What's It Like To Be A Member?

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Between the clubhouse and the first tee is the massive live oak under which the most powerful people in golf gather to chat during Masters week. Winding through the tree and around the clubhouse is a gnarled Chinese wisteria vine brought to the grounds when the pre-club owners, the Berckmans family, ran the estate as a nursery. The vine is said to be the parent of all such wisteria in America.

Off to the left as you gaze at the course from the clubhouse is the 10th tee, and to the left of that is the Eisenhower Cabin, one of seven cottages that form a semicircle between the 10th hole and the Par-3 Course. While the term "cabin" is an understatement, the interior is astonishing in its simplicity. Again, the furniture is much like you would gather for a casual summer hideaway, except here the simple wood dressers have had landscape scenes painted on them by Eisenhower. On the wall is a series of photos taken by Mamie Eisenhower of the various places she and her husband lived: There is Fort Benning in Georgia; Morningside Drive in New York City, from when Ike was president of Columbia University; and, stuck quietly among the other residences, is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- the White House.

No ordinary golf club

The National is different from most other golf clubs in more than just its membership. First, it is closed all summer, from the third week of May until mid-October, primarily for renovations. Also, you don't apply to join, you are invited (making it known you are interested in being a member is a surefire way not to be invited). A new member finds out he has been asked to join when a letter arrives in the mail. And legend has it that a member who falls out of favor will find out about it when a bill doesn't arrive in late summer, although one Augusta insider says he can't remember the last time that happened.

The club operates under the firm hand of the chairman, a classic benevolent-dictator system created by Roberts. There have been only five chairmen in the club's 70-year history. Advising the chairman is the board of governors. Among the key insiders are Joe Ford, the vice chairman; Will Nicholson, the chairman of the competition committees for the Masters; Billy Payne, the chairman of the media committee; and Charley Yates, the 1938 British Amateur champion, close friend of Bob Jones and the only current member who joined before World War II. Club rules are not so much written as they are hints, and those who don't get the hint get the boot. The code word is "favorably." High-stakes gambling, for example, is not looked upon favorably.

In 1937, Roberts decided members should wear green jackets during Masters week so patrons could easily identify them if they had any questions. Beginning in 1949, the Masters champion, too, received a green jacket. Each member gets one jacket, for which he is billed a small fee. Members are not allowed to take the jacket from the grounds. A Masters winner is an honorary member and may take the coat off the premises the year he is champion. When a member arrives at the club, he finds the jacket hanging in his closet. If it begins to get threadbare or if a button comes loose, a sharp-eyed employee spots the defect and has it fixed.

"Despite the secrecy surrounding the club, there are no mysterious rituals shared by the members," says one insider. "Instead of a secret handshake you're more likely to get a slap on the back."

Augusta National is more about power than it is about money. It is not what you can afford but who you know, and how you act. The initiation fee is in the "low five figures," according to one source, and a member adds, "You could afford it," knowing full well he was speaking to someone making a journalist's salary. The annual dues, two insiders say, amount to "a few thousand dollars," and it costs about $100 a night to stay in one of the 105 beds that are on site.

According to Johnson, a typical weekend might have as few as 20 or 30 people playing golf, or as many as 80. Some members may come to the club only three to five times a year, and others might come 15 or 20 times. It is a close-knit group that resembles in many ways a college fraternity. Members volunteer to chair the 24 committees needed to put on the Masters, and dozens of other members chip in to help on those committees. Former Sen. Sam Nunn is on the media committee.

There is no member-guest tournament, but there are four big member-only social events a year (no guests or wives allowed) that are spirited competitions: the Opening Party in October, the Governors Party in November, the Jamboree in late March and the Closing Party the third week of May. At the last Governors Party, 130 of the 300 members showed up. After the competitive rounds, some members move inside for a drink and cigar and maybe some cards. Others head back out and squeeze in another 18 holes. Except for one day at the Jamboree when two-man teams compete, the competitions are four-man best ball with adjustments for pars and birdies, according to Augusta's unique handicap system. (The course has no Slope Rating -- instead, two points are awarded for birdies or better, one for pars, everything else counts for nothing, and a handicap is derived by deducting the total number of points from 18.)

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