are fastidiously fertilized and watered to ensure complete compliance.
And the course itself is only the beginning. A green jacket-clad member-volunteer told me that this year during Wednesday's par-3 competition, that he saw a deer for the first time run across the course.
Moments later, his radio headset was buzzing as a man with a slow Southern drawl noted, "we have a deer on hole eight without credentials." At Augusta National, even the wildlife need credentials.
I'm not sure who is directly in charge of logistical operations for the week-long event in Augusta, but there is no doubt in my mind that this individual should tapped to control the operations of our government (for purposes of efficiency only, of course).
Augusta National during tournament week is a well-oiled machine so efficient that it would make the Germans queasy. Normally a complainer of Olympic prowess, I found nothing to moan about with regard to how the tournament is run.
Everything is accounted for. There is no question I was being handled, and handled well.
Hungry? Concessions, apart from being freakishly cheap ($1.50 for a sandwich and $3.00 for a beer) are a breeze, each set up like a car wash with six lines; you walk through in one fluid maneuver, while grabbing your desired items and you head over to a surprisingly available and frighteningly chipper cashier who is happy to tell you that your two sodas, two bottles of water, three sandwiches, one banana and bag of pretzels comes to $13.
Cradle to grave, the whole concessions song and dance takes about seven minutes.
The bathroom situation is frighteningly similar to the food arrangement, in that the entire process moves like you are on a mechanized ride at Universal Studios.
Once again, patrons are propelled fluidly through lines, complete with amusing commentary from the restroom staff who, for guys charged to work in a mass toilet for four days in 90-degree weather, are in good spirits.
The bathrooms, which probably service hundreds of thousands of full bladders each day, are as close to clean as one can get. Young men in white Oxford shirts and khakis see to this, spraying disinfectant wildly to cover up any traces of odor and bacteria. It is frankly, quite shocking.
The only formidable line one stands to encounter on a tournament day at Augusta National is the line at the end of the day at the tournament gift shop. Oh, the gift shop. Volumes could be written on The Masters gift shop. Here, fortunes stand to be lost.
According to an Australian journalist I met, the gift shop is where the tournament takes in its profit. $56 million in one week. If it sounds like a lot, it is. But if you've survived the swarm at the gift shop, the figure is definitely believable.
The genius behind The Masters merchandising stems from the same philosophy as everything else surrounding the tournament: exclusivity.
Just like the tickets, which may be the hardest to acquire in sports, Masters apparel can only be bought on the grounds at Augusta National during tournament week. No online shop, no opportunity for the commoners to gobble up hats and T-shirts.
The result is a frenzy to score as many mementos of the week as their arms and wallets will allow. The tournament web site insists that the only item not sold in the shop is the fabled Green Jacket. This is true. If you can put a logo on it, then the Masters is selling it and the masses are buying it.
Stem-less wine glasses, Tiffany cufflinks, sunglass cases, suntan lotion, ass-less chaps (not sure on this one, but I'm willing to believe it) are just some of the tchotchkes ravenously devoured by middle-aged men looking to capture a moment in time and make friends horrendously jealous.
If you've read up to this point, (and frankly, if you have, I'm impressed) then you've realized that I'm humbly trying to capture a sliver of The Masters experience for those who have yet to enter through Augusta National's gates.
I am fully aware I am doing it almost no justice, but, if you're still reading this, that is neither here nor there. We've both come too far to turn back now.
Until now, I have tried to bottle the flavors of the event that one cannot get from a television screen, which has led me to ignore the mystique of the Masters. This is like describing the Yankees as 'some baseball team' or the Ohio State-Michigan game as 'the last game of the college regular season.'
That is to say, without the history and without the tradition and without the mystique, there is no gift shop, or concession stand. The mystique is the 'why?' and it flows through every nook and cranny of Augusta’s 365 acres.
Think of it this way, if Yankee Stadium is baseball’s cathedral, then Augusta National is golf’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That’s a cliché way of saying that it’s hallowed ground. The course has been home to The Masters for 75 years and if you are not a sports fan, a golfer, fan of golf, or someone who simply knows a golf-obsessed lunatic, then you probably think that everything I've said up to this point is horseshit.
But you’d be wrong. It is extremely hard for me to avoid clichés while trying to describe what the Masters means to me, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t do my damnedest to describe the magic of the long weekend, at least for me, anyway.
Golf, in so many ways, is a sport inextricably tied to fathers and sons and The Masters has always been a celebration of that connection. Jack Nicklaus' son caddied for him at Augusta, Earl Woods was the first person sought out by Tiger after his 1997 Masters win. My father and Grandfather played golf and find common ground through the sport. They have spent time together as father and son on the golf course even during tenuous times in their relationship.
For me, golf has always been my connection to my Grandfather; it has bridged our generational gap and been his vessel to impart to me the wisdom of his years. During a round of golf my grandfather could teach me how to be patient, how to be respectful, how to be gentlemanly without sounding preachy or codger-y.
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The same goes with my father. Golfing with Dad was and always will be something special. Our time. My Dad has always been the hardest working person I’ve ever encountered and he rarely ever complains about long days, staying late at the office and spending weeks away from home.
For all that, he has been my example of what it takes to be successful. But that lesson in work ethic comes with a price, and that’s always been time spent together.
Every year I got busier the time grew shorter. He’d work Saturdays and I’d go out with friends in the evenings. We didn’t play golf often, but when we did, it was just us.
Watching golf is a similar tradition. My grandfather watched golf with my father and my father introduced it to me.
I wish I could say that I have a singular great Masters moment with my Dad from my childhood, where we watched Tiger embrace his Dad after his first win in 1997, knowing that their bond was strengthening our own. That’d be a lie.
There was no watershed moment. Instead, we watched, and made small talk. But it was our time.
Why does any of this matter? Why am I getting so damn personal? When will he stop typing and let me go about the rest of my day? These are all valid concerns. Allow me to reel this back in…
From the moment I set foot on the grounds at Augusta all these thoughts and vignettes from my past—all these seemingly stupid, sappy Bob Costas human interest story moments poured in faster than I could process them.
Every direction I looked revealed fathers and sons, little kids on their father’s shoulders currently unaware of the indelible memories they were creating. This was happening everywhere I turned, so I looked over at Dad.
Since I started my first job out of college, the distance between us has never been greater. It’s nobody’s fault, and I would argue that our respect for each other has grown substantially since I began working for a living. But with our schedules and separate lives it is not unusual to go weeks without talking on the phone.
Last Thursday though, I stood on the concrete walkway underneath the scorching Georgia sun and couldn't sense that distance. It sounds stupid and its hard to even put into text, but for the next few days I was a dumb little kid, running around in awe of it all and Dad got to be Dad again.
If you ask me, that is what the Masters is all about. The hats, the shirts, even the stemless wine glasses, they are all just a mental jog, a connection to something big, important and more perfect than reality should allow.
That bond means something different to everyone—an elderly man’s connection to a game he once played and will always love, a chance to be a gawking little goober of a kid again, looking up at the cloudless blue sky at Amen Corner and remembering a family member who died before he got his chance to use the badge around your very neck.
Whatever it is though, there is no doubt that this silly game, played on the first weekend in April on a ridiculously over-manicured course, with crazy rules and regulations and grown up millionaires trying to put a white ball into a hole in the ground 400 yards away for the chance to be given a green blazer, is nothing short of magical.
I tried to write a modified version of this piece last week before I went to Augusta and I was unsuccessful. Everything felt uncertain and shallow. I had grown up hearing that Augusta was a special place so much that I just chose to believe it.
Five days, two mild to moderate sunburns, and 12 Masters Club sandwiches later, I stood in the terminal of Atlanta’s enormous airport, my father’s gate to the left and mine to the right. Right there, in the middle of the evening traffic buzz, he turned and said nonchalantly, “Well, Chuck, this was awesome. I’ll never forget it.”
I gave him a hug and we went our separate ways, a dumb grin smeared over my face. We were once again heading in different directions, toward our different lives, only this time the distance would be gone.
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