THE MASTERS: SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS
Most of the small cities and suburban towns in America have a street similar to Washington Road. They are all populated by an endless number of strip malls, motel chains, and every fast food franchise imaginable, except that in Augusta, GA, 2604 Washington Road is the address of the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the historic Masters Golf Tournament.
Augusta National is one of the world’s most exclusive (and restrictive) golf clubs, yet walking distance from Hooters and directly across the street from a CVS Pharmacy, so I was able to purchase sunscreen before I transcended being a mere golf fan or tournament attendee into a Masters “patron.”
Until now, television was the closest I’d come to seeing the Masters and although many friends had told me about the tournament, nothing prepared me for the perfection that is the Augusta National Golf Club. The bright green grass looks as if it’s washed and buffed daily, while the white sand in the bunkers belongs in an hourglass and the trees are surrounded by lush deep brown pine needles so pristine that compared to Augusta, Disneyworld looks sloppy.
The club does not announce gate figures, but it’s estimated that 35,000 people attend the Masters and rather than engaging in any additional research, I spoke with Jon Ehrlich, a New York attorney known to friends and associates as the Masters Maven.
Ehrlich took up golf at age 10 and immediately fell in love with the game. His hero at the time was Arnold Palmer, who won his fourth Masters championship in eight years by 1964, forever instilling in Ehrlich a sense that Augusta was a magical place where dreams are brought to life. “Augusta is a horticultural masterpiece,” said Ehrlich. “It’s an oasis of aesthetic design.” Ehrlich and I also discussed how despite Augusta’s elite membership rules, the Masters is remarkably egalitarian. “It’s not unique to golfing events but given the history of this tournament and club, it offers a distinctive inclusivity – an ability to mingle that’s really striking.”
Other than a clubhouse for members and players there are no private boxes or guarded areas found at other sporting events. During Wednesday’s practice round, I walked up the fairway directly alongside VJ Singh separated only by a thin rope. All of the other patrons I encountered were friendly and engaging, especially a group from Australia who flew in especially for the tournament. I found them literally genuflecting over the spot where Bubba Watson hit his famous hook shot out of the woods in 2012, and they insisted I join them, which I did. If this seems odd, Ehrlich has the answer. “The majority of people who follow professional sports are strictly spectators, while golf fans are unique because no matter what their age may be – from 8 to 80 – many of them regularly play the sport. This provides a unique insight and great respect for the remarkable talent and skill one needs to be a professional golfer.”
It’s not all about worshipping the golf idols. Augusta also has a sense of humor. Using the bathroom at The Masters is very entertaining, thanks to James Marshall, a men’s room attendant who colorfully announces the availability of urinals. “I got one on the back nine and three pulling out on the front five,” Marshall announced as I entered the immaculate lavatory. “Fill ‘em up!” he said repeatedly. Theatrics aside, the lines at bathrooms and concessions all move remarkably fast thanks to the helpful aides.
Outside of the club, everyone else on Washington Road is equally gracious, as my friend Andy and I learned from the staff at Denny’s, who treated us like visiting royalty. Yull Wohlmuth, the Regional VP was visiting from West Palm Beach and he gave us a ride to Wednesday’s practice round in the Denny’s car.
It was better than a limousine.