Masters at Augusta celebrating 80th year
Jordan Spieth is defending champion
Australian Jason Day current world No. 1
Rory McIlroy chasing career grand slam
Behind an ordinary hedge, off an everyday street, in an unremarkable Georgia town, lies a quite extraordinary place.
The unassuming gate opens to a magnolia-lined lane leading to the white façade of a former plantation home.
Beyond that, a plunging panorama of green velvet, towering trees, ice-white sand and the scent of pine. Explosions of azaleas, magnolias and dogwoods if they are in bloom.
It is Augusta National, home of the Masters, and it is unique.
For the rest of the year Augusta goes about its business as Georgia’s second city. It has a population of almost 200,000 people involved in manufacturing, healthcare, nuclear energy, and the U.S. Army’s signals and cyber command center, Fort Gordon. Plus, it’s where the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, grew up shining shoes.
“Augusta is a vibrant city with a host of activities going on pretty much through the remainder of the year,” Augusta’s Mayor Hardie Davis told CNN Sport.
And for one short but spectacular show, like the blooms it is famous for, the exclusive Augusta National golf club opens itself to the world for a week in early April.
The Masters at Augusta is as spring rite, a harbinger of summer, a “tradition like no other,” to coin the club’s own phrase. It is more than a golf tournament, more than just a beautiful golf course. The Masters is a feeling.
“The Masters brand is iconic and universal,” adds Mayor Davis.
“We’re not competing for Superbowls or NBA All-Star games, we’ve got a destination the world comes to the same time every year.
“The economic impact is tremendous. It is certainly in the tens of millions of dollars.”
This year marks the 80th edition of the venerable event, and for many kick starts the golfing year.
For those that buy into the magic it is Disney World and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory rolled into one. A phantasmagorical dreamscape for the lucky few with a ticket and the millions conducting TV vigils back home.
“I think driving down Magnolia Lane is rejuvenating,” says three-time champion Phil Mickelson. “It gives me a new energy. It’s exciting, and I think that energy helps me work hard, play hard and focus better and play my best.”
Those less misty-eyed will point to an elite and often controversial club – with wealthy green-jacketed members and their own steadfast way of doing things.
The rules – such as no running, fans to be called “patrons”, no cell phones – are legion, but the atmosphere is one of a genteel old South, though its track record on race and gender has failed to keep up with modern times.
The first black member was only invited to join the Augusta National in 1990, while the first women members – former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore – were only admitted in 2012.
Behind the headlines, though, the “National” is fully engaged in the community, according to Mayor Davis.
“Throughout year they are making charitable contributions to organizations in Augusta, whether meeting the healthcare needs of people in the community, or providing educational opportunities,” he says.
“There are a host of things from a charitable perspective that the Augusta National does and they do it quietly. They give tens of millions of dollars a year, so they play a significant role in our community.”
The Masters – or the Augusta National Invitational tournament as it was first called – began in 1934, the year after the creation of the course on land that was once an indigo plantation and then fruit nursery.
The club, founded by businessman Clifford Roberts and the great amateur golfer Bobby Jones, suffered financial hardships along the way and took in turkeys and cattle to graze on the lawns during World War II.
The course has seen plenty of changes, too, not least in reversing the order of the two nines in 1935. Then there’s the significant lengthening since 2002 after Tiger Woods introduced his brand of power golf to the world.
Some things don’t change, though. The insistence on white caddie suits, the placing of chairs around greens for later viewing, the Champions Dinner, the honorary starters, the Par 3 contest, the fondness for pimento cheese sandwiches – all enduring Augusta traditions.
Commercialization, too, is kept at arm’s length, meaning no sponsors’ billboards or overt branding. And the Southern hospitality is still generous. A beer and a sandwich costs $5-6.
But the catalyst that elevates Augusta from sumptuous setting to global icon is the human drama; from the patrons adding dynamic colour to the canvas, to the revered roars for a Sunday charge ricocheting around the Georgia pines.
As the only major at the same venue each year, new layers of history – shots, deeds, heroes, victims, villains – are piled up, like the thick mat of needles below the trees.
Shots like Gene Sarazen’s double eagle in 1935, Tiger Woods’s chip-in on the 16th in 2005, Mickelson from the pine straw on 13 in 2010, Bubba Watson bending the ball around the trees on the 10th to win a playoff in 2012 – such moments become etched in the memory, the ghosts of past roars still echo around the trees.
The Masters. Augusta. Three words. A million emotions. One winner.