I watched it in the boarding area of Augusta Regional Airport, on my way home from the tournament. I had company:
Watching the Masters on TV is what most reporters who cover the tournament do, incidentally. They don’t watch it at the airport, as I did; they watch it in Augusta National’s press building, which has such terrific technology (and so many free Krispy Kreme donuts) that they’re seldom tempted to go outside. Half a dozen years ago, I watched the final round of the Masters on a different TV, in the living room of a rented house in Augusta, with the late Dan Jenkins, who was even less likely than the average reporter to set foot on the golf course.
I did give the course a thorough, hole-by-hole inspection on Saturday. I was especially impressed by the changes to the fifth hole. The club has not only lengthened it significantly but also thoroughly reshaped the terrain, repositioned and reconfigured the bunkers, and added two thousand new trees and other plantings. Tiger’s victory seems all the more remarkable when you consider that he bogeyed the fifth all four days.
If you have the good fortune to watch the Masters in person this
year, you may notice—as you wander the grounds with your mouth hanging open—that
there are metal grates in a number of the greenside mounds. Those grates, and
the mechanical hum that periodically emanates from them, are not proof that the
tournament is a Matrix-like simulation created by green-jacketed aliens; instead,
the grates provide ventilation for Augusta National’s extensive subterranean turf-conditioning
I saw an early version of that system while playing at the club in the late nineteen-nineties. A heavy rain had fallen during the night, and near one green I noticed a stove-size machine from which a torrent of water was gushing. A member explained that the system was called SubAir and that it had been invented a few years earlier by Marsh Benson, the club’s senior director of golf course and grounds. The machine I saw was attached to the existing network of drainage pipes beneath the putting surface and was acting like a giant Shop-Vac, hoovering moisture from below. In subsequent years, the club equipped all its greens with permanent, buried units—hence the grates. And it extended the system to much of the rest of the course
Slurping up downpours is actually not SubAir’s primary purpose—as I learned eight years ago from Kevin Crowe, who is the project director of the company that manufactures the systems. (SubAir’s headquarters are in Graniteville, SC, about fifteen miles from Augusta.) Benson’s primary original idea was to pump air into greens from underneath, and that’s what the units mainly do. “The concept is to supply fresh air into the root zone and help provide a more optimal growing environment for the plants,” Crowe explained. The first Augusta green to receive that treatment was the twelfth—a greenkeeping headache since the course was built—and Benson and his staff, after a couple of false starts, noticed rapid improvement in the health of the turf. Removing excess water, by operating in reverse, was secondary.
Is the investment worth it for other non-Augustas? The course architect Tom Doak has said that, during the planning for Sebonack Golf Club (which Doak designed with Jack Nicklaus), he offered “to quit the project” if the superintendent insisted on SubAir. Doak felt the system couldn’t possibly be useful in eastern Long Island, which is about as close as the United States comes to Scottish linksland. The director of construction education and technology for the USGA’s Green Section told me, “If you build greens properly, using our method, we don’t see a need for SubAir.” USGA greens are expensive enough as it is, he said, and their purpose is to provide exactly the kind of gas exchange and enhanced drainage that SubAir is meant to promote. Besides, he said, almost any golf course’s greens drain better, all by themselves, than its fairways or bunkers.
Still, hundreds of golf courses now have SubAir systems in one configuration or another, and Benson’s invention has found many applications outside of golf. The manager of field operations for the New York Mets once told me that he turns on his SubAir system each year in late February, five or six weeks before opening day. He also uses it to clean up after rainstorms and to ventilate the field when it’s covered for concerts. He doesn’t run it during games, however. “It’s loud,” he said, “and the louvers are right by the bullpens.”
Alex Nosevich, a reader and ad-agency partner in the Boston area, attended Monday’s practice round. Back in 2014, he described an October trip that he and a group of his friends had taken to Bethpage and Yale. This was his first trip to the Masters. His report:
The Masters and Augusta National are the Disney World of golf. Everything is perfect. There are few glimpses of any behind-the-scenes infrastructure. The one difference? All the employees and tournament workers seem genuinely happy and seem to want patrons to be genuinely happy as well.
Not to brag or anything, but as I walked by Zach Johnson’s caddie he said hi to me.
The players I saw were all business. Very few of them smiled or seemed to exchange pleasantries with each other. Well, one guy seemed to be having a great time: Tiger Woods was always smiling, even exchanging a fist bump with Fred Couples when they each knocked their shots on twelve to about three feet.
Rory outdrove D.J. by about ten yards on eight. D.J. must have hit his a groove too thin.
Rickie Fowler had a Tiger-in-his-prime following during his round.
The bathrooms are the unspoken highlight. There’s a greeter at the entrance who welcomes you to the Masters. There are two attendants inside who direct you to an empty stall, and they clean the toilet seat before the next patron enters.
The food is both highly overrated and highly underpriced. A chicken biscuit, a sausage biscuit, and a sweet tea (in a souvenir plastic cup) set me back eight dollars. And the biscuits were pretty good. An awesome deal. Lunch was also cheap—nine-fifty for the chicken sandwich, chips, and a Blue Moon ale—but the chicken sandwich was cold (should be warm) and pretty bland. Did not get to experience the pimento cheese sandwich. Hopefully I’ll win the ticket lottery next year and get to try it.
Augusta is not a very golfy town. It’s the capital of golf for one week per year, but, other than that, I don’t think most people there care very much about the game.
Two must-visit places to eat: Rhinehart’s Oyster Bar is an awesome fish shack/dive. Those with hygiene issues should probably eat outside. In fact, sit outside anyway. Had raw oysters (with plenty of horseradish) and a tasty catfish po’ boy.
The other place is the Whiskey Bar (Kitchen), in downtown Augusta. Huge selection of whiskey and heart-clogging burgers, plus my kind of vibe: hipster but not douchey. Loved the contrast during Masters week of seeing everyone wearing Titleist caps and polos in a place like that. Wore my Mr. Boh T-shirt and had more than a few Bawlmer folks chat me up.
The tournament workers are the friendliest, chattiest people ever. Talked with a few and it just made the experience that much more special. Even the security guards were helpful.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish with enough money, control, infrastructure and personnel.
Every building on the grounds is permanent. Not one tent in sight. No porta-potties. I think the grandstands and scoreboards and TV towers must be the only things that come down at the end of the event.
The hill along sixteen is one of the best spots to be during practice rounds. All the patrons chant for the players to skip their shots across the pond and onto the green, and all of them seem to oblige. Saw Tiger reach the green with his skipped shot.
Wish I could have had my phone to take pictures, but it’s nice to unplug for a few hours.
Lots of bird sounds, but no actual birds spotted. Creepy.
Thirteen is the greatest hole I have never played (and probably never will).
Amen Corner is everything it’s cracked up to be.
No celebrity sightings outside the ropes. Was hoping to catch a glimpse of Snoop Dogg at least. I did, however, run into some fellow Cyprian Keyes Golf Club members on twelve.
That approach into fifteen is scary.
Concessions and golf shop were incredibly efficient. In and out in no time.
The insane conditioning extends to the strip of grass between Berckmans Road and the sidewalks all around Augusta.
This is Rickie’s year for a green jacket. Trust me. I just won my March Madness pool, so I must know what I’m talking about. Right?
Scott Nixon was an insurance salesman in Augusta, Georgia. Between the early nineteen-thirties and late forties or early fifties, he visited several dozen American places called Augusta and documented their existence in a sixteen-minute silent film, called “The Augustas.” Nixon was a member of the Amateur Cinema League. “The Augustas” is preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and also in the University of South Carolina’s extraordinary Moving Image Research Collections. Benjamin Singleton, the production manager of the South Carolina collections, told me in an email, “Mr. Nixon traveled in his car all over the country, and sometimes went abroad with Mrs. Nixon. He liked to film trains, but, luckily, also visit the Masters and got a few good shots.”
Here’s a film Nixon shot at the Masters in the mid-fifties. Among many other things, you can pick out Jack Burke (red cardigan), Ben Hogan (that hat), and Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts (riding in one of the first golf carts, first in the distance and then close-up).
You can easily lose yourself in the Moving Image Research Collections, as I did both yesterday and the day before. Singleton told me, “The collection started in 1980. Twentieth Century Fox wanted to make a large corporate gift (probably worth about $100 million). They decided to give their Fox Newsreel films and all outtakes to the University of South Carolina. This was sixteen years before the advent of the Fox News cable channel. There is actually no continuity between Fox News and the Fox Newsreel. The newsreel ended in 1963 when it was sunk by television news. The original Fox News camera negatives are on the old nitrocellulose film stock. This film nitrate stock, related chemically to gun cotton, is flammable and difficult to extinguish when ignited. Nitrocellulose film was the cause of some sad movie theater fires back in the day. We can’t keep the film in city limits. We keep the nitrocellulose films in two WWII ammunition magazines at U.S. Fort Jackson, which in only a couple of miles from campus.”
The final-round duel between Maria Fassi and Jennifer Kupcho at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur was the awesomest golf of the year so far, not least because Kupcho began her amazing second-nine charge with a migraine that made it impossible for her to see clearly.
The day before, the Golf Channel ran a piece by Geoff Shackelford called “Three women who had a huge impact on Bobby Jones.” Marion Hollins is one of the three, and Shackelford’s piece includes some remarkable archival video (as well as an interview with me). Watch it here.
I just got back from Helsinki, where the golf season is even shorter than it is in New England. While I was away, The New Yorker‘s website ran a piece of mine about Marion Hollins, which you can read here. And you can watch silent footage of Hollins swinging a golf club at Pebble Beach in 1926 here, in a clip sent to me by Chris Buie.
Mike B., Tim D., Rick, and I played at Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course today. The weather was actually pretty balmy, but the ground was frozen and we hit some monster drives. We also had trouble with the bunkers, even though they’d left the rakes.
I have a little essay on the New Yorker’s website about golf’s new rules. A new rule I didn’t mention is the one about taking drops. Like the new rules about what used to be called hazards but are now called penalty areas, it seems to address a rules-committee disagreement rather than a golf problem.
When the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, in 1744, hit balls “among watter, or any wattery filth,” they were allowed to remove the balls, at the cost of a stroke, and tee them up behind the hazard (using little mounds of dirt—not wooden pegs, which hadn’t been invented yet). A decade later, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers required that such balls be thrown behind the hazard, “six yards at least.” In 1776, the Edinburgh Burgess Golfing Society stipulated that the throw be made “over your head, behind the water,” and in 1809 the competing Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers replaced throwing with dropping. In subsequent years, dropping over the head evolved into dropping over the shoulder, and it stayed that way until 1984, when the U.S.G.A. and the R. & A. first allowed golfers to aim their drops, by making them at arm’s length from shoulder height. There was discussion, while the current revisions were being weighed, about allowing golfers to drop balls from as little as an inch or two above the ground; the rule as adopted requires that balls be dropped from the height of the knee—a compromise whose only real effect is to demonstrate that a compromise was reached. The simplest solution would have been to allow players to do what they’ve long been required to do in certain relief situations: to simply place their ball on the ground.