Augusta National: Fear and capitalism on the golf course

They say you should never meet your heroes, especially not your sporting ones. Particularly if you have the liberal-left worldview of the readership of this publication.

Professional sportsmen and women tend to be politically conservative — prone to petty nationalism, small government and low taxes. Libertarians, in other words.

They tend to be very rich and the celebrity bubble into which their natural talents has thrown them tends to cut them off from real world issues — such as travelling on public transport or fretting about whether one has enough money to put food on the table that night.

And especially professional golfers.

Which is why Augusta National Golf Club is such a demonly challenge to this proposition. It is the physical manifestation of what I have just described — soaked in privilege; an other-worldly lush green cocoon; used and enjoyed only by the super elite.

And yet visiting it – whether to watch the Masters Tournament, whose 2022 edition starts on Thursday, or to play the course – or, preferably, both – remains stubbornly on the bucket list.

It is a test of character as much as it is ethics. Putting on excessive weight, one knows that one should cut down on sugar and chocolate. But who can really resist a packet of Woolies’ Chuckles? The alcoholic who wants to stop drinking, but then pops into the pub for one last snifter. The gambler who knows that he should set a limit but then when he reaches it succumbs to the temptation to have one last bet.

This is the succulent, seductive bait that the Augusta National dangles. It is a creature of such great beauty. Admiring it from the safety of one’s sofa is not enough. A yearning to touch and feel emerges over the years. A deep craving grows deeper. It must be sated.

The back nine of this manicured course evokes the sense that it is a golfing – perhaps even a sporting – Mecca.

These nine holes have attained a mythical status, encouraged partly by the fact that until relatively recently TV coverage of the first nine was not permitted — a small but significant example of the disdainful arrogance of the Augusta National: it, not the TV companies nor the sponsors, will decide what should be aired.

(Original Caption) Lee Elder leaps for joy upon winning the Monsanto Open here, April 21. Elder rammed in an 18-foot birdie putt on the fourth hole of a sudden-death playoff to beat Englishman Peter Oosterhuis and win the tournament. He becomes the first black to win a tour event in more than five years. Victory also earned the 39-year-old Elder a berth in the Tournament of Champions, which begins April 25 at La Costa, California, and a berth as the first black ever to play in the masters next spring.

They wanted their members and “patrons” — what an ordinary golf club would call fans, Augusta calls patrons — to have a unique experience over and above that which the peasants watching on TV would have. TV commentators are contractually bound to refer to the fans as patrons.

Golfing addicts have a mind’s eye GPS of this famous back nine: holes 10 and 11 are historically two of the hardest, with narrow sloping greens. “Get par, breathe, move on”, is the mantra ahead of “Amen Corner” and a stretch of holes that will define not just a round of golf or a tournament, but sometimes a player and his career.

The 12th is a short par three played downhill to a unique green: it sits in splendid isolation, backed not by fans — sorry, patrons — nor stands, and certainly not by advertising boards. Instead, impossibly colourful azaleas are the backdrop as the players make their lonely walk down over a little bridge to the postage-stamp green. 

Survive that ordeal and it’s time to attack the par fives — holes 13 and 15 — that sandwich the comparatively bland par four 14th hole. Given advances in equipment, these two holes are now reachable in two for the whole field, provided that the tee-shot is in decent shape.

These are the holes that can launch a back-nine charge of the sort that has made Masters’ legends. For those who aspire to shake the leaderboard up and mount such an assault on the green jacket that is given each year to the winner, a two under-par eagle is a minimum at both the 13th and 15th.

The par three 16th is another iconic hole, where the tee-shot must be hit over water and landed in precisely the right spot on a small green to enable it to funnel down to the hole which, for the final round, is placed tantalisingly close to the front left corner by the water.

Then up the hill to the 17th hole, a relatively vanilla challenge now that the Eisenhower tree that complicated the drive off the tee was felled in a 2014 storm, before the denouement at the 18th.

Those with a one shot lead or who have to make a birdie to tie and force a play-off face the ultimate test of nerve. The tee-shot must be hit through an unfeasibly narrow tunnel of trees and patrons, with just enough fade to hit the slightly dog-legged hill up to the right, but not so much that you slice off into the woods. Hit it too straight and a big fairway bunker awaits.

Great sporting drama has been played out over these nine holes. On Sunday, millions will be watching the final round unfold, hoping and expecting that something remarkable will transpire. There is really nothing quite like it.

Yet this dramatic beauty masks an ugly history.

It took the Augusta National 41 years of competition before they extended an invitation to a black player — Lee Elder. The club did not admit its first black member until 1990 and didn’t offer membership to women until 2012.

A 2020 New York Times piece recalled how, in 1983, Calvin Peete, the second black golfer after Elder to compete in the Masters, was asked his opinion of the Masters traditions. “Till Lee Elder came, the only blacks here were caddies and waiters,” he said. “To ask a black man how he feels about the traditions of the Masters is like asking him how he feels about his forefathers, who were slaves.”

This is the American south. The state of Georgia. Always living well behind the times and any shifts in social mores; having to be dragged reluctantly into the 20th century (let’s take it one century at a time; the woke culture of the current era might be a Hogan bridge too far).

There’s the ethical challenge. Augusta National and the Masters is the epitome of so many social wrongs. Racial injustice and discrimination; elite privilege and socioeconomic inequality; cultural snobbery and bigotry.

It’s rather convenient that, thanks to the time difference, this mesmerising piece of golfing theatre only starts at 9pm, when an autumnal nightfall has descended, permitting the naughty partaking of the forbidden fruit to take place in secretive dark.  

This is the persistent dilemma of the politically progressive and active person — the clash between personal worldview and values, and those of the fantasy cocoon of professional sport. The Masters exposes it more than any other sporting contest and makes hypocrites all of us who cannot but succumb to its annual allure.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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