What's It Like To Be A Member?
A rare glimpse behind the green velvet curtain of the most exclusive club in golf
Washington Road could be just about anywhere in small-town America. It is a bustling eyesore-lined thoroughfare with cheap chain restaurants and bargain retail stores. And while this gaudy strip shouts with a working-class accent, whispering in more genteel tones, behind the sign off Washington Road that reads "Augusta National Golf Club Members Only," is a peaceful enclave for powerful men. And behind the mystique spawned by the secrecy that surrounds the club is a place of surprising simplicity. It is a haven where important men go to be regular guys and escape in the joys of golf and companionship.
"We don't have anything in here you can't put your feet up on," says an Augusta National member, skirting the club's no-talk policy by speaking under the condition of anonymity. That accurately describes the comfortable atmosphere of the clubhouse, the original part of which was built in 1854 as the home of Dennis Redmond, who ran the land as an indigo plantation. The floorboards creak with age and seem to speak of a bygone era. While time hasn't stopped at Augusta National, it certainly moves at its own casual pace. And casual is the operative word. The clubhouse and the 10 cabins on the grounds have an easy décor that suggests a summer getaway place rather than a stuffy citified club.
"We are not a museum," William W. (Hootie) Johnson told Golf Digest in a recent exclusive interview (as chairman he is the one Augusta National member allowed to speak publicly about club policy). "I don't say that to be cute. The golf course has constantly been improved by Bobby Jones and Mr. [co-founder Clifford] Roberts and on up through the years."
Behind the gates
At the guardhouse on Washington Road, security personnel know the members by sight, and guests are held until a member comes to collect them. Members are allowed as many as four guests at a time, depending on the time of the year, and guests can play without a member, as long as the member is on the property while his guests are playing. No guests are allowed during the four big member-only events each year.
About 330 yards and 61 magnolia trees off Washington Road and down Magnolia Lane is the front door to the clubhouse, a building that was saved from destruction 70 years ago by the club's early financial problems during the Great Depression (if they'd had the money, they'd have built a new clubhouse). Inside the door, stored beneath the counter at the switchboard, is a humidor with an excellent cigar collection known only to the members. The best go for less than $10. Unlike at many clubs, things are not overpriced at Augusta.
In the downstairs Trophy Room dinner is eaten under portraits of Jones, Roberts and U.S. President Eisenhower, a club member. A set of clubs used by Jones and the ball Gene Sarazen struck when he made his double eagle in the 1935 Masters are on display.
There is some lodging for members just off the Trophy Room. Upstairs, the Library is where card games are played and stories told and re-told. The room is not loud with money but rather quiet with charm. The Champions Locker Room, where Tiger Woods shares a locker with Jackie Burke Jr., is just off the library, as is the recently renovated Grill Room and the Members' Locker Room, complete with masseuse. Among the art in the Library is the first watercolor sketch of the course by architect Alister Mackenzie and a portrait of Roberts painted by Eisenhower.
Up a near-vertical flight of stairs, in a room with windows on all four sides that would be called a widow's walk if only there were an ocean nearby, is the Crow's Nest, the first on-site housing at the club. Originally a dormitory that slept six, it now has a sitting room, a bathroom and four enclosed rooms sleeping a total of five. This is where amateur contestants in the Masters stay, and it is still used by visiting members and guests.
Although Augusta National boasts a world-class wine cellar and high-quality food, the dining-room menu speaks to the relaxed atmosphere of the place. Only the soups vary daily. Otherwise, the choices include steak, broiled fish ("with no fancy sauces on it," a regular diner says), fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, squash and corn bread. There is shrimp cocktail for an appetizer and ice cream or a delicious peach cobbler for dessert. French fries are not served, because Roberts thought they were unhealthy.
"I think it is very comfortable, but understated," Johnson says of the clubhouse. "We try to make everyone who comes to Augusta National feel at home, whether they are members or guests."
Part of the comfort is the staff. Although the paternalistic manner in which Roberts viewed the almost exclusively black workforce can be regarded as condescending, it produced a loyalty that not only resulted in very little turnover but created multigeneration employees. The son of Eisenhower's regular caddie, Cemetery, is a caddie at Augusta today. Frank Carpenter, who recently retired, worked at Augusta for more than 50 years, starting as a waiter and ending up as the wine steward and reputedly a first-class wine buyer. The longtime chef, the late James Clark, was an active participant in the Closing Party every year. No tipping is allowed, but Roberts was known to intervene if a caddie was underpaid and always told guests to "pay what you think he was worth," which almost always ensured a healthy remuneration. "We have just unbelievably dedicated people who work here," Johnson says. "And I think that is the first thing that stands out when people come here, and that includes members. Every time we come, I think we are impressed with our service and with our people and with their dedication."