Robert Tyer Jones, Jr. or Bobby as his sport knows him, is arguably the biggest hero in the history of golf–definitely on the American side. His story is deeply engrained in the mythos of golf, and every year it is constantly retold during Masters Week. Bobby, of course, was the impetus behind the creation of both the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament itself–his aim: an American homage to St. Andrews. His tournament and golf club now host the most prestigious and storied major tournament of the year–I’m quite sure the British will argue. But, the question is: did Jones foresee the consequences and costs of this prestige?
Bobby Jones died in 1971. In the more than four decades that have since passed, his legacy and legend have grown by leaps and bounds. Never has the annual spring tournament at Augusta National been so popular, and never has the course proven a fairer judge of skill than today. On the other hand, the tournament–in terms of attending or watching–remains incredibly exclusive and inaccessible.
When Jones created the tournament and course with Clifford Roberts, he set out create a prestigious tournament in the United States worthy of being mentioned alongside its British counterparts. He sought to rival St. Andrews with his tournament, but desired a club where he and his friends could escape and simply play golf without the distractions associated with Jones’s fame. Hence, Augusta National’s secrecy of membership and extreme exclusivity.
Before I get into it, Augusta National and the Masters tournament do an immense amount of good for the game of golf globally. The club funds numerous youth golf programs, like the First Tee, and has created a youth drive, chip, and putt championship–which occurs at the club during tournament week. These, along with innumerable other efforts to grow the game, are excellent endeavors that should be continued. Furthermore, when we were fortunate enough to be able to attend a practice round, we had a wonderful experience that we will never forget. I love this tournament. However, the problem is that these programs and the great experiences do not absolve Augusta National of the unreasonable and harmful practices employed during the tournament.
Make no mistake, Augusta National chairman and vice chairman Billy Paine and Joe Ford, respectively, are expert brand managers. Long ago, the decision was made that The Masters and the Augusta National brand would be synonymous with class, aplomb, and, to a fault, luxury. Every decision that followed was based on upholding these tenets of the club. As Bobby’s legacy became more romanticized and rolled into the canon of golf, the delusion of “Bobby’s wishes” came into being.
Over the years, the exclusivity of the club has metastasized to outright exclusion all in the name of “Bobby’s wishes.” Further, the tide has not ebbed even in the slightest. The club has a legacy system in place for tickets for patrons, with current badge holders receiving first refusal rights until death or refusal, with the latter coming as rarely as an Albatross. The tournament has strict limits and controls on the number of spectators admitted for the tournament and the badge list is oversubscribed. The waiting list for tickets has not been open in fifteen years. To further muddy the waters, the tournament has online registration for the few tickets that trickle in for practice rounds and competition rounds that are not earmarked for anyone. Winning this ticket lottery has incredibly long odds all its own. And, if you somehow manage to win the lottery, you do not receive patron status so you do not get the right of first refusal for future years. You are one and done. So, to recap: you cannot get tickets because current ticket holders get first crack at renewing–just like season ticket holders.
On its own, this is just a matter of preference, and this is their tournament so they can run it however they please. People scalp their tickets and if you’re lucky enough to have badges, you can easily turn them into thousands of dollars thanks to the secondary market. (Editor’s note: ticket resale is officially frowned upon by the Masters and they ban, for life, people they catch scalping.) Personally, I think they should raise the ticket prices and eliminate legacies, but that’s my personal opinion.
To make matters worse–and the real problem with the club’s decisions–is the television coverage. Augusta obtains three sponsors for the event–AT&T, IBM, and Mercedes-Benz who recently replaced ExxonMobil as the third. These sponsors pay ungodly sums of money for this privilege; and the Augusta Vice Chairman Ford appears in TV spots telling the viewers all about the limited commercial interruption thanks to the sponsors. (Editor’s note: the CEO of IBM has been granted membership to Augusta every year that the company has been a sponsor, except when the CEO was female.)
This is the classic bait-and-switch. During the broadcasts, this is fantastic. Viewers receive minimal interruption while CBS and ESPN provide expert coverage and commentary of the round action. But, here’s the problem: coverage does not begin until the early to middle afternoon (2 or 3 depending on the day). To make up for the fact that they cram a single day of action into three hours, Augusta has proprietary fixed coverage on two groups, and a smattering of holes on the back nine. It’s online only, and is not dynamic coverage. The featured groups are determined ahead of time and do not swap to groups that might be of interest to the viewer–like record setting performances or 5 birdies in a row. If it’s not part of the preordained featured groups, people at home miss out. In today’s age of accessibility, there should be no reason why people cannot watch who and what they want in this tournament.
To make matters worse, Augusta puts strict rules on the television announcers and dictates terms to the networks across the board. The announcers are not allowed to use terms like ‘spectator’, ‘crowd’, or ‘fans’; those people are to be called ‘patrons.’ The club has banned announced Gary McCord for life by taking a hardline stance with the network–get rid of him or we get rid of you. The worst part is that CBS obliged! What did Gary McCord do? One round, in passing, he referred to the grassy moguls guarding a green as ‘body bags’ due to their apparent size and shape. Quite the transgression, I’m amazed he wasn’t fired outright. (Sarcasm.)
Augusta National cites tradition as the impetus behind their unwillingness to change. And, to be fair, the tournament has traditionally been played with less television access than other tournaments. But, falling back on tradition and “Bobby’s wishes” to excuse elitist behavior is unacceptable. Driven by the racial motivations of Clifford Roberts, Augusta only allowed white golfers and black caddies until 1983. The club supplied these caddies and golfers were prohibited from supplying their own. The reason this racist practice persisted long after it was even socially sanctioned? Tradition. The reason the club didn’t have a black member until 1990? Tradition. And, finally, the reason no women were allowed until 2012? You guessed it, tradition.
Augusta will continue to hide behind the guise of tradition and Bobby’s wishes for the foreseeable future. The club membership is exclusive and invitation only, and this is to be expected with the popularity of the course and event. The course is what I would like parts of heaven to be like. But, it’s not enough to put on a spectacular tournament every year. Holding tickets to The Masters has become nearly as exclusive as membership in the club–not really, the latter is still orders of magnitude more exclusive. It’s a totem of status. The brand has never been more prestigious, and I imagine it’s only going up from here.
But, Bobby Jones created the club and the tournament to grow the game in practice and popularity. While the tournament is incredibly popular despite having the weakest field of any major, the actions by the club to maintain exclusivity are harmful in the long term. Limiting the coverage the way they do equates to ESPN only covering the second half of the National Championship. It is frustrating and incomplete.
They can cite “Bobby’s wishes” all they want, but I can’t help but think that he would be disgusted at what his club and tournament have become–all in his name. I have a feeling that Augusta National has become “the likes of which he is unfamiliar” and that he never would have wanted people to be turned away for the sake of tradition.
We’re afraid to ask the tough questions. We don’t want to draw the ire of Augusta National, for fear of a ban or lost syndication.
But, we must ask ourselves how much are willing to put up with? What concessions are we comfortable making? As long as we, the viewers, are willing to settle, nothing will change.
Nothing is likely to change regardless.