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Kelly: Augusta National isn’t just a place. It’s a state of mind

In the year between the last Masters and the one beginning on Thursday, they built a new media centre at Augusta National.

The last one was perfectly fine. Better than that, actually. It was perhaps the most commodious press box in all of sports. It sits dark now.

Upon approach, the new one resembles the White House, in both size and grandeur. It has a full-service, white-linen-tablecloth restaurant, in which all food and drink is free. There's an interview room built along United Nations Security Council lines.

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It contains a working "arena" straight out of NASA Mission Control that looks over the driving range through 30-foot windows. A pair of cleaners spend hours each day cleaning and recleaning those windows in tandem, one shammying the outside while the other polishes inside.

It has a full locker room complete with showers. Why anyone would get up from his or her desk in the middle of a workday to take a long, relaxing soak was presumably not discussed.

This place – which has no other purpose than to house journalists during the Masters and will be shuttered 51 weeks of the year – apparently cost about $60-million (U.S.). We can't know for sure because Augusta National does not reduce itself to the gaucherie of talking dollar figures, or just about anything else to do with the club's inner workings.

During a rain delay on Wednesday, former champion Adam Scott wandered in to gawk at the main arena while everyone gawked at him.

"This is a big room," Scott said to no one in particular while spinning slowly in place. "My God, this is a big room."

Why did they build it? Because they have the money and they can. And so that they can use it to awe the little people, which include some of the richest athletes alive. It's the largesse of the pharaohs.

Despite what one must assume is its immense profitability, Augusta National operates on communist principles. The ideal is constant progress willfully ignorant of cost. It isn't growing a business. It is maintaining a monument. It is a cult of personality in which the focus of worship is the place itself.

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This oddly red tendency includes an element of indoctrination.

Also on Wednesday, the member charged with handling the media, Craig Heatley, dropped by the media arena for a pep talk. Heatley is a vastly wealthy business titan of stentorian bearing. Unlike a lot of the geriatrics on the Augusta members' list, he really fills out a green jacket.

"As proud as we are of this building, it's just bricks and mortar," he said to the mob of journos. "It's you that makes the difference. … You are the cream of the crop. You are the best at your job."

Nobody actually sighed, but a lot of people looked close. No outfit in all of sports – or, really, any other cultural endeavour – has deployed a more successful media agit-prop operation than this one. Try to find a critical word ever written about this place. It'll take some digging.

The remarks ended with, "God bless you. God bless the Masters. And God bless America."

Heatley is from New Zealand.

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A short while later, down in the interview room, club chairman Billy Payne gave his opening statement. Security guards collected cellphones at the door.

(Later, Payne was asked about the Masters' ruthlessly enforced ban on any electronic device that emits noise. Might that change soon, in line with other tournaments?

"You'll have to ask the next chairman. That's not going to change while I'm chairman."

Can you explain why?

"Not really.")

Payne launched into a long, often touching remembrance of Arnold Palmer. The tone was so hagiographical, you half-expected him to whip out a shinbone for adoration as a holy relic. All that was missing was a hands-up "Hallelujah!" But underneath the schmaltz and exaggerated gentility, there is a wide streak of reactive establishmentarianism. Any one of this "cream of the crop" that puts ripples in the Masters' pool is made to feel they've been boorish.

Someone tossed up a rhetorical pebble by asking Payne his thoughts on the character of U.S. President Donald Trump and his close association with golf. The chairman shifted uncomfortably and pretended to misunderstand the question.

But didn't he once have a lot to say about Tiger Woods's sexual extracurriculars and how they reflected on the Masters?

Payne stiffened, and the rest of us stiffened as a result: "I'm not the one to judge how [Trump's] other remarks may have some influence on the game of golf, which is where my interests reside exclusively."

It wasn't much of an answer. It was quite definitely the last question of the news conference.

The subtext was clear – the Masters exists not only as a geographic feature, but also as a state of mind. This place is above the tawdry concerns of the real world, most of which is coarse and uncouth. It's a pilgrimage site.

Anyone willing to obey the rules and bend a knee is welcome to come in and worship. At Augusta National, they've somehow turned golf – their particular brand of it, at least – into a belief system.

Once you succumb to that idea, money loses meaning. The opulence becomes akin to a jewel in the pope's crown – there to signal regality rather than wealth.

Every major sport embraces the descriptive trappings of religion. Every arena of a certain vintage is a "temple," a "church" or the "Mecca" of football/baseball/hockey/what-have-you. Mostly, it's a place designed to separate you from your disposable income (not entirely unlike some churches in that sense).

Only Augusta National really puts the sacred before the profane. Whether you choose to believe, it is difficult not to admire the commitment.

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