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Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the 17th green during the second round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Friday April 11, 2014. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the 17th green during the second round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Friday April 11, 2014. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Old-fashioned decorum and ritual add to the Masters mystique Add to ...

“The Masters is more like a vast Edwardian garden party than a golf tournament.” – British Broadcast Alistair Cooke

The secret lies in change so subtle it is barely, if at all, noticeable.  Take Gary Player, for instance. He can represent the human side of the Masters. The three-time champion – 1961, 1974 and 1978 – is standing in the lower hallway of the clubhouse at Augusta National. He is within reach of his own portrait, which hangs on the Champions Wall – just to the left of six-time winner Jack Nicklaus, and two to the right of four-time winner Arnold Palmer. If Player turned to face his picture, it would be almost as if he were facing a mirror.

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It may be 53 years since his first victory and 36 years since his last, yet Gary Player is as tanned and handsome and nearly as thick-dark-haired as he was at 25, save for the tint of grey about his temples. The green jacket he wears this sunny afternoon is the same fit as the one he first donned in 1961.

“Mystique?” he asks in his familiar South African accent. “Why, it’s everywhere here. President Eisenhower, Bobby Jones, Cliff Roberts, [Ben] Hogan and [Sam] Snead, Arnie and Jack and me on Sundays, reporters and players talking under the big oak. There’s tradition here everywhere you look. That’s the mystique.”

Player also acts as television spokesperson – “So, for the love of Golf, go!” – for the Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. Tradition is a big deal to him.

Shortly after dawn on Thursday morning, Player, 78, Nicklaus, 74, and Palmer, 84, launched the 2014 Masters with the traditional ceremonial drive off the first tee, with Player graciously conceding that Nicklaus outhit him by a yard or two – “but it’s not bad when you think he used to out-drive me by 50 [yards].”

The crowd was so thick to see three old men cuff golf balls off the tee that it was next to impossible to get within sight of them, the Masters “patrons” – never, ever to be referred to as mere “fans” – revelling in a strange sense that here, and perhaps only here, time stands still, even if now it hobbles a bit.

The Masters is but the first of men’s golf’s four majors each year – the U.S. Open, The Open and the PGA being the others – but it is the only one that is always played on the same course. More importantly is its timing, early April – for millions watching on television the start of the Masters signals the start of spring.

It is as close to a pagan rite as sport comes.

“It’s sort of the official start of the golf season to more of the general public,” Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland said when he arrived for his practice rounds.

Augusta National itself is the main character in this annual play, a revered sprawl of rolling hills, emerald green grass, towering pines, undulating greens, deceiving water and traps and, of course, the flowering cherry and crabapple trees, the blooming azaleas, magnolia, wisteria, dogwood … The course was built on a former nursery and, in many ways, the nursery remains.

In the days leading into Thursday’s launch of the tournament, the “personality” most discussed was not the chances of Australian Adam Scott repeating – though he would be one off the lead on opening day at three-under-par – or Phil Mickelson claiming his fourth green jacket or even what difference the absence of Tiger Woods, having withdrawn following back surgery, would make to the field.

No, they talked far more of a tree – a specific tree that stood for decades on the 17th hole and was lost during a severe ice storm this winter. The spot, unnoticeable but for a few discreet lines in the grass where fresh turf was laid, is pointed out all week long by volunteers while patrons take photographs of … nothing … and stand as if visiting the grave of a beloved relative.

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.

 Many of the changes are subtle. Augusta still sells its iced tea, beer and pimento cheese sandwiches at prices last seen a generation back. It has volunteers putting up the scores the old-fashioned way on ancient scoreboards. There are still attendants in the washrooms and the caddies still wear those white coveralls. But there is also a state-of-the-art digital world inside Augusta that is as current on the World Wide Web and in broadcast facilities as can be found.

The behaviour is also charmingly old-fashioned. In 1967, “president in perpetuity” Bobby Jones penned a message to patrons stating, “In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play.” There should be only appreciative applause; there should be no “excessive demonstrations” by players; and there are none.

Cellphones are strictly forbidden, as is running. Patrons can leave their fold-up seats and return hours later to find them neither moved nor occupied. Elderly men holding thin white ropes are able to exercise total control over flowing rivers of patrons hoping to cross over to sit at “Amen Corner” or watch the drama on the 18th hole.

“You do feel like you are walking on eggshells, scared to break a rule,” former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland told BBC before the tournament. “You feel like the boss could walk ‘round the corner and all of a sudden your invite disappears the following year. Not that it would happen – but it feels that way.”

No matter: The players, the patrons and the television audience love it all.

“I’ve never been to heaven,” 1979 champion Fuzzy Zoeller said, “and thinking back on my life, I probably won’t get a chance to go. I guess winning the Masters is as close as I’m going to get.”

Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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