Is golf the greatest game in the world? Many would say so. But then, golf has truly excellent propaganda.
Almost all golfers watch The Masters. At least for a few hours we all tune in: same time, same place. In this way, every year, the game’s aesthetics, its incredible difficulty and its pleasant surface manners are enforced worldwide. This rite of spring serves to spread the message that golf is something to aspire to: a beautiful pursuit for gentlemen of improbable skills.
It’s a meaningful moment in the calendar, marking, for golfers, a new beginning as surely as the solstice did for Pagans or as Easter might for Christians. And the CBS output from Augusta National is as tightly controlled as any sermon the Catholic Church might sanction for its great events.
The broadcast values might feel dated. There’s a strangely saturated feel to the ultra-high-definition images and unreal colour schemes. And endless advertising from just a limited number of selected sponsors is trying, as if a lack of variety is somehow better. But the overall sensation is – as intended – one of tradition: a tradition unlike any other they say, over and over again, so that even Joseph Goebbels would admire the repetition.
It’s April. Augusta’s wonders are on display. The voice of the final four has his vocal chords in tune. The schmaltz and the golf can begin.
In Spain thoughts turn to Ballesteros and Olazabal. In Canada they think of Mike Weir, in Argentina Ángel Cabrera. In Australia it should be Adam Scott but they can’t help thinking of Greg Norman and the collapse he suffered at the hands of that automaton pom, Sir Nick Faldo, who they’re thinking of in England.
Around the world golfers measure out their years in Sunday broadcasts of blooming flowers and dyed-blue waters, unimaginably green greens, grown men praying as they walk across stone bridges built by German prisoners of war and named after the legends of the game, grown men crying as they succumb to terrible pressures or else fulfil fantasies of greatness. In the southern States the weather is kind. In the northern zones, in Europe as well, this warm weekend in Georgia inspires us to get the clubs out of the garage and begin to live the dream for another season.
We all love The Masters and its great arena. Sure, it’s a holier-than-thou, hillier-than-it-looks-on-television, over-long, over-grown indigo plantation turned plant nursery turned golf course which has been set up for left-handed bombers. But we are in awe. All that snobbery and sexism, all that racism and rigidity, those choking yellow clouds of pine pollen drifting over the course: yet it’s good; it’s great; it’s really great.
Easy to say when just spectating, but the course looks manageable with fairly fat fairways and appealing driving lines. No illusions though, this course is long and low scoring requires brilliance playing into the greens and putting on them too. The ordinary player would struggle to hit and hold them, would breathe fast and shallow over most short putts. The crowds stand and gawp and make strange noises as balls land, seemingly stop, then start to slide, picking up pace and spinning away. The greens have to be read from distance, they say, memorised too. It’s a subtle affair. And stimping at around 14 it’s also a bit of a pantomime. Every putt is an attempted lag putt. But golfers are, to varying degrees, sophisticated. When they started to make the greens really really fast here there were endless complaints. They’re like glass. Unplayable by the weekend. They need water. But now it’s accepted. Augusta is a cruel and unusual challenge and many perfect and pure strikes are required to win here.
The course has always been tinkered with. But when changes were made they were mostly gentle, a little lengthening here and there. And when they were severe they were inspired: most obviously the replacement of the old Bermuda greens with bentgrasses for the 1981 tournament when we began to feel the need for speed.
In general though, the antediluvian Augusta was shorter and slower. Like most courses it was forever being amended, but never drastically. Then came the flood: a person of colour who smashed the course to smithereens in 1997, playing a game Jack Nicklaus probably didn’t recognise, which is to echo the words Bobby Jones had said about Nicklaus himself back in 1965.
The Augusta powers had already humanely altered the course to protect it from that big-boned boy from Ohio who was powerful in the extreme. The bunkers on the left of the closing hole, for example, were put there because Jack was battering it up that side. With Tiger though they had to change the whole thing, stretch it out on the rack and radically revise it. More pines were introduced. A ‘first cut’ of rough appeared beside the fairways. Tees were pushed way back. An argument says that simply played into the strong hands of the big-hitters because the fairways don’t narrow and disappear at long driving length the way they often do elsewhere. It meant the big-guys simply wind up and hit it out to their maximum distance. But distance defines much of the game now. So Augusta – in this way – is very progressive.
It is the crucible of course architecture. Every year they get the world’s greatest golfers down below the Mason-Dixon line and they see what they can do to the course. Then they spend the next twelve months adjusting it to stop them doing it next time. The changes made each year since 1997 have been profound. And the club itself - ostensibly a separate entity from the tournament – has changed too. It has changed to accommodate the modern world as well as its great new champion.
The modern world wasn’t a consideration when Clifford Roberts, the farmboy turned investment banker, and Bobby Jones, the great amateur gentleman, conceived Augusta.
They invited Dr Alister Mackenzie, a course architect whose work they’d admired at Pasatiempo and Cypress Point, to plan the course. They didn’t pay him what they promised and he died in straitened circumstances.
In 1932 as work on the course came to an end Mackenzie wrote Roberts a letter. "I've not been paid a cent since last June, and we have mortgaged everything we have.” He begged for five hundred dollars “to keep us out of the poor house.” A $10,000 fee had been agreed to design the course. But this was reneged on during construction and the sum was halved. In the end, even that bill wasn’t settled.
Roberts and Jones envisioned something timeless, invented instant traditions and realised a fantasy of an ultra-exclusive enclave that the world could enjoy glimpses of through the tournament they created. And to go with all that they got the ultimate course layout for just $2,000, the total sum that they paid Mackenzie.
It was Roberts who vowed that as long as he was alive the golfers would be white and the caddies black. As financial advisor to Eisenhower it seems he illegally channelled public funds to the Republicans. He defaulted on the building costs of Augusta so the club could reorganise and trade debt-free under a new name. Latterly he banned Jones from Masters’ prize-giving ceremonies because he was wheelchair bound. Roberts was, by most accounts, an introvert with a passion for power and a lust for money. Then in 1977, age 83, he shot himself in the head with a Smith & Wesson .38, out on the par 3 course. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy someone might think. But really it’s just a sad story. He killed himself because he had terminal cancer. His parents before him had both killed themselves. So we continue with fantasies. He was an ethno-centric racist and a bully because of circumstances, because of the time and the place.
Anyway, the man’s dead and despite remaining as chairman in memoriam, non-white members were allowed into Augusta for the first time in 1990, non-black caddies seven years before that.
Women wanted in on the act too, wouldn’t you know? They protested: it’s the 21st Century and this is unacceptable. The club protested: we’re just a bunch of guys enjoying golf and cigars, a few money games away from the wives. But one woman in particular, Martha Burk, wasn’t buying it. Augusta is a powerful cabal which legitimises sexism at the highest levels she claimed. So, Burk, President of The National Council of Women’s Organizations based in Washington, decided to stand up to them. Well, she sent them a letter and the unhappy club decided to take her on publically, making many PR mistakes along the way. Hootie Johnson, the club president, refused to be ‘intimidated at the point of a bayonet’. His comedy name and this fiery response replete with Civil War reference was the beginning of mass media coverage which, although serious, added greatly to the glee of the nation.
So Martha took her protest south, giving the media what it wanted and taking the fight to the front door (well, the outer gates) of Augusta National. She’d received hundreds of death-threats so wore a bullet-proof vest. The implication was that these are red necks, or perhaps a sinister powerful elite, like something from a Dan Brown book, and that they’d protect their institution with guns. (To the plutocrats inside the gates the implication was that even feminists like to accessorise. Despite originally coming from Texas, she was a Yankee with a bee in her bonnet.)
But actually, changes were made, no doubt because of commercial pressures brought to bear following the NCWO’s letter-writing campaign to club members, their companies and the tournament sponsors. Nobody would admit to such grubby considerations, but money talks and in 2012 women were allowed to join the club, starting with Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice. Luckily Darla’s a billionaire and Condoleezza makes up for the double-hit of being a black woman by also being a former secretary of state. Augusta housewives probably aren’t holding their breaths.
So, people of colour and women are now welcome here. And the club, having got its house in order, feels free to carry on moralising. Tiger Woods’ sexual standards are not in keeping with Augusta we were told by the club chairman. “It's not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here," he said, as many reached for a dictionary. "It is the fact he disappointed all of us and more importantly our kids and grandkids,” he explained, as even more reached for the sick-bag.
Despite all this rancour, the course’s class is undeniable. Amen Corner, a three hole stretch on the back nine is worthy of worship. But don’t call it the back nine. That suggests backside, which obviously suggests sex. (In fairness, I know golfers who would be in a partially aroused state if they got to tee it up on 11, 12 and 13.) So, television announcers are told to avoid this. They talk about the inward half or somesuch.
Anyway, that’s the way it is down Magnolia Lane. It’s pretty stiff and hypocritical. But the crowds (the ‘patrons’) behave and there’s much Southern civility and the downright decency of Bobby Jones still mostly prevails. They want to see how it rolls across town at a private aviation sponsored party, a fearsome entertainment on Magnolia Boulevard.
The women are beautiful. The guys are all Steven Siegal lookalikes, bulky jackets, loads of cash and slicked back hair. There’s a practise putting green that’s a dream to behold and I’m happily making my way round it, making friends. The drinks are extraordinarily good and I’m thirsty in the searing heat, parched thanks to the large Cuban cigar someone’s given me. He’s a businessman from North Carolina, a proper industrialist but a total riot. He introduces his best friend as his Samoan Attorney. This guy reads Hunter S Thompson for goodness sake! His wife’s not Miss World, but she was Miss Winston and she’s a riot. Everybody’s eating and drinking and smoking and putting and making merry. It’s mid-afternoon, 90 in the shade. We have nothing to be unhappy about.
But it’s that evening – Friday evening – when the jet party gets serious. Alcohol has truly been ‘taken’, as they say in Scotland (‘do you take a drink?’), and now it’s time to dance and, well, as you do, take a quick golf lesson from Butch Harmon on the simulator. He tells me to ‘compress it more’. He’s right but I’m none the wiser.
A few big-name golf pros take the stage and take some questions. We all roar approval when one of them – still in the hunt halfway through the tournament so with a late tee time the next day – raises a large glass of bourbon. The real acclamation though comes when the boss of the jet company says a few words, all of them about his company’s 100% safety record and the measures taken to keep things that way. I’d seen this guy around earlier and spoken to him and got a gruff word in reply. I thought he was like the bus driver who’d brought all the beautiful people here to party, that I might see him shuffling around in his tracksuit and sandals at the corner of the dance floor later, or maybe rolling a cigarette beside his coach at the end of the night. But no, he’s the man! He explains there are countless thousands of safety checks diligently completed before each flight. And there are three or four pilots on each plane. Hey, even the stewardesses could take the controls in an emergency and they look great. We’re all cheering our heads off like someone’s made an overhead shot from the halfway line for a million bucks.
I’ve heard there are no bitter people in first class cabins. They think life’s good because they’ve got more legroom and because the flight’s shorter from the front. Tell you what, they’d be bitter if they could see it here. That’s how the other half of the 1% live, they’d say, grudgingly.
I’ve never been on one of these things, these private planes. I don’t know why I’m cheering. But we’re all alive and these planes are never going down, never I tell you. We’re going to live forever!
Next day it turns out we’re not going to live forever. Who knew? The party’s over, for us anyway. We’re heading back to Atlanta, limping back slowly, stopping at every diner on the way, hungover and hungry. We’re going to watch the weekend on television.
To be in Augusta when The Masters comes to town is wonderful. It’s been a thrill. The golf world gathers and all Honky Tonk America lines up on Washington Road. The crowds are colossal. When they’re inside the grounds they’re patrons. But on the street they’re a howling mob. Everything’s for sale and they’re throwing their cash around. John Daly’s truck is parked up, selling who knows what, promoting anything anyone asks him to. He’s got a big payroll. All his exes wear Rolexes, he sings.
Back in the big city we take it easy. It’s mostly about recovery and televised golf but on the Sunday morning we head off to a course north of Atlanta, up in Ball Ground, so named because this is where the Cherokee used to play lacrosse before we chased them off the property. It’s an amazing course with interesting elevation changes, nothing like the flat plains I’d imagined from the town’s etymology. Built with Augusta in mind, the club is a private refuge for the privileged few.
It’s maintained to within an inch of its life. To be precise, the grass is mown to within a millimetre of death. People forget this: cut the grass too low too often and it dies. But up here they know what they’re doing.
The greens roll about the same speeds as at Augusta. Even the tees roll about the same speed as Augusta greens. There are holes cut into the tees on the par 3s so you can have a putt if you’re waiting. But really, there’s no waiting. There’s nobody here.
But it’s not perfect. Just as Augusta had Cliff Roberts, so this place has owners who do things their way. If they’re out on the course, irrespective of your own speed of play, you let them through. It’s not terrible. It’s not a stuffy place. They just have this rule.
Anyway, I’m playing with my great friend Gene who ‘hosted me’ at The Masters, who’s hosting me at his home in Atlanta, who hosts me at The Carnegie Club and Royal Dornoch in Scotland, who hosts me everywhere. (I think I once bought him a cup of coffee.) We’re joined by his friend Chuck. Gene and Chuck can really play.
Gene’s supposedly retired. He ran a successful engineering company and is now meant to be relaxing, playing endless golf. But he can’t help himself. He still gets involved, businesswise, with things he’s passionate about. He’s into country music and he’s into golf so can often be found in Nashville or in Scotland, the clubs in the trunk, the radio blaring.
He funded his engineering degree at Georgia Tech through part-time work in the pro shop at a local club. And when he graduated he decided to give it a go and joined the PGA. He stood on the range at his first professional tournament and wondered what the strange sounds were around him. Turns out they were the acoustics of the very best shots, the near perfect strikes which are the stock in trade of top golfers. Gene reckoned there and then that he didn’t have it in him. Happily he turned out to be pretty good at engineering.
On the course this morning Gene’s pitching is off the mark so he’s taking short shots one-handed. He’s an engineer and if it’s broken he fixes it. Southern boys famously fix everything with duct tape and this is his golfing equivalent. I’ve never seen him shoot worse than two or three over par. Somehow he just finds a way. Today he gets up and down single-handed every time from within 30 yards. Meanwhile, Chuck birdies all the par 3s. And, inspired, even I make a couple of shots, minor miracles appropriate to Masters Sunday.
Back at the ranch, Gene’s place, we have a huge family feast and gather in the den to watch events play out down the road. It’s strange to be watching The Masters in daylight, strange to be watching it so nearby.
The talk is all golf and the local knowledge is for real. Chuck’s played at Augusta often. A PGA member, originally from Florida, he’s been out there on his own, the place to himself, waved on by a friend in the pro shop, unimaginable really. But that was the 80s. And Chuck’s Chuck: well-connected, laid back, loveable. Everyone I meet who knows Chuck – which is pretty much everyone I meet – says something like, ‘I’d walk over burning coals for Chuck’ or ‘any friend of Chuck’s is a friend of mine’ etc. And now I go around saying this stuff too. And now he’s in a book.
Chuck’s got the leathery sun-damaged skin you look for in a golf pro. If there were more movies about golf then casting directors would be all over him. (There are very few golf movies and they never really work because it’s a game played inside the head.)
Anyway, were there more of these feature films, Chuck would get the part: Southern Golf Pro. You would never, never play this guy for money. That is, unless you’ve got money. And, because of the clubs he works out of and because of the sheer quality on show – his game, the advice, the look – there are a fair few high-rollers who take their lessons from him and probably play him for decent sums. He gives them shots. They can grease their irons (a bit of Vaseline on the face keeps the shots straighter). But I reckon very few ever win. Outside of golf he plays some serious poker and, Gene assures me, a mean game of gin. I’ve sat and watched them play cards for hours in their leisure gear. They get changed to play cards! But despite the sweat pants, it’s not a spectator sport. It’s golf you want to watch them play: Gene with his outrageous short game and long drawing drives, Chuck with his metronomic, super smooth Southern swing.
Gene’s played Augusta often too, done plenty of stints with friends in The Butler Cabin. No outsiders really know the secrets to accessing Augusta. And when someone learns the secrets they don’t reveal them. But from general conversations I’ve gleaned that it goes something like this. First, you’ve got to be a trusted good guy and you need to know some members, senior members perhaps. Then you have to have the cash to make a significant charitable donation to the cause of that member’s asking, many thousands for sure. And then – as a guest of that member - you pay for golf, your stay, the food, the serious wines cellared beneath the clubhouse. Clearly there are ways and means. But you have to know the way and you need to have the means.