The following is excerpted from Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour.
Gentlemanliness had been the very basis of the tournament founder’s life and of his golf; Cliff, the keen assistant, picked up on the boss’s strict standards of behavior, his love of honor. Roberts amplified Jones. Together, they made a fetish out of monitoring the behavior of everyone in or near their tournament.
—Curt Sampson, The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia
Some people buy into the mythos of Augusta, and you may be one. So, fair warning: If you prefer to believe that walking those holy fairways will induce a state of golf nirvana, or that the Masters is a noble-minded fairy tale come to life, you may want to skip this. And for God’s sake don’t come within a thousand feet of Curt Sampson’s excellent history of Cliff Roberts, Bobby Jones, and the origins of the sport’s most famous tournament.
On the other hand, if your bullshit detector hasn’t quite run out of batteries, consider a second argument: There’s something deeply disturbing and anti-democratic about the whole operation, and the club represents almost everything that’s archaic and exclusive about golf. Sampson’s book is a great starting point if you want to learn the truth, and the best endorsement came from Augusta National itself, which accused him of multiple factual errors without being able to identify one.
Make no mistake—the men in green jackets know what they’re doing, and they do it well. The remarkable aspect of the Masters is that it quickly became the most prestigious major despite being the youngest of them all. Horton Smith won the first “Augusta National Invitational” in 1934, eighteen years after the founding of the PGA Championship, 39 years after the inaugural U.S. Open, and 74 years after Willie Park Sr. beat Old Tom Morris by two strokes in the 1860 British Open.
So how did the new kid on the block gain such status? Bobby Jones, for one. He was America’s first golfing icon, and any endeavor to which he attached his name was bound to come with a certain cachet. The course didn’t hurt, either—designed by Alister Mackenzie on a former indigo plantation, the layout and landscape were beautiful from the start.
But the real star of the show was always Clifford Roberts, the Augusta National cofounder and, by every account, the brains of the operation. Roberts came from Iowa, and he had a rotten early life—his mother killed herself with a shotgun blast when Cliff was 19, and his father stepped in front of a train, possibly on purpose, eight years later. Roberts rarely spoke about these rough beginnings, so it’s impossible to guess what affect it had on his psyche. Whatever the damage, he was a man of considerable talents. He made money hand over fist—after profiting hugely in Texas land sales, he became an investment banker at the Reynolds Company in New York. He could market the hell out of anything, and he could ingratiate himself with powerful men like Bobby Jones and Dwight Eisenhower. That, more than anything, may have been the source of Roberts’s great power—his ability to flatter influential icons in just the right way.
Clifford Roberts, second from left, and Bobby Jones, second from right, attend the unveiling of a portrait of Jones at New York’s Golf House in 1953. Photo via AP
The two of them, Roberts and Jones, made a perfect pair—Jones the noble face of the enterprise, Roberts the vital, tireless heartbeat, ceaselessly operating behind the scenes. He’s the one who secured the initial investments, who planned the tournament to fall after baseball’s spring training ended in Florida—thus allowing the New York reporters to stop by on their way home, where he treated them like royalty in exchange for glowing coverage—and who fostered an atmosphere of exclusivity even in the financially unstable days when they had to turn to the city of Augusta to bail them out by buying unused tickets.
Roberts invented the “Masters” name, which Bobby Jones never liked. He even managed to get legendary figures like Grantland Rice to do his dirty work for him—in one of the original club meetings, Rice proposed that Jones and Roberts be allowed to run the whole operation without interference, which set up the dictatorship that would last for 40 years.
He was also a mean, petty racist with a paranoid streak so wide it would make Joseph Stalin blush. It’s easy to chalk up the initial racism at Augusta National to the mores of the American Southeast at the time, but the fact is that by and large, the majority of founding members were Roberts’s people—businessmen from the northeast. They’re the ones who brought in local black boys on weekend nights, blindfolded them, and had them beat the shit out of one another inside the confines of boxing ring. They were the ones who sat around smoking cigars and drinking cocktails, cheering the carnage. They’re the ones who kept blacks, Jews, and women from joining the fun.
When Bobby Jones began to wither away with a neurological disease called syringomyelia, Roberts stepped into the power vacuum and made the tyranny absolute. He ran off employees he didn’t like, bullied members and guests, extended and withdrew invitations on a whim, and even cooked up an excuse to kick a golfer named Frank Stranahan out of a tournament for reasons that have never been confirmed, but were rumored to stem from Stranahan’s involvement with a woman Roberts fancied for himself. He also vowed to keep blacks out of the Masters except as subservient caddies—a promise he kept until 1976, when Lee Elder finally broke the Augusta color barrier decades after it had been demolished in most other walks of life.
Just a year after this unthinkable breach, 83 years old and suffering from cancer, Roberts made his way to the par-3 course, settled on the banks of Ike’s Pond, and blew his brains out with a .38 revolver.
Fans watch at the 12th hole at the 2013 Masters. Photo via Getty
I wish I’d been there when he committed suicide. I would have rolled the son of a bitch into the water.
—Frank Stranahan, to Sports Illustrated, April 6, 1998
The ghostly shadow of this strange man hangs over Augusta still. The Masters has come into the modern age slowly and reluctantly at every step, illustrated most famously when they decided to run the tournament commercial free in 2003 rather than cave to protesters and allow a woman to join the club. (It wasn’t until 2012 when Condi Rice and a South Carolina businesswoman named Darla Moore accepted membership.) In fact, they never welcomed television with open arms in the first place, as any viewer who remembers the frustrating days when you could only watch the back nine can attest.
Even today, there’s a distressing amount of paranoia and obsessive control evident in the people who run Augusta. Like most golf fans, I grew up watching and loving the Masters, even in my youngest days when “normal” golf bored me to death. I finagled a credential in 2014 after months of begging, and I expected to be overcome by emotion and goose bumps when I first stepped onto the hallowed grounds.Instead, the entire experience felt like tiptoeing through a minefield, and it started long before I crossed the border into Georgia. Numerous reporters gave me warnings in the days leading up—don’t you dare take your cell phone on the course, or they’ll kick you out, since the Masters is the one tournament that doesn’t allow journalists to carry phones outside the media center. Don’t get caught running anywhere on the course, or you’re gone. Don’t write anything controversial, because they read everything, and you’ll never be invited back. Make sure you personally thank the key officials before the tournament begins, or your rudeness will be noted. Et cetera, et cetera.
The Pinkerton presence, too, is very real. Steve Elling wrote about these hired thugs, spiritual descendants of union busters and corporate henchmen, for CBS in 2011, noting that they “take their jobs as seriously as TSA agents screening incoming passengers from Baghdad.” He himself was run down and nearly evicted from the premises for the crime of ducking under a rope near a putting green to cross a forbidden expanse of five feet—the Pinkerton finally got to him one hundred yards later and made him walk, like a child, back to the spot where he had misbehaved. Elling had no choice but to comply—his press credential was at stake.
Elling also made waves when he had the gall to interrupt Billy Payne, the Augusta chairman, when he dodged questions about why the club wouldn’t admit a female member. The exchange was tense, but it never devolved into shouting or profanity, so Elling was surprised when he got a phone call shortly after from his boss, whose first words were: “What did you do?”
The complaints went from Augusta to CBS quickly, and rolled downhill until they landed back on Elling’s head. The message was clear—stop rocking the boat.
“Those Augusta guys play dirty, man,” Elling told me. “I had the audacity to demand he answer a question, and stop being evasive, and they went and complained to my boss. What a bunch of fucking ... ”
Billy Payne, center, holds forth to the press this April. Photo via AP
He trailed off then, leaving the rest of the description to my imagination. Elling was let go by CBS shortly after, and though he doesn’t believe it had anything to do with the Augusta debacle, he doesn’t know for sure, and never will.
“They just make up the rules on the fly,” said Elling. “If you ask them why, it’s like you’re 10 years old and asking your dad ‘Why can’t I watch that TV show?’ And your dad says, ‘Because I said so.’ I’m sorry man, that’s not good enough for me! You cannot put enough Grey Poupon on your shit sandwich to get me to eat it without complaint.”
When I finally arrived, things got even stranger. I strolled around the course on Wednesday with a media member who I’m sure would prefer to remain anonymous, and he stopped me on the back nine.
“Look down,” he said. “You see any pinecones?”
I thought it would be easy—the loblolly pines were everywhere, and so was the pine straw—but I couldn’t spot even a single pinecone. What I did see were black men in white jumpsuits, one assigned to each acre, tasked with scooping up any piece of litter—which, to Augusta, apparently includes pinecones—the minute it hit the ground. It was a site, I imagined, that would have delighted Roberts.
“Now look around,” my friend said again. “Find a squirrel.”
I couldn’t find a squirrel. Nobody seems to have any explanation for this, besides the questionable theory that squirrels prefer softwood trees and Augusta doesn’t let softwoods like the native sweetgum grow on the grounds.
“Now look up,” he said, obviously having performed this patter before. “Notice any birds?”
At this point, I felt a low rumble of panic in my stomach. How the hell do you keep birds out? Some kind of electric sonar sky fence that scrambles their brains? Or do you pay locals to come shoot them en masse in late March? (When I called Curt Sampson, he had a different explanation for the missing animals: “They couldn’t get a membership.”)
I began to consider all the other ways Augusta tampers with the environment—the dyed blue water, the way they ice the azaleas in a warm year to make sure they don’t bloom before the television cameras arrive, the piped-in birdsong CBS has used to atone for the lack of actual flying creatures. Even the minor details reek of fanaticism ... the green sandwich wrappers, specially designed so the rogue escapees can’t be seen standing out against the green grass on TV ... the tape that goes over the Coca-Cola logos at the concession stand in a move that is more about Augusta’s tremendous ego than any true anti-commercial instincts, since Bobby Jones made a killing in Coke as an investor.
Masters-branded BBQ potato chips for sale at Augusta, 2009. Photo via Getty
These deceptions have no human toll. Media relations, on the other hand, have become significantly less cordial since the early days. The glorified cattle pen they placed me in on Friday for post-round interviews was the least of my concerns, because the threat of banishment is very real, and very constant. In ’66, they booted the announcer Jack Whitaker for calling a group of fans a “mob”—the club prefers the term “patrons.” Gary McCord famously joked that the club used “bikini wax” on the greens, which led Tom Watson to rat him out. McCord hasn’t been back since, which is so petty it makes my head spin. And there are smaller stories of journalists being kicked out for sending a text message steps outside the media center—a fate that befell Westwood One’s Charlie Rymer—or players’ wives being detained in special buildings for having the audacity to take photos at the par-3 contest. SI’s Alan Shipnuck was once banned for a year for following the champion into Butler Cabin for the final interview—which is to say, doing his job as a feature writer.
On my first day, I discovered that they didn’t even trust us to walk to the media center on our own, opting to drive us by cart from the entrance instead. And when I walked on a patch of grass to reach the cart, an employee yelled at me to stay on the paved path. Big Brother is everywhere.
For the “patrons,” the list of rules and regulations is so extensive as to be absurd, as Bill Pennington pointed out in The New York Times in 2013:
“There is so much you cannot do at Augusta National, it is a wonder the place was not named the Country Club of No.
“No running anywhere on the grounds. No sitting on the grass near the greens. No bare feet (even when sitting down). No chairs with arms. No folding chairs. No flags. No signs. No banners. No coolers. No strollers. No radios. No standing in officially designated sitting areas. No sitting in the standing areas. No cameras. No rigid chairs. No hats worn backward. No metal golf spikes. No outsize hats. No carts. And absolutely no lying down anywhere.”
Members aren’t immune—their dues change year by year without warning, depending on what the club happens to need, and anybody can be evicted at any time without explanation. Stories like the following float round the ether at Augusta: A member brings a guest who doesn’t behave with the proper reverence for the club, and at the end of the year, said member receives a letter in the mail. “Thank you for your membership at Augusta National,” it says. “We wish you the best going forward.” And that’s that.
Even the players feel strange during Masters week, though it’s rare for any of them to mention it. David Toms was one of the few to speak out, telling reporters in 2006 that players had to walk around “on eggshells.”
“They’re worried about their cell phone being on, having to stop by the hut on the way in to scan your ticket, making sure you only have one parking pass and somebody else doesn’t get in there,” he said. “It’s like C.I.A. stuff, you know what I mean?”
In this kind of oppressive atmosphere, how could I be expected to appreciate the surroundings, stunning though they may be? For most of the week, I felt like a tourist in North Korea, watched with suspicion by armed soldiers. One false move, I thought, and I could be thrown in the underground bunker where they keep all the dead birds.
For some, all this rigorous pomposity is cause for praise. Augusta National is the last bastion of some sacred, vanishing way of life, the theory goes, although what that way of life might be is beyond me, since self-important old rich people who make life hell for everyone else are too common to be considered sacred, and too entrenched to be vanishing.
Bubba Watson celebrates his victory at the 2014 Masters. Photo via Getty
Nevertheless, it’s a rule of life that all despots attract lackeys, and the Masters attracts more than most. The way the bootlickers carry on about the sacrosanct nature of the tournament, and seem to get such a perverse delight at the innocents who run afoul of the honor code, is enough to make you want to retch. I only mention them to point out that in this debate, unreasonable people can disagree.
Ask any American golfer to name his dream, and he’ll say “winning the Masters.” Maybe there’s something to admire in how the prestige has built over the years to the point that it’s now an inescapable spring television ritual, complete with tinkling piano music and the reassuringly dulcet tones of Jim Nantz. When I hear the words “a tradition unlike any other,” though, the only tradition that comes to mind is the exclusive, silent power of men who take themselves too seriously.
Needless to say, the words I’ve written in this chapter will have no tangible effect on Augusta, and if it’s true that they read everything written about them from here to the remotest regions of Indochina, my chances of ever going back as a working journalist will be quite, quite dim. On this point, I called up Curt Sampson after reading his book and asked if he’d ever been issued another media credential. I could hear a small laugh on the other end of the line. “Oh, Shane,” he said, as if I were a 19-year-old who still believed in Santa. “No.”
But that’s okay—the golf is terrific, and the course is stunning, but the sanctimony is a real downer. Some people worship the paranoia and pieties, but personally, I couldn’t shake the feeling, as I walked among the rabid mobs and past the bikini-waxed greens, that the tyrant Cliff Roberts was sneering at me from beyond the grave ... eagle-eyed and prissy as he probed for the slightest hint of impropriety; marshaling his living minions to show me exactly how I didn’t belong; moving all the pieces like a conductor until the whole slick operation became a secret, choreographed homage to a shrewd old bigot with a toady’s cunning instincts and a disturbing fetish for absolute power.
Excerpted from Slaying the Tiger by Shane Ryan Copyright © 2015 by Shane Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Shane Ryan is a writer for Paste Magazine and has freelanced for other outlets, including Grantland, Golf Digest, and ESPN the Magazine. He covered over 30 PGA TOUR events in 2014, and his book on the game’s young stars, Slaying the Tiger, is out today.
Top photo via AP