Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bobby Jones Was Stranger Than You Might Think

The day before the Masters began, ESPN Classic was, for a change, doing its job, and running highlight films of Masters past. Way past. I tuned in just in time for the start of the 1963 Masters highlights, a work done so long ago, it was before the late Chris Schenkel starting narrating those things.

Glad I did, kind of. The highlight film of Jack Nicklaus' first Masters title began with an introduction from four Augusta National caddies, all African American, of course, although that's not the term club members used back then. They were singing, and, well, there is no other word here, shuffling.

Oh, dear. Hope T. Woods doesn't like old sports films as much as I do. Funny thing about stereotypes though. They often contain blowback. The racial misconcepts contained in that film are long gone. But the segment did a bang-up job of reinforcing the stereotype of Augusta National Golf Club held by every sports fan.

Augusta National. One of the world's great golf courses, and a club run by a secretive, snotty collection of wealthy, hidebound big shots who embody every retrograde trait in American life. Racism, sexism, classism, you name the bad attitude, they have it and flaunt it.

That's the stereotype. It is supported every spring by the obnoxious, syrupy, pompous commentary on the event which fans know damn well is required of the broadcasters by the club. Those little prose poems inserted into ESPN's broadcast yesterday did more to encourage class warfare than AIG ever could.

The Augusta National stereotype is not made up from whole cloth. Ask Martha Burk. But enough of it IS false to make attending the Masters a much more interesting experience than one might think.

Start with the basics. Augusta National is indeed a club full of wealthy, powerful men, many of whom are from the South, the state of Georgia to be precise. Don't look for any descendants of William Tecumseh Sherman to be wearing green jackets. The members are used to running things, and they are an imperious lot.

Yet they knock themselves out each year to put on the Masters. It is what sets their club apart. There are several other private golf clubs in this country just as exclusive and that contain courses as good as Augusta, Pine Valley and Seminole to name two. They don't hold tournaments. They are true hideaways for the members.

An anecdote might help explain what I mean. My last Masters as a columnist was in 2002, by far the dullest of Tiger's major tournament triumphs. In the press building, a club officials introduced several reporters to a bespectacled man in a green jacket, a member who had decided there was more he could do to help the beloved event.

"Sam will be here to help you fellows with any questions," we were told.

Sam was Sam Nunn. Former U.S. Senator. World expert on nuclear arms control. Counselor to Presidents. And for one afternoon, sports PR intern.

My point being, the actual in-person Masters is a much more pleasant and relaxed affair than one would ever guess from watching the stick-up-the-ass Masters you see on CBS. The actual clubhouse and its facilities, while perfectly nice, are hardly lavish. The members' locker room is, if not bare bones, hardly full of the luxury its regular customers experience in their daily lives. And that famous drive to the club entrance? It's a hard right turn off a 4-lane highway that is the very vision of Sun Belt strip mall hell. Know where Augusta National is? Third stop light past Hooters.

The members, those who aren't actually working as part of the event, fade into the background, and look benevolently at the unseen part of the tournament-the social get-together of the world of golf after its winter hiatus. Legendary course architects, the captain of the Royal & Ancient, and similar poobahs chat cheerily with the parents of the unknown amateurs out there on the course shooting 81.

Since the bulk of the patrons (spectators) or their forebearers have been attending the event on an annual basis since Ben Hogan's last triumph there, they are as collegial as the insiders. And the patrons also provide the most striking sociological fact about the Masters, one no TV viewer is likely to ever guess.

The Masters' galleries contain a higher percentage of African American fans than do the crowds for almost any other major U.S. sports event I have ever attended. Far more than any regular season game at Fenway, for example. These fans are, by and large, residents of Augusta. They are the black power structure of that small, dumpy city. At some point in the past, the club made the conscious decision to distribute a percentage of the most cherished ducats in sports to that community. It makes sense, because good relations with the locals is important for any club, but then, admitting a woman member would make sense, too, and the club famously won't do that.

Augusta National is, in a word, schizophrenic. It's half snooty private club (but one with style, discussing business on the course is grounds for immediate forced resignation), and half a group of wealthy, powerful men dedicated to putting on the world's best golf tournament (it's second to the Open Championship, but second's not bad). And ON THE PREMISES, these men make sure that golf's first principle is observed-have fun out there.

These same men think Jim Nantz is a great announcer, and exercise their considerable influence to make sure television presents a very different Masters from the real one. Go figure.


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