Monday, April 11, 2016

The Green Jacket

You might wonder if Augusta National Golf Course had been a Civil War battlefield given all the hushed tones, even when the players aren't preparing to strike the ball.  It has become the mecca of golfing fans, and is one of the hardest places to get a tee time in the world.  It's also very difficult to get a ticket to watch the Masters Tournament, for which the golf course has become so famous.  This is the price you pay to play on a course designed by the immortal Bobby Jones.

The Green Jacket has become the most revered symbol in golf, but if you ask Lee Trevino it is no big deal.  In fact, he turned down playing at Augusta three times in his professional career because of the differences he had with co-founder Clifford Roberts, who insisted on banning blacks from the club, and that included professional players.  Roberts finally relented in 1975 when he allowed Lee Elder to play the golf course.  The color barrier was reinforced even further with Roberts' insistence on black caddies.

In many ways, Augusta is an anachronism, but so too is golf for that matter.  It is a game that thrives on its traditions and reveres its elder players like no other sport.  Only in golf will you find a 66-year old player like Tom Watson still allowed to compete in major tournaments.  58-year-old Bernhard Langer was still in contention for the Green Jacket up to the final round this year.  But, they have questioned Augusta's policies that didn't admit its first black member until 1990 and its first female members until 2012.  There still is no Women's Masters at Augusta, despite the high profile of women's golf these days.

Little wonder, the club won't allow cell phones on its premises.  Lee Trevino feels the players should speak out more, saying no other tournament imposes the strict rules Augusta does at the Masters.  Even Tiger Woods hasn't been very critical of Augusta, despite the course being re-designed specifically to reduce his chances of winning the tournament a fifth time.  Many players continue to speak in hush tones as if afraid to raise the ghost of Clifford Roberts, who shot himself on the golf course 40 years ago.   Not Lee, who doesn't even consider it a great course.

The fame of the golf course is largely built on the reputation of Bobby Jones, still considered by many to have been the greatest to ever play the game.  Not even Jack Nicklaus' 18 major titles is enough to convince Lou Vazza that the Golden Bear could hold Bobby Jones' putter.  It doesn't matter that the two players were worlds apart, golf is timeless, going back at least as far as King James in 1553.  As you traverse a course, you are walking it with all those who walked it before, and in the minds of many avid golf fans Bobby Jones' shadow still looms large, especially over Augusta.

Like Lee Trevino, I'm not convinced of this.  Golf is an industry that has learned how to successfully market its past.  It offers tremendous purses.  This year, the Masters paid out $10 million.  The winner, Danny Willett, getting $1.8 million alone.  At the peak of his career, Lee Trevino didn't win that much money, despite having won 24 tournaments over a 10-year period.  The Masters does this thanks to lucrative television contracts and other sponsors who allowed the course to maintain its color and gender barriers for decades after the Civil Rights Act.

The sad part is that Bobby Jones apparently had no problem with this, eschewing idealism and defending the policies of his golf club right up to his death in 1971.

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