Technically, the Masters should not be a golf tournament of the first rank at all. It is not the championship of anything except itself. The $20,000 first prize can legitimately be described as mere. The Augusta National Golf Club seldom plays as hard as the courses where other major championships are held, courses that are specially altered to present horrendous golfing problems. Augusta has been basically the same course since the Masters began in 1934, and its puzzles are familiar ones to most of the contestants who will gather there next week for the 35th renewal.
Competitively, the Masters field is usually weaker than that of, say, the U.S. Open or PGA, and often weaker than that of routine tournaments on the professional tour. Only about 80 golfers are invited to Augusta, a disproportionate share of them past their prime. True, the contemporary princes of the game are always there. But a lot of the natural challengers are not. These aggressive young pros who in any given tournament can put it all together and beat anyone no matter how green his blazer are replaced by such swingers as the Thailand Open champ, the eighth best U.S. amateur and the 1939 winner of the Masters itself. Such performers are brought to Augusta for honorary, sentimental or public-relations reasons, but they do not seriously challenge the golfing Establishment, and their presence tends to depress the level of competition.
Despite these apparent deficiencies, the Masters is generally regarded as one of the four most important tournaments in the world. Given a choice, almost every golfer would rather be first at Augusta for $20,000 than at Westchester for $50,000. The prestige of winning the Masters can be converted into all manner of benefits that compensate for the immediate cash disparity.
As for attending the Masters, it is probably 'the toughest ticket in sports. The management prints maybe 20,000, but nearly all of them are committed to past purchasers. As for the citizenry at large, the Masters is a sporting event comparable to the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500 or the America's Cup. People who otherwise have only a minimal interest in competitive golf know ail about the Masters.
Given the nature of its outward call on the imaginations of so many people, the Masters obviously must have something fairly potent going for it below the surface, too. It does. In addition to being a good, probably great, golf tournament, it is a compound of tradition, natural and manufactured, a fair amount of schmaltz and Southern sentimentality, a dash of class snobbery and a heap of managerial shrewdness. In general, it offers a fine case study in that fascinating subject, Reality and Illusion.
Greenness and Blueness
H.K. and Sara Horner are from Jefferson City, Tenn. On Sunday morning at 8:30, several hours before play would begin in the final round of the 1970 Masters, the Homers had set up their folding stools, arranged their programs, glasses and other equipment and settled themselves securely behind the ropes on a little knoll overlooking the 13th green and fairway. It would be at least five hours before the first golfers came their way. The Homers had been gallerying at the Masters for seven years, and in some ways they were representative of the hushed majority there.
The Homers are solid, respectable golf-and-country-club-loving citizens, not so conspicuous or aggressive as the upward strivers who hang around the clubhouse or so wiggly and passionate as the teen-age buds and studs who sprawl on The Beach, a swatch of turf and humanity between the 6th and 16th greens. H.K. said, "I am a manufacturer in Jefferson City. We make springs of all kinds—cars, seats, even coffins. Otherwise, I play a lot of golf."
Sara Horner indicated the 13th hole and its environs. "Isn't this the most beautiful place you have ever seen?" she said. "I can sit here all day and never get tired because it is so beautiful."
Everyone comments on the beauty of Augusta National, just as all wedding guests remark on the loveliness of the bride. Even the golf professionals say it, usually to the effect that it is a sensuous thrill for them to be able to club a golf ball around such a beautiful place. And particularly and persistently do the various brands of media men say it. For more than 35 years they have been ripping off paragraphs of evocative, ain't-nature-grand-at-Augusta-in-April prose.
Augusta National is a pretty place. But it is also true that it is probably at its least attractive during the Masters week, with the pastoral quality unavoidably marred by television, press, scorers, committeemen and spectator stands. Spaghetti loops of electronic cable lie all about. Miles of plastic rope are strung to keep the golfers and their golf balls safe from the madding throng. And by the third day or so there are wide areas of dead grass tromped to a pulp by the herds of spectators.
The eye of the experienced beholder overlooks these blemishes. To such a one the turf is lush and green, as it is everywhere in the Southeast in the spring. There are some nice groves of mature, pruned, tree-doctored pines. Banks of azaleas, dogwood, wistaria, camellias and magnolias add splashes of off-white, pink and lavender. Here and there among the flower beds, figuratively thumbing its leaves at ground crews, is some poison ivy, the plant that in the natural course of things would flourish in such an environment. There is a kind of sour botanical mind that after a time begins to look for the poison ivy and even to root for it, as one might root for the Thailand Open champ to wallop Arnold Palmer.
A number of ponds and lagoons have been built on the course. Most of the water in these excavated pits looks the way water should look in such places in early spring: dark and muddy, covered with a film of algae. The ponds at the 15th and 16th greens, on the other hand, are the color of bright blue ink. This is so because early in the morning—before even the earliest galleryites are about—a member of the ground crew comes out and empties a cup of blue chemical dye onto the surface of the ponds. He does this because the 15th and 16th are television holes, and the television people want the water there to look on the color tube as water is meant to look—that is, postcard, calendar, poet's blue. Out of camera view are spillways that drain the ponds, and there the water looks oily, stained and sterile.
As in certain other famous landscapes of the South—Callaway Gardens and Mount Vernon come to mind—at Augusta there is a suggestion that the place was built to conform to a rich, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant concept of what heaven would look like if God only had enough cheap labor.
The Club as Cathedral
For some reason, athletics brings out the human inclination to memorialize and enshrine. At the twitch of a tear duct, the sporting crowd will gold-plate a net through which a 7'8" basketball player has stuffed his 100,000th point, make a museum out of a barroom where the greatest of all left-footed base stealers spent most of his adult life, and name streets, towns or children after halfbacks. The Masters, more than any other golf tournament, turns this idolatrous instinct up to peak volume. An atmosphere of reverence hangs so heavy about Augusta that it seems to have an aroma all its own.
There are a lot of little traditions and touches at Augusta that support the notion that this is a ceremony altogether more serious, pure and holy than the average golf tournament. There is, for example, the business at the finish when, amid pomp and circumstance, the winner is given his green Masters coat and a trophy, while the check for 20 grand is handed over in private. Nobody talks about money here, even if they have a mouthful of it. Nothing official is said about how much the tournament takes in, how much it pays out, how many tickets are sold or how many people attend. You do not take those U.S. Open cardboard periscopes into the Masters, or cameras. Everyone is uniformed at the Masters, from the members in their green coats down to the candy butchers, trap rakers and refuse gangs. The name of Bobby Jones, a Georgia amateur of good family who is credited in the hagiography of Augusta with first thinking of building a new golf course there, is frequently evoked.
It is possible to joke—usually in private—about the solemnity with which the Masters takes itself, or to argue that some of the gimmicks are overly cute, even a bit hypocritical. But it cannot be denied that they are effective. No one, not even a TV director, wants to seem so bush as not to know the proper manners at what everybody agrees—and rightfully—is the classiest golf tournament in America.
"I've been to six Masters and I still worry about not having the right badge for whatever I want to do," says a reporter. "I have this nightmare where I start for the men's room and a guard stops me and says I can't go in. And I never have guts enough to argue."
The reverence is sometimes carried to ludicrous lengths. A man leaning lightly against one of the ubiquitous Augusta National trash receptacles was watching his favorite, Bert Yancey, hit a shot at last year's Masters. When the man, who turned out to be a Midwestern banker, started down the fairway, he found his jacket button had caught the plastic bag inside the receptacle and pulled it off the frame. He looked about guiltily as if he had tracked dirt into a pew, picked up the bag and spent three or four minutes trying to refix it to the wire. He made a botch of it, but he gave it a good try. Meanwhile, of course, Yancey had gone.
An Augusta matron was walking with Arnie's Army when a small airplane flew overhead towing a sign that read, SUPER GOLF AT 7 LAKES—DAY OR NITE. The woman watched it disapprovingly for a moment, then said, "Wouldn't you think that even they would have better taste than to fly over during the tournament with a sign like that?"
Wives of golfers are careful about what they wear at the Masters, avoiding pants suits, alarmingly brief skirts, shorts or, this year, heaven forbid, hot pants. Only reverence controls the dress of other customers, but its effect is mighty. Last year even the swingers around the clubhouse veranda came down hard on a bare-mid-riffed girl and her escort, a minor media man. You do not prance around Augusta National with your belly button hanging out.
Autocrat of Augusta
Ever since the Masters was established, Clifford Roberts, a New York investment banker, has run it with a high, hard hand. As one of the original five organizers of the club, he also has a lot to say about things in general at Augusta National, but the Masters is indisputably his chick and child. Though he makes frequent disclaimers and insists on his amateur status, Roberts is generally regarded as the most expert living golf tournament arranger and promoter. He has also come to be a formidable, almost mythical presence on the Masters scene. It is hard to say what kind of man Roberts really is, since he is not given to autobiographical small talk and is seldom seen except in formal and official circumstances. On such occasions he appears terse, humorless and efficient, a man hardened by close and continuing exposure to money and authority.
Roberts is above all a fanatical idealist, largely unconcerned with customary amenities if they do not contribute to his notions of what the Masters should be. "Old Cliff comes on pretty strong sometimes, but we manage," says a member of the Augusta Country Club, a neighboring golf course that happens to have a common boundary with Augusta National. "We look right down on their 12th green and 13th tee. Last year Cliff wanted us to plant a hedge on our land so nobody could peek at his tournament. We said no. Old Cliff went and talked to some of our members, sort of on the quiet. Pretty soon he sends over a truck with some bushes, and I'll be damned if they don't get planted on our land. He was big about it, though...he didn't bill us for the bushes."
Later, when the rest of the club members found out about it, the hedge was ripped out. There was even some discussion about erecting a grandstand to overlook the 12th hole and filling it with Augusta Country Club members in funny hats and horns, as at a New Year's party. Nothing came of it, and later the two clubs effected a trade that gave Roberts a hedgeable strip of land overlooking the 12th and 13th.
Rumors have it that one reason Jack Whitaker of CBS may never broadcast another Masters is Roberts' reaction to a comment Whitaker made on the 18th hole of the final day five years ago. The gallery had started charging up the hill to get where they might see the leaders putt and Whitaker said something like, "Here comes the mob." The network gave no reason for his absence the next year, but insiders say it was because Roberts didn't like to have his galleries called a "mob."
A year ago Roberts wrote a long memo concerning the Masters. The document, prepared in the classic style of the late George Apley, stands as a sort of official history and operating manual:
"At the beginning [the course was opened in 1932] no one had any thought of holding a tournament. The Masters came into being because of some discussions about holding the USGA Open Championship on Bob's [Jones'] course. In the end it was decided that the Augusta National could render a more important service to the game by inaugurating and holding regularly a tournament of its own. . . .
"The Jones and Roberts way of running a tournament was costly. Consequently, Roberts passed the hat among the members to provide the $5,000 of cash prizes. In fact, this was necessary for several years. Bartlett Arkell (the founder of Beech-Nut) regularly donated the first prize of $1,500 while Jay Monroe (founder of Monroe Calculating Machine Co.) would provide the second prize of $1,000....
"In recent years the Masters has been willing to allow others to pass it in the payout of prize money. Does the management believe that the money pendulum may have swung as far as is good for the game of golf? It is no secret that the Augusta National passed up a per annum increase in its TV rights fee of about $250,000. The purpose was to secure an agreement to limit television sponsors to a total of two and to limit the number and type of commercials....
"Another tournament policy forbids the commercialization in any form, insofar as is possible, of the Masters tournament. Although several members of the Club are connected with The Coca-Cola Company, the Coke coolers in the concession stands must be covered so as not to display the company's trademark. It is, of course, necessary in order to obtain complete television coverage for the telecasts to be commercially sponsored. But the two TV sponsors have no voice in tournament procedure or policy....
"The Club no longer sells tickets at the gate.... Only Series Badges are available and these may be purchased by mail directly from the Club, but no one can buy badges unless his name is on a Patrons' List.... The longer a person has been a regular patron, the more certain he is to get his usual full allotment. Sometimes large orders from business corporations receive no allotments at all. The Club prefers to deal directly with responsible individuals who are known to have a genuine interest in the game rather than in customer relationships.... Each applicant for Series Badges must sign a Pledge that he will not permit any badges allotted to him to find their way into the hands of speculators."
At one point in his chronicle, Historian Roberts quotes Chairman Roberts as saying,. "In short, the Masters had to excel." The Masters does indeed excel, and much of the credit belongs to this man, whose capacity for taking pains is said to be both infinite and ferocious.
A Heap of Policing
It takes 135 Pinkertons, plus an equal number of other uniformed guards, to put on the Masters even in so-to-speak peaceful times. At the 1970 Masters, it was thought at least that many would be required, chiefly because of Gary Player, who comes from South Africa. Earlier, South Africa had refused to allow Arthur Ashe, a black American tennis player, to compete there. This prompted certain U.S. activist groups to suggest that in retaliation Gary Player not be allowed to play in the United States. If he did play, it was argued, he should be harassed, humiliated and perhaps maimed in the interests of justice and decency. There were rumors that the extremists would make their move against Player at Augusta.
But Cliff Roberts said that a great competitor like Player deserved every courtesy America could extend, and he acted to insure this by alerting his security forces. The few club guards were reinforced as always by a mixed bag of lawmen: Pinkertons, city police, state police, deputy sheriffs, prison guards and firemen masquerading as peace officers. Player was given an escort of uniformed Pinkertons on the course, and it was reported the FBI was keeping a protective eye on him, too.
One of the Roberts regulars was Officer C. W. Epps Jr. of the Richmond County sheriff's department. Epps bore a remarkable resemblance to the symbolic Southern sheriff as portrayed in the cartoons of the underground press, serious movies, Dodge commercials and the fantasies of most civil libertarians. He was a broad, grizzled man with a big hard belly and three rolls of fat on his short red neck. On Masters duty he wore a service revolver in a holster and carried a sap in his back pocket and a can of Mace on his belt. He was posted at the 11th green most of the time. Despite his formidable appearance, he proved a pleasant man, though his habit of moving his lips as little as possible while talking gave him a faintly sinister air.
"What sort of problems do you have down here?" he was asked.
"Not many. Some boys from the North ain't used to this Georgia sun, get a little too much toddy. We hustle them out. Somebody tries to take a pee behind a bush. Things like that."
"How come you need so many officers for that?"
"I tell you, son, if they start anything, we're ready."
"I don't know how he does it," said a lady galleryite, watching Gary Player stride down the fairway. "All that terrible talk and threats and he stays as cool as a cucumber. I'll tell you, if any of those buggers ever did get in here, which I bet they can't, and started any trouble, this crowd would take care of them in pretty short order."
She was probably right. Player drew bigger cheers from the gallery than anybody else, partly because he is a very good golfer and was fighting for the lead all the way, but also because once they put their finger on him he became, like it or not, a symbolic Dixie hero. And if a long-haired boy from the North had perhaps taken a bit too much toddy and had yelled, "Go back to Johannesburg, ya bum!" when Gary was getting ready to putt, it seems likely there would have been such an outburst from the crowd that the protester's continuing good health might have been put into question.
Empire and All That
Even without the Player flap, a Kiplingesque mood hangs about Augusta National. The guarded steel fences and elaborately tended grounds suggest a foreign outpost on some barbarian soil. Inside the compound the white sahibs play and watch others play, while multitudes of dark, agreeable natives attend them. There were no black players at the Masters, and only a bare handful of black spectators. There were, however, black caddies and a lot of black men and women in the clubhouse and locker room, handing out drinks, toting bags, mowing grass, raking traps and picking up cigarette butts.
Technically, the highest-ranking uniformed blacks at the Masters in 1970 were some prison guards dressed and armed for riot duty and stationed near the 16th green, one of the televised holes. Even in normal times there are a lot of cops around the 16th because this is where The Beach is, where all the kids are spread out on the grass. Not that anybody is really worried about these kids, who are neatly barbered and brassiered regular Georgia country club kids.
"Suppose Woodstock and the Masters were going on at the same time," one was asked. "Which one would you like to go to?"
"What," asked the pert teen-ager, "is Woodstock?"
So these are not your average dirty, dopey, degenerate kids, even if a lot of them are not all that big on golf. They come every day because it is the event of the year in Augusta. You show off clothes and bodies, get a little sun, drink a little beer and giggle at cute golfers—just normal kid stuff. But the cops are around to see that the scene doesn't begin to escalate.
The big no-no at the Masters is "sunbathing," which is a euphemism for lying down on the grass, and so a system is all worked out, like a dress code. You can lean back and rest on your elbows, but you cannot go down all the way so that your shoulders are on the ground. But suppose one of these Mary Elizabeths puts her shoulders down on the Masters grass? Well, there is an old, kindly Pinkerton standing nearby, looking a little like Walter Brennan. He is the captain of the sunbathing squad, and what he does is sort of flirt with any errant buds in a May-September fashion until they giggle and wiggle up to at least elbow level. The black riot guards stand back, more or less at attention, more or less invisible. This is not their enforcement level.
With so many distracting elements available, it could become easy to overlook the central event, the golf tournament. Also it is sometimes tempting to do so because a golf tournament can be a difficult and unsatisfactory thing to watch. This is not peculiar to the Masters, where management has gone to great pains to make its tournament observable. The scoreboard, communication system and spectator arrangements at Augusta are unrivaled in the sport. The trouble is with the game itself.
The action is spread out over a couple of hundred acres, and except on the final two days when the leaders tend to be grouped it is hopelessly fragmented. No other sport is so cursed. The movement of a quarterback, for example, affects the movement of 21 other players. A horse runs in relation to other horses, a tennis player returns a ball hit at him by another player. But what Arnold Palmer does at 11 is geographically unrelated to Bill Casper at 15, and both have nothing to do with Bert Yancey or Bob Charles at 6 and 12, respectively. A golf tournament is a hundred or so men roaming about large fields, each doing his own thing, isolated by space and concentration from all the other competitors.
There are various philosophies among spectators at the Masters as to how these problems may be overcome. Under normal conditions a sitting, stay-in-one-spot-see-them-all-come-past galleryite gets to watch about 5% of a day's play (an approach, two putts and a drive by each player). In practice the percentage may be reduced by trees, hills, guards and other golf fans, or in the case of Augusta it may be enhanced by a felicitous choice of vantage points. For instance, around The Beach it is possible to watch all the play on two holes (16 and 6) with just a little neck straining.
A nomadic spectator, on the other hand—one who follows his favorite for a full round, or a series of favorites for a few holes apiece—watches about 3% of what is going on, i.e., all the shots of two or three players. The walking galleryite has, however, a distinction that may partly compensate for his many frustrations. He knows he has had a workout. A fan who trudges 18 holes with Arnie's Army is perhaps the only spectator in sport who gets more exercise than the man playing the game. Palmer is followed by a caddie lugging all his gear and is able to walk unencumbered down an open fairway, more or less in a straight line between his shots. A loyal trooper must, because of ropes and marshals, go the long way around, dodging thickets, low branches and knots of sitting fans while lugging his folding stool, field glasses and score sheets. There is a well-staffed, well-equipped first-aid station at the Masters. Late in the afternoon it is busy, not treating athletes but caring for sunburned, blistered, exhausted spectators.
Given the difficulties of golf spectating, the working press seldom strays far from the clubhouse and press building. Reports on play are quickly relayed by scoreboards and television, giving the professional observers as good a mathematical idea as anybody as to what is taking place. And if they miss out on some of the drama, they can always catch it later at the player debriefings.
When the dust has settled after a round, the more prominent players are convoyed into the press building to give their version of what has occurred. Each player describes his round, shot by shot, for the assembled scribes. "On one, I was left of the bunker, hit a six, 35 feet, two putts. Two, good drive...." etc., for 18 holes. But this does not provide news of sufficient quantity or quality to serve the needs of the 1,200 media people who turn up each year, so many of them amplify this fare with private interviews later.
"O.K., Tommy," asks a reporter of Tommy Aaron. "You had a great round today. What was the key shot?" The writer is feeling around for a few paragraphs or maybe even an entire "crucial play" story.
"Well, I don't know exactly," says Aaron.
"How about that chip on 8?"
"That was a good shot," Aaron agrees, saying all that can be said: that if the chip had not dropped, his total score would be at least one higher than it was, and low score wins.
But if finding crucial holes or shots is a big thing with golf writers, so is getting a line on the players' psyches. "O.K., Tommy," the writer now asks. "You're sitting on a two-stroke lead. Do you like your position?"
"Well," says Aaron, "I guess I like it all right. I'm two strokes ahead. They have to come after me." The reporter nods knowingly, as if he had asked a tricky question to which there were many possible answers and Aaron had figured it out right.
At the 1970 Masters it happened that two golfers, Casper and Littler, tied for the lead after four rounds and had to play off the following day. On Sunday afternoon the assembled journalists pulled out all stops in their session with the competitors.
"I have a question for both of you," one asked. "You know each other's games pretty well. How are you going to play it tomorrow?" (Load your lineup with left-handers, go to the long pass early, stay off the pace for the first quarter mile, hit a lot of lobs?)
Casper and Littler looked at each other wonderingly for a brief moment, but they are old pros. "I guess I'll tee it low and let it go," Casper answered first, and Littler chimed in behind, "I'm going to tee it high and let it fly."
The scribes, who are easily amused in such circumstances, howled with laughter. It was a pretty good exchange at that, being if nothing else a funny two-line commentary on contemporary golf literature and metaphysics.
The Longest Day
There is something in the final round that makes it the best thing about the Masters or golf. Take, for example, the 16th green on Sunday last year. There were perhaps 3,000 people packed together there, a solid cusp of humanity, and scattered about were half a hundred cops. Above the crowd rose a manned television tower. Flanking the green was an enormous scoreboard that showed four men with a chance to win the tournament, being within a stroke of each other after 68 or 69 holes.
One of the four was Gary Player, and when he hit an iron over the water to within half a dozen feet of the hole at the par-3 16th, a wild, rolling volley of applause saluted the shot. Player was cheered with passion as he strode off the tee, but as he approached the green silence spread like a reverse yell.
Player is a small, compact man, dressed neatly and somberly. He has a square, handsome face, the look of a man who can afford to brood about pride, honor and appearance. On the green he did the customary thing; studying the line of his six-foot birdie putt, flicking away tiny, perhaps even imaginary, bits of debris, and finally hunching over the ball. Silent, bowed, absolutely alone in the crowd, as if at his devotions, Player nevertheless gave the sense of a man struggling, of a clinching boxer, a straining fullback, a heaving weight lifter. He was struggling against the pressure of the moment, which is to golf what pain and physical contact are to other sports.
The reason for some of the tension on the 16th was obvious—the putt was worth thousands of dollars. But this kind of pressure was on every putt, and Player's stroke here would certainly count no more or less than any one similar putt he had made or missed on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. But the past was past and all that remained to be counted were the last three holes. Also there were special factors at work in this time and place—TV, tradition, grandeur, illusions. On top of everything else there was Player's unique situation, the Dixie hero business, the watching cops, the possibility that in the crowd there is a crazy with a cherry bomb—or a gun.
Player braced himself in ways we can imagine, stroked the ball and watched intently as it rolled up to, and into, the hole. There was a shriek of triumph from the spectators as if it were their putt that had dropped or as if they themselves felt the blessed glandular release of success.
There are various ways to reflect upon the scene. The reasonable one is that it was a ludicrously phony, contrived moment. In the great sweep of human affairs it was a matter of piddling consequence whether a man struck a ball 278 or 279 times during a four-day game. It was of very small general significance whether Gary Player or Bill Casper won another $25,000. So far as Player's special circumstances were concerned, nobody forced him to play a game for big money or expose himself to crazies.
But it also can be said that we are a remarkable species for precisely the illusions that shimmered around 16. The scene there truly strengthened the case of those who contend that sport is our oldest and most impressive art form. We put together arbitrary rules, meaningless effort, artificial rewards and penalties and call it a game. We end up creating a form of action that fiercely tests our manhood and, by testing it, we mysteriously illuminate our nature and potential.
It is this that should not be forgotten. People come to the Masters for a variety of reasons, some of them perhaps not very attractive. But they also come to see an exhibition of considerable significance that nowhere else can be seen so well—or at all.