The Masters: A Tradition Like No Other
Every April, some of the best golfers in the world are invited to play in a tournament conducted at Augusta National Golf Club, a famously lush arboretum of magnolias and azaleas founded by the legendary amateur champion Bobby Jones. The first of the so-called “major” championships – the PGA Championship and the U.S. and British Opens are the others – this tournament, called the Masters, is televised by the CBS and USA networks, who, it is well known, are granted broadcast rights only on a year-to-year basis. If the owners of the tournament, the Augusta National Golf Club itself, don’t like the way their event is presented, they’re apt to take away the lucrative and prestigious franchise. Though CBS has managed to hang on to the rights for decades, several of their announcers have been notoriously disqualified from participating because they used language the Club found disparaging. (The genteel Augustans, for example, took great umbrage at one announcer referring to a crowd ringing the 18th green as a “mob.” He was gone the next year.) The broadcasters know they must always be on their best behavior.
And so every year when I tune in for the telecast – I’m both a longtime golf columnist and a fan – I, like millions of others of people who enjoy watching the best players in the world battle each other in challenging conditions, am subjected to the kind of obsequious fawning that’s usually reserved for frightened prisoners under the thumb of a brutal dictator. It’s worse than Waylon Smithers brown-nosing Mr. Burns. The CBS announcers, who, during the rest of the golf season, are plainspoken, critical analysts, uniformly adopt an awestruck, “I’m so blessed to be a part of this grand pageant” tone. And nary a critical word is uttered.
Every promo spot includes the phrase, “The Masters: A tradition like no other.” And the toadying CBS crew, led by the shameless Jim Naantz, coos and moans about the history, the legends, and the beauty that Augusta National Golf Club embodies and reflects. It’s enough to make anyone with even the most rudimentary grasp of golf history vomit up his pimento-cheese sandwich.
The truth: Augusta National Golf Club was for many years one of the standard-bearers in the campaign to keep people of color off the emerald fairways. The truth is, Augusta National Golf Club still refuses to admit females into their hallowed house. The truth is, Augusta National Golf Club’s legacy is one of exclusion, racism, sexism, and elitism.
But pretty pictures of azaleas and highly fertilized putting surfaces tend to induce amnesia among the casual golf viewer.
Unlike, say, the U.S. Open, which, as the name suggests, is open to whomever is brave, talented and determined enough to enter, the Masters is a closed field, accessible only by a coveted invitation. Not until 1976 did Augusta National get around to inviting a black to play at their tournament.
One of the abiding joys of golf in the British Isles is that it brings people together. Go to almost any town in Scotland and you will find that taxi drivers play alongside bankers; butchers belong to the same club as real estate magnates; anyone who wishes to join in the great tradition of chasing a little white ball over the dunesland is most welcome. In America, our conception of a great golf club is one in which the most people possible can be kept out. Augusta National, with its “tradition like no other” has provided a compelling template for multi-millionaire white people everywhere. Most Americans think Augusta National Golf Club is the greatest golf course in the United States precisely because so few people ever get to play it.
Ironically, I wholeheartedly support Augusta National Golf Club’s prerogative to exclude women, minorities, and whoever else might befoul Bobby Jones’s pristine grounds. They’re a private club, and if they want the composition of their club to be a homogenous mix of racists crackers, that’s their business. But to celebrate the club’s institutionalized hatefulness is sickening.
I’ll continue to watch the Masters to see some of the finest practitioners of the golfing arts work their magic. But every time the CBS crew launches into their hagiography, I’ll remember that Augusta National Golf Club does indeed represent a “tradition like no other.” And I’ll be glad that only in the Orwellian world of televised golf does that tradition of exclusion cause sensible and proud men to behave like subservient lapdogs.