Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What it's Like to Go to the Masters

A Weekend at the Masters.

This past weekend I had to opportunity and privilege to go to the Masters, so I thought I’d share what it’s like

I thought this might be handled best in a Q&A with myself. Right now I am typing on Sindler’s laptop as we drive on Sunday night from Augusta to Atlanta, where we have a flight out in the morning. Just warning you in advance, this will be a print and read, it was an eventful and interesting 3 days and I have two and a half hours to kill.

Here goes:

You went to the Masters? Really? How’d you score badges?

Let’s just say Sindler has access to them and we’ve been waiting for the right year to go and it finally came together.

When did you get in town?

We arrived Thursday night in Atlanta, met at the airport, he rented a silver Corolla (surprisingly peppy), picked me up when my flight got in (he came in from Denver, me from Baltimore) and made the 2.5 hour trek to Augusta. Once in Augusta, we stayed at a really nice $300 a night hotel.

Wait, only part of that is true.

We stayed in a $300 a night hotel, but it was the Sleep Inn. A fleabag that otherwise goes for $49/night. But, like all things in Augusta, everything is different during Masters Week. The best things I can say about the Sleep Inn is that the door did not open directly onto the parking lot. Also, there was a fridge and a microwave.

What else is different in Augusta during Masters Week?

Well, that’s actually hard to answer because I had only driven through Augusta once like 8 years ago when Greame lived nearby in Aiken and took us past “the grounds” as they are called. For starters though, everything in town is closed Masters Week in Augusta.

Schools are off and businesses – other than restaurants, bars, and hotels of course – take a break like it’s a national holiday. Many of the town’s resident leave and rent their homes for anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000 and up/week to visitors. Renting one’s home is such a big business in Augusta that many are built specifically to rent for more money during Masters Week. For example, if someone were about to build a 4 bedroom, 2.5 bathroom house, they might instead built a 4 bedroom, 4 bath house so that each bedroom can be used as a stand-alone suite for VIP visitors and rent for significantly more cash the first week in April.

Why do you know this?

Part of going down to the Masters for me involved a gig writing a story for the Sports Business Journal about the hospitality scene in Augusta. For this idea and the hook-ups that followed I have to thank Patrick McGee, my friend and former colleague from Octagon. Patrick knows the ins and outs and paved the way for the story; we also hung out before and after the rounds around town. The guy knew back roads to the course when traffic was backed up, set us up at two different hospitality venues for hang time before and after the rounds while the masses were bellied up at Hooters or Waffle House (not that there’s anything wrong with Hooters or the Waffle House) and, in general, served as our Masters sensei.

Anyway, the Masters is a different golf tournament for a lot of reasons, many of which most people know, but for those who aren’t up to date on the quirky, elitist traditions, here’s a primer: (for those of you who know the tournament, the club and its history better than me, my apologies if I get any of this wrong):

The Masters is run by the members of Augusta National golf club, which was founded by legendary amateur Bobby Jones of Atlanta of his friend and financial advisor Cliff Roberts of New York in the 1930s.

Players are invited to play in the tournament by the club based on a list of qualification standards, some of which are changed and updated over the years. One of the great ones is that champions earn a lifetime invitation; that’s why you see the legends there, year after year. Gary Player, for example, just played in his 50th Masters.

The PGA Tour does not run or manage the Masters. (The PGA tour actually doesn’t own or manage any of the majors – Augusta runs the Masters, the USGA runs the US Open, the Royal and Ancient runs the Open Championship, and the PGA of America runs the PGA Championship. Incidentally, that’s why the PGA tour makes such a big deal out of the Players Championship and calls it the “5th Major,” throwing a ton of money at it; they want the one that they run/own to be a big deal.)

But I digress… how did we get here… let’s get back to the Masters and what it’s like to go.

Here’s the thing. The Masters is a really cool, interesting and unique event as much for what is not at Augusta as it is for what is at Augusta. Let me explain. At most golf tournaments, corporate logos and hospitality are everywhere. There are sampling tents, hospitality tents… tents, tents, tents everywhere all over place. There are digital scoreboards, and video replays around the finishing holes.

At the Masters? It’s about the golf. Period. The course has not one sign on it of a corporate sponsor, unless of course you include the Masters logo, which is everywhere. You can’t even walk on the course with a coke can or a starbucks coffee cup because they don’t want those things on the grounds. I tried to walk in on Friday with a cup of Starbucks and had to throw it out (I coulda poured it in a Masters cup but didn’t know that yet).

That’s all great Greg, but you’re kind of babbling. What is it like to attend the golf tournament?

Sorry. I am tired. It is 9 p.m. Sunday, been walking the course for 3 days. Let’s get to the good stuff.

Ok, like I said, we stayed at the fabulous Sleep Inn Augusta, which is about a mile and half from the course. We wake up Friday morning and we have our badges and it’s cold out, like 40 degrees and windy. It was chilly all weekend, but never so cold that you didn’t want to be out there. Sindler insisted on wearing shorts each day by the way.

On Friday, our first day, there’s a lot of nervous anticipation. One thing I should mention is that because I was writing about hospitality at the Masters, we got to experience hospitality at the Masters by going to these clubhouses that have been built and set-up across Washington Rd. from the main public entrance to Augusta.

Day one we went to the Double Eagle club, which is about 100 yards from the main gate, the closest you can be without being on the grounds.

The guys there are very cool, I do a couple of interviews, and by 10 a.m., Sindler and I are walking onto the grounds.

You might guess or know that they take security and their rules very seriously at Augusta National. Here are some of them in no particular order:

  • No cell phones on the course.
  • No electronic devices of any kind.
  • No cheering for misses.
  • No running (we violated that one once; gave a light jog to see a putt and the ranger told us, ‘no running.’ I felt like a 12-year-old at the summer pool).
  • Folding chairs allowed, can’t have arms.
  • You can bring in a bottle of water or coffee but it can’t have a logo.
  • There’s more… I don’t mean to make it sound restrictive. It’s really not. They have their rules and you go, learn them and have a great time.

Here are some really cool traditions

You can leave your little folding chair anywhere you want on the course – so you can get to a great spot at Amen Corner early in the morning, set up at a key spot and watch; then leave your chair in the designated “sitting area” and no one will sit in your chair or move it all day. Really. You can leave it there at 11 a.m., come back at 2 and have the same seat (though you are told not to leave your chair for an “inordinate” amount of time).

What about the freaking course Abel?

OK, OK. It was a surreal experience walking on the course for the first time. Augusta isn’t just green, it’s super green, green green. The fairways are so lush you want to lie down in them and take a nap; but don’t lie down, because there is no lying down at Augusta while watching the golf; we saw a few people who were made to sit up for violating that one.

After walking through the main entrance you pass the huge merchandise store (more on that later), then emerge to the course and on your right is a large scoreboard with everyone’s results in alphabetic order; updated throughout the day. The scoreboard, like everything else at Augusta, is old school.

You have an impulse to whip out your camera and take a picture. No cameras. (though you can bring a camera on practice round days earlier in the week)

After the scoreboard, you walk up a big hill (the course is crazy hilly, much hillier than it looks on TV) and you’re about 200 yards from #1 tee which is perched at the top of a hill.

And my feeling at that moment was, ‘holy crap, we are at The Masters.’

How did you take it in?

The first day we decided to walk the course to see the whole thing. Like I said, it’s very hilly and we didn’t stay with one group. You get a pairings sheet when you walk in and you see who is playing with whom and you start following some groups around, finding strategic places to stand or sit and watch; and every once in a while you stop and think, ‘this is crazy, we’re at the Masters.’

They give out a little booklet called a Spectator Guide and in it is all sorts of information, rules, history, players bios and tips on the best viewing spots, purportedly written by Bobby Jones (and I’m sure some of it was), though it makes reference to great moments by Tiger Woods and others who didn’t come around until after Jones was dead, so I don’t think he wrote those parts, but I’m guessing an Augusta member wouldn’t put it past him. I would like to quote from the spectator guide now to give you a sense for how it’s written, this passage captures it:

“Before starting out, I’d like to observe that experienced spectators realize that the least satisfactory way of watching a medal play tournament is to trek around the course with one particular group of players. It’s an accepted fact that walking 18 holes is more tiring than playing them. I would suggest that greater enjoyment for the spectator may be provided by a little organization of his activities, according to his interest and energy.”

Random notes from Day One on the course:

We saw Luke Donald make an eagle chip on #2.

Our first foray into the concession stands was a memorable moment, more on the concessions later.

Hung out for a while on the downslope of a hill on #6. No. 6 is a downhill par three and you can plop down in a grassy area and see tee shots fly overhead at the green and to your right, you can see the players approach the green on the par 3 16th. It’s a nice convergence where there’s a ton of action.

A lack of roars

Here’s the thing about going this year… there weren’t a lot of ROARS of fans going nuts when something big happened, because not that many big things happened. With the dry, windy conditions, it was more a matter of survival, the players weren’t scoring, so you heard groans or polite claps for pars and bogeys, but not until Sunday afternoon, when a few players made eagles, did we hear a few of the roars that Augusta is famous for.

What else stood out?

I need to spend a little time talking about the way the concessions are priced and sold at Augusta because it’s unlike anywhere else. You have probably heard about this, but the food is very inexpensive. I wrote down the menu board for the sandwiches, here it is:

Tuna Salad - $1.50

BBQ -- $1.50

Egg Salad -- $1.50

Pimento Cheese -- $1.50

Chicken Breast -- $2.50

Turkey on wheat -- $1.50

Masters Club* -- $2.50

Ham and Cheese -- $1.50

*turkey, ham, and cheese

Beers are $2 or $2.50 for a beer in a souvenir cup. They don’t tell you the kind of beer you are drinking, it is called Light, Regular, or Import. I saw some Heineken bottles, but I don’t know what kind of regular and light beer they sold, probably miller or bud.

Klondike bars, snickers, and M&Ms, potato chips, sodas, and bottled water are also available, all for between .75 and $1.50. You can also buy aspirin and Tylenol for .50.

All of the sandwiches are wrapped in green cellophane so that if you drop a wrapper, it likely won’t show up on TV.

The sandwiches were good and also very basic. No lettuce and tomato on anything. A chicken sandwich is a slightly spicy breaded chicken breast on a roll, that’s it. You can add some mustard if you want. Made fresh daily, served cold.

Throughout each day, we probably went to the food line 3-4 times, and would rack up a few sandwiches, a candy bar, a beer and a water, whatever … and the bill was always around $6 or $8.

We never stopped talking about it.

The other thing is the price of the badge. If you are lucky enough to own badges, the cost for a badge for all four days of the Masters is $175. That’s it. But in the after-market they can go for thousands, up to $7,000 or $8,000 for all four days if you buy in advance from a broker and want to be sure; you can pick one up for less than $1,000 per day to go for a day. On Sunday, which was Easter Sunday, scalpers were offering $250 or $300 for our badges, so I’m guessing they’d try to sell them for double that price.

OK, enough of the Q&A format, I am just going to dump all the info on you in no particular order. Sorry if this is a bit disorganized.

Other random moments to share:
Loved watching from amen corner on Friday. We set up shop along 11 fairway and watched a host of players struggle. Bogey after bogey after bogey.

We saw Phil Mickelson scramble his way to a bogey. All we saw was a recovery shot land near us about 120 out… then he hit a shot to about 5 or 6 feet and made the putt, we thought he saved par because we couldn’t see him batting it out of the woods for his second shot. After he makes the putt, I overheard a petite, cute blonde say to her friend “that was his best bogey ever.”

At that moment, not only did I realize that Phil made bogey, not par, but I realized we were standing right near Amy Mickelson while the whole thing unfolded. Good thing neither of us made any man boob jokes. She was, by the way, very cute and seemed nice, not stunningly hot or anything.

Friday night had a fun night out. Went to Hooters Augusta with McGee another guy from his office in the golf division, Jeremy, and young British pro golfer named Rob who they represent. Good times. Cool talking to a young golf pro about his experience watching the Masters. There were also the Hooters calendar girls signing calendars. Hooters is very cheesy but Augusta does not have a ton to offer.

Every day Sindler wore his Michigan hat with the big blue M on it.

And, I kid you not, he probably got 20-25 comments a day on it, along the lines of:

  • ‘You go to Michigan?’
  • “Go blue”
  • “Go Buckeyes. Heh, heh.”
  • “You from Michigan?”

And on and on, it was uncanny.

We saw the Appleby blow-up close up on Saturday. He had a 2 or 3 stroke lead on the field at the time and was the only player in red numbers heading to 17 at -1. We watched him play 15 and 16 and decided to follow him home because he was the hottest player on the course. We get a head start and walked up 17 fairway to the top of the hill where most players’ drives were landing.

We saw one ball out in the middle and everyone is like ‘is that Appleby?’ and then someone points out that he is shorter and WAY left. He was in the bunker on #7, the next fairway over. We were right there. So we go down a few yards and line up along the ropes knowing that he’s going to have a big shot in front of us.

We’re literally about 15 yards away as he paces back and forth to size up the shot and by the time he screws his shoes deep in the sand and is ready to hit, there are hundreds of people nearby. And part of me is watching the shot and another part is thinking about how weird it is that all these people (mostly men, crowd was 20-1 men on Friday, 10-1 men on Saturday and about 5-1 men on Sunday*) were totally quiet.

*these figures are guesstimates Sindler and I came up with (in case you thought we conducted a formal survey); but it was all guys Friday, a few more women Saturday, much more women and families Sunday.

Back to the action… Appleby stands over the ball for a while concentrating. It’s an odd thing watching this… he is immersed in what he is doing; he had to ask a few people to move over, and I can’t even imagine trying to play golf in that kind of pressure and environment. I guess, like anything else, you get used to it, but to see a huge mass of people gather and not make any noise in a situation like that was surreal.

Anyway, he draws the club back, lets it fly and catches the upslope of the trap, then a tree branch, then plunk, down on the ground about 100 yards up. Then he hits an approach to the greenside trap; blasts out in 4 and 3-jacks for 7. Painful to watch. Bye bye green jacket.

Our close encounter with Appleby got even closer after he crushed a tee shot down the middle on 18 following the triple. We watched him drive to see if he’d get back on track, then ducked in the men’s room between 17 green and 18 tee. As I’m walking in, here comes Appleby walking out, right past us. “Pro golfers, they’re just like us! They use the urinals at the men’s room!”

Seriously, that’s what crazy, interesting and fun about a golf tournament. This was the Masters, this guy was just leading, late in the day on Saturday. And he takes a piss right with the fans before walking up 18. That’d be a little like Derek Jeter taking a squirt among the chuckleheads in the bathroom under the bleachers before a key at bat at Yankee stadium during Game 5 of the World Series. You think they might have said something? Golf is just different.

I take the urinal next to the guy who was next to Appleby and he goes, “I didn’t say anything. I just stared straight ahead.”

Probably for the best. Wouldn’t it have been cooler if Appleby had just birdied and it would have been fun to say congratulations? Do you high five in that situation? Probably not. Also, per Sindler, Appleby did not flush or wash his hands. I’m just sayin.

As an aside, I’ve been writing for about an hour now. We’re 40 miles outside Atlanta.

What else can I tell you about Augusta and what it’s like to go? I mentioned the houses and hotels. There aren’t many nice hotels in town. Actually, I found out there are two, a Marriott and a Double tree, so just about all the VIPS who come into town rent homes.

There is massive cottage industry down there of companies that set up visitors, which is what I wrote about for the Sports Business Journal. Often, for a big company, they will rent out 6-10 homes in a subdivision all next to each other. One of the homes will serve as the hospitality center, where everyone comes over for meals, picks up their transportation and badges, and hangs out before and after the golf.

Like I said, there are also ‘clubhouses’ all around the course but across the street and off the grounds, where companies can hang out during the day. These places have full bars and food all day, hitting nets in the back, massage therapists and the works.

But honestly, Sindler and I agreed that you don’t really need all that stuff. Sure, it’s great, but it’s also great just to be at the course, eat the food that’s there, take it all in, move around and get a sports experience that is unlike any other. See with golf you aren’t just sitting in one spot, you are walking all over the place all day long. You probably walk four or five miles, so it’s also good exercise and fantastic justification for eating four sandwiches, a pack or two of M&Ms and a Klondike bar while sipping a few beers.

You can also, of course, just plunk your chair down in a spot and watch the players roll through. On Saturday, we got a great seat at 10 green and stayed there for about 2 hours.

I feel like I’m talking about everything other than the course. But I don’t know how many ways I can say the course is amazing. It’s amazing. It’s like what you see on TV but better, more vivid, real. And because Augusta and CBS do such a great job of telling you that Augusta is all about tradition, you can’t help but feel like you’re standing and walking a course that screams, or better yet, whispers “tradition” in your ear as you make your way around.

As I mentioned, there are no electronic scoreboards or updates on the course. All the updates you get come from the old school scoreboards. So another effect of going to the Masters is that it removes you completely from our blinkety-blink, rapid fire world of constant information coming at you from all directions. It’s actually quite nice.

We had a lot of fun on Sunday sitting in the grandstands on 17, watching players come through and watching the numbers go up on the board. But, when you hear a big roar from 8, 13 or 15 (the par 5s), you can’t help but feel like you’re missing something.

Weird not having a cell phone on the course. When I was standing greenside watching someone putt for example, I kept reaching for mine to make sure it was off, only to realize it wasn’t there.

Augusta did provide banks of phones for the patrons to use, all of which had free long distance for anywhere in the U.S., courtesy, the phones said, of AT&T. I thought that was cool.

We met Lee Elder, the first African American man to play at Augusta, on Saturday morning. He was hanging out at one of the hospitality venues that I was writing about and we had breakfast with him. We asked him about playing the course and what it was like, asked him if there’s been much progress since his day and he said, in so many words, ‘not really’ in terms of the way minorities are treated by club.

He said he doesn’t like the par 3 12th, thinks it’s an unfair hole because the way the wind swirls and the steep embankment up front.

I haven’t written about the merchandise yet. So I’ll do that and try to wrap this thing up. OK, after you get through security at the main entrance, on your right is the massive merchandise store. We hit it on Friday morning, our first day.

Here are some tidbits about Masters merchandise:

You cannot buy Masters merchandise anywhere else but at Augusta (unless it’s on Ebay or something similar). They don’t license the rights to the logo to anyone else. It’s their brand, they sell it in their store only.

You can only buy Masters merchandise during Masters week. It’s not like you can show up at the course in July and walk into the pro shop to buy some stuff. Not happening.

So here’s what does happen. People go in this store – it’s a huge store, about the size of a supersized Walgreen’s, maybe bigger… not quite a Dick’s sporting goods, but bigger than a normal Walgreen’s or Rite Aid… and anything you might ever want with a Masters logo is in there… towels, blankets, trinkets, maybe 50 different kinds of hats and 100 or more styles of shirts, pullovers, windshirts, jackets, pants, shorts, I mean everything. And you go in there, and you want all of it.

You’re at the Masters, you don’t know when you might come back and you start piling up stuff in an arm basket like a mother of four hunting down toilet paper and bread before a blizzard.

I watched one guy with a long list of names and sizes in one hand and his basket was piled WAY over the little plastic handles. I asked him what he thought he was about to spend and he said $2,500.

We talked to a clerk who had just waited on found one guy whose tab was $25,000. He bought 20 watches alone. Now, you have to think that this is for resale on Ebay or somewhere, but it’s all part of the weird Masters vibe, a traditional unlike any other for sure.

You know what I just realized? There really aren’t even any signs of any kind anywhere on the course. The concessions aren’t labeled with a big sign that says “Food and Beverage” or anything like that, there are just these modest little food and drink centers around the course, set up like a quaint outdoor market, where you pull sammys and chips from bins and walk up to a register.

They do a great job with the registers, check outs, everything moves fast. At the merchandise store, for example, there are 22 checkout lines staffed all day with at least 3 registers… so that’s 66 checkout people ringing up the patrons, all … day … long.

Even long bathroom lines move fast. (though you see long lines of men and never a line for women, which is another oddity) You see a huge line, wind your way to the front and there’s a guy inside the restroom directing traffic, “move up, move up. Stop. Back right. Front left. Move up, move up, Stop…” etc. etc. They think of everything.

OK, we are now getting close to Atlanta, so I will actually try to stop. Sunday was a fun day, we spent it hopping around the course, sitting in the grandstand at 17 for a while, then watching the action at 9 green, then making our way down to 15 and 16. After the leaders came through 16, we had nowhere to go, the course tightens up because there’s 30,000 people there watching a few golf holes, so we packed it up and left.

Before I finish I’d be remiss not to mention something that was on my mind as I took in the Masters for three days this weekend. To get ready, I bought a book called The Masters where the writer, Curt Sampson, chronicles the history and evolution of the club and its signature tournament. (tuhn-mint).

Sampson writes that golf is a melting pot in Scotland and anyone with the pence can walk up and play the Old Course at St. Andrews, which has done nothing to diminish its legend. “Come play says St. Andrews. Stay away, says Augusta National. Unless you know a member.”

So, while you do feel welcome and privileged to be on the grounds enjoying Masters week – and they do an absolutely first class job with everything – I also felt a bittersweet notion of knowing that so many people would like to come here, be here, and perhaps even play here someday and that it cannot happen – not without money or connections or both – and that’s a shame. It’s also what makes Augusta, Augusta.

Here’s a big thanks to Sindler for the badges and McGee for the hook-ups. It was an unforgettable sports experience. Hope you enjoyed the babble.


Written April 8-10, 2007