Bunker Mentality Augusta National

Grand Old Days

A dose of perspective from days staring at the pines, not a screen

Someday, many years removed from this week spent walking the fields of a former Georgia orchard, a granddaughter or grandson might sidle up and ask me about the good old days. And I’ll turn to him or her, run a hand over my bare and sun-scarred scalp, and tell them about a place that didn’t just live up to the hype, but exceeded it. They’ll laugh, but I’ll persist—there used to be things that were great for more than an hour, and to prove it, I’ll tell them what it was like to go to the Masters.

At the risk of losing my press credential, I’ll admit that I don’t go to the Masters for the golf anymore. If that sounds absurd, I agree, but if you want to watch every shot and not fret over where you’ve planted your chair, you should plant yourself on a couch. I’m pulled south every April for different reasons: As a golfer, I come to bear witness to an annual rite. As a consumer, I come to stuff sacks with spoils capable of inspiring both resentment and esteem. And as a human being, I come to wonder and to awe, to see 50,000 people living their best day, to pass through a gate where disappointment wins no clearance. I come to see something that is good without telling you so. I come to recall that’s true about most good things.

Golf used to live outside the hype cycle, but there’s no longer an escape from the churning wheel of trend-chasing and vibe-latching, where ideas only exist to sell you something and we’re hunting for the next thing before we’ve found the first. This very old game is getting as trendy as my teenager’s closet. What’s the new course? The next build? The hot architect? The trending pod? The right exercise? The can’t-miss move to undo the move I learned last week? New driver, new resort, and new shoes so cool they’ll be lame by dinner—as slow as this game can feel on a six-hour Sunday morning, the noise surrounding it swirls ever faster.

Augusta National isn’t exactly a statue amid the tempest. Each year we return to tales of holes tweaked and buildings raised; its logistical efficiencies set the standard and the lure of its app can lay waste to an entire afternoon. Funny that you can’t actually look at the Masters app while you’re at the Masters. Or maybe that’s precisely the point.

Not a phone in sight. Photo by Leonard Kamsler at the 1964 Masters.

ANGC famously does not allow phones on property, even during practice rounds when you’re allowed to take pictures (the only things keeping the disposable camera market afloat are Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Masters week). And because there is nothing to share or answer or post or tag while you’re at the Masters, you’re not sharing your experience—you’re living it. Did it even happen if we can’t post it? I’m not sure. But somebody gets one of these jackets every year… 

The players seem to notice. In his Tuesday press conference, Jordan Spieth noted: “I…understand how advantageous cell phones are for the growth of our sport…But what’s really cool about [no phones] is that you just feel that everyone’s very, very present. They’re not focused on if they got the right [picture] that they’re sending and maybe they don’t even know where your ball went….Here, the patrons are very, very involved and they’re very present….it’s very nice because you feel like everyone’s there with you all the time.”

Our phones are an easy scapegoat for most modern ills, but you can’t help but wonder, if we banned them at all sporting events, concerts, weddings, recitals, and any other life-changing events, how much more we’d actually see instead of trying to capture that which we didn’t. Robbed of our right to tag, it’s not a concern at Augusta, where all eyes are pointed straight ahead and the erstwhile art of conversation drifts along the ropes. In each sideline crowd you’ll hear a narrator of self-designated authority relaying insights to his content-starved neighbors. He’s usually wearing a hat from Sand Valley and a shirt from Pinehurst, and he’s busy explaining that Bhatia won last week or he wouldn’t be playing, that Nick Dunlap was in college a minute ago, and that JT’s got a new guy on his bag even though he saw Bones out at TBonz last night. Half his wisdom might be hyperbole, the other half might be false—but deferring to Doug’s voice instead of Siri’s is oddly pleasant, and you do so because you are at the Masters and nobody would lie to you on your best day ever.

It’s difficult to imagine another venue where so many people so badly want to be where they are right now. Plant me at the Super Bowl or beneath a palapa or beside the Eiffel Tower, and I’d rather be squeezed into a folding green chair watching caddies in white jumpsuits lean their way up the hill on 8. The power of such collective contentedness is hard to overstate. It’s the spring from which the Masters magic pours. It isn’t pimento cheese or well-dressed gnomes or fringe that’s trimmed with a nail clipper. Rather, it’s the rare joy of being on the same page en masse. It’s the reassurance of looking in the same direction, particularly when you live in a world of sideways glances.

We all used to watch the slam dunk contest together, too. WrestleMania was once unmissable, and even baseball’s all-star game was must-see summer stuff. But success too often ignites the hype machine and soon traditions turn to trends, packaged and looped until they’re banal leftovers only suitable for nostalgic documentaries. When we overhype the thing to where hype becomes the thing, we’re left a little emptier and a lot more numb. We’re stuck spinning through clips and images, amused but not elated, feeling happiness but not joy, knowing distraction but not immersion, existing there but never here.

Could it happen to the Masters? Could the Augusta Invitational go the way of the Olympics? Has that already happened and am I merely a patron who won’t let go?

On the other side of the street from Augusta National, there’s a drugstore and an unglamorous shopping mall, the sort of American tableau we take for granted and pass every day without noticing. Yet we don’t take the place across from it for granted because we decided that this golf course—a course among thousands of other courses—deserves our full attention. And more than records or ratings, the green jackets of Augusta National seem most keen to keep a hold of that—our attention and our willingness to love this place above others, aware  of the gift they’ve inherited. Not a golf course, but a bulwark against cynicism, indifference, and ordinary. If we decided to view that other side of the street—and perspective is often a decision—with some of the wonder we so easily summon at its neighbor, I wonder how much more extraordinary our ordinary days might look.

That’s what I’d really like to tell my someday grandkids: Watch the world like it’s the Masters. Buy in. Give a damn. And they could tell me I’m a sentimental old man with dusty credentials hanging in his office, that Augusta isn’t a break from the marketing machine; rather, they’ve perfected it. One could argue that the par-3 tournament gets sillier every year, and that the Masters is too mawkish for 21st century lives. You can believe all that; it’s a legitimate choice.  But I’ll keep coming back until they bar me from the gates because I choose to remember—rather, I need to remember—that I’m living my good old days right now.