Golf’s Holy Grail

No sporting event values tradition more highly than the Masters at Augusta National, the world’s premier golf tournament.

It’s like a scene from another era here in America’s Deep South. For players arriving at the gates of the Augusta National Golf Club on Washington Road in the town of Augusta, Georgia, it is the start of a journey into a different, unique world. They are greeted by the sight of Magnolia Lane, an avenue lined with approximately 60 trees and overhanging branches. At the end stands the pristine white clubhouse, a classic example of Southern architecture. Flower beds brighten the foreground. As three-time champion Gary Player once put it, “The Masters is the only tournament I know that makes you gulp when you drive through the entrance.” And Bernhard Langer agrees: “For pros and amateurs alike, Augusta is just a dream. Everyone wants to play there.”

The famous Green Jacket

This April marked 30 years since Langer, Germany’s most successful golfer, won his first major. At the presentation ceremony back in 1985, the 27-year-old in his bright red slacks and golf shirt stood on the terrace in front of the clubhouse to receive the champion’s famous Green Jacket. It was the start of a special relationship. Langer has won a total of 95 tournaments around the world. Having played 96 majors, he is a true veteran among international golf greats. After winning the Masters for the first time in 1985, he took the title again in 1993. And after all these years playing golf, he is sure of one thing: “There’s something pretty unique about this tournament.” The traditions of the Augusta National Golf Club are accorded a very special status: It is the only major tournament to be held at the same venue year after year, and the list of luminaries who have played on the hallowed turf of Augusta is long. President Eisenhower, for one, used to spend a great deal of his leisure time here during his term in office. For the fanatical bridge player, the club would have three playing partners on hand at all times in case the president – for whom a cabin was specially built on the grounds – decided he wanted a change from the usual round of golf. Yet no matter how much he enjoyed the tranquility of the course, Eisenhower’s personal nemesis was a large pine tree on the 17th fairway, which came between his ball and the hole on many occasions. Club chairman Clifford Roberts refused to accede to presidential requests to have the tree removed. Known for decades thereafter as the Eisenhower Tree, it finally succumbed to an ice storm in 2014.

There’s one thing that will never change, though: the tradition of the Green Jacket. This item of clothing is a mark of distinction at the Masters, and club members in green are easily identified during tournament week. But the jacket, which is otherwise only worn by Masters champions, is subject to special terms and conditions. “I’m allowed to wear it as long as I’m attending the tournament and within the grounds,” explains Langer. It is one of many traditions at Augusta National.

No running

Not even Masters winners can flout the etiquette and conventions of this club, where golf has been played since 1932. This is the only tournament where caddies are asked to dress in white jumpsuits, for example, and where coaches are denied access to the fairways even during practice rounds.

Thanks to the Masters rule book, Langer – as a former winner – is automatically invited back every year. Erstwhile champions traditionally introduce newcomers to the course. Martin Kaymer, for example, has played his practice rounds with Langer at almost all his Masters appearances. The club is unique in allowing Masters participants to take a guest onto the course with them on the Sunday before the start of tournament week: “That has given me the opportunity to play with close friends or family members, which you can’t do at any other major,” says Langer. It lends the Sunday before the tournament the air of a family day. Another highlight is the opening of the tournament on Thursday, when the Honorary Starters Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer tee off at the first hole. Tiger Woods has described it as “one of the oldest and best traditions in the game.”

For pros and amateurs alike, Augusta is a dream. Everyone wants to play there. This tournament is unique.” Bernhard Langer

Even ticket sales are out of the ordinary at Augusta. Since 1972, badges can only be obtained by lottery. Cellphones are prohibited, resulting in long lines outside the phone booths.

Ice cream waffles at two bucks a go are as much a part of the standard fare as the pimento cheese sandwich for $1.50, which remains as popular as ever. French fries have never been on the menu because they were considered unhealthy by founding chairman Clifford Roberts. And regardless of the product – iced tea, sandwich or soda pop – everything comes in bright green packaging. The only branding to appear on napkins, water bottles and T-shirts is the club’s green and yellow logo. Unlike other events in the world of elite sport today, the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club is an ad-free zone. Small wonder, then, that such prestige is attached to the sponsorship opportunities awarded by current chairman Billy Payne to a select group of companies. Mercedes-Benz, for one, has been an international sponsor since 2008, and in 2014 became a global sponsor.

Clipped and manicured

The tournament is more intriguing than any other. “For me, the 13th is one of the most attractive and amazing golf holes you can play,” says Langer. A par-5 measuring 510 yards (466 metres), it offers an ideal blend of technical challenge and visual interest. Tall trees, a stream, a perfectly positioned green and hundreds of flowering shrubs all work in harmony to create a single entity.

Langer knows all too well the severity of the course: “These are always the 18 most complex greens we play in the entire season. When I played there for the first time in 1982, I missed the cut and finished 11 shots behind the leader after 36 holes. I carded 11 three-putts in 36 holes – it was absolutely crazy. I had never experienced such challenging greens, so quick and with so many undulations.”

Those responsible for running the club have set strict standards of perfect course maintenance since the first tournament was staged in 1934. The manicured blades of grass stand at attention as if clipped with a pair of nail scissors. Not a speck of dirt sullies the lush green fairways. Over the years, the deciduous trees have been systematically thinned out to ensure no fallen leaves detract from the immaculate appearance. The greens are in exemplary condition at all times, and this too calls for special measures: A custom drainage system beneath the greens removes excess water in the event of heavy rainfall. At Augusta, only the best is good enough.

A stage for champions

The public gets to see this representation of perfection just once a year – at the Masters. For that is when a world concealed behind high hedges is transformed into a stage for the who’s who of golf. The pros chase birdies on holes with names such as White Dogwood and Golden Bell. Title dreams are shattered on the challenging greens. Right on cue, the azaleas flower in wondrous shades of pink and red. The air crackles with tension and joyous excitement. And just before sundown on Sunday evening, the champion slips into the coveted Green Jacket. Nothing much has changed at the Masters – it remains unique and captivating, and year after year leaves us with the enchanting impression of being its own little universe.

Additional Photo Credits: Daimler AG, Hans Deryk/Reuters, Fred Vuich/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images, Brian Morgan/actionplus/Corbis; Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

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