When Augusta’s chairman Billy Payne announced the end of the tree only two months before the tournament was to begin, he spoke as if they had tried everything from life support to faith healers: “We obtained opinions from the best arbourists available and … were advised that no recovery was possible.”
It was known as the Eisenhower Tree, a spreading 65-foot loblolly pine that befuddled short drivers like Canada’s Mike Weir but could be cleared by the big hitters like Woods and McIlroy. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had so much trouble skirting the tree that he asked them to cut it down – an affront to the dictatorial board that was refused, no matter the office that had asked.
It became the most famous tree in golf. When Augusta opened earlier this week to practice rounds, 350 gold coins depicting the tree, priced at $125 (U.S.) apiece, sold out immediately.
When Player, Palmer and Nicklaus had finished their ceremonial tee-off, they held a news conference in which, predictably, the Eisenhower Tree was a delicate early question. Player said he was against trees and traps on a golf course anyway, the game being hard enough as it is. Palmer was of the opinion that they should put a similar tree right back. Nicklaus said, “It’s best to probably just keep my nose out of it.”
Nicklaus knew that no one, not even the president of the United States, tells Augusta how to run its affairs.
It is hard to imagine how such a powerful, awe-inspiring “club” could have come out of how it began. The course was the creation of legendary American amateur champion Bobby Jones, his friend Clifford Roberts and architect Alister Mackenzie, who co-designed the course with Jones.
They opened in 1932 and hoped to attract 1,800 members by setting annual fees at $360. According to Jeff Neuman and Lorne Rubenstein’s A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, only 76 members signed up. Today, membership is by invitation only and includes the corporate elite of America: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the like.
It worked because of Jones’s charm and Clifford’s determination. Jones’s sports pals, in particular Grantland Rice of The New York Herald Tribune, and a member at Augusta, helped bring the sporting press to the tournament as they made their way back north from baseball’s spring training. Today, the working press remains so revered at Augusta that faithful long-timers even have their names posted on reserved parking.
Despite such affirmative press, Augusta has not been without controversy. When Charlie Sifford won two tour events in the 1960s he was not invited to play, simply because of the colour of his skin. Sifford never forgave Augusta for the slight.
“As long as I’m alive,” Roberts had proclaimed at one point during his tenure as chairman, “all golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.”
Such thinking could not, of course, hold. Lee Elder was invited in 1975 and, of course, no face is more connected to the Masters in the 21st century than Woods.
It took women much longer to break through. Protests organized several years ago by the National Council of Women’s Organizations led to the tournament being broadcast, at Augusta’s insistence, without sponsors. Such is the wealth of Augusta that it can turn its back on the proceeds from one of television’s most lucrative sports properties.
Finally, in 2012, the club invited two women to join – former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore – and both accepted. The controversy quietly went away.
They worship tradition here, even when it can seem just a tad corny, such as the green jacket presented to the winners, the champions dinner where the menu is chosen by last year’s winner (Scott served surf ‘n’ turf BBQ, Moreton Bay bugs, but stopped short of kangaroo), and the glorious entrance drive known as Magnolia Lane.
And yet, under current chair Billy Payne – who also headed up the disastrous Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996 – Augusta has slowly but undeniably changed.