Golf Digest editors picks

First Impressions

Our guest does Augusta and offers some thoughts for Chairman Billy Payne

April 2009

Editor's note: Through the years Golf Digest has asked a number of journalists -- the likes of George Plimpton, Joe Queenan, Bruce McCall and Holly Brubach -- to attend the Masters to give readers a first-timer's view of the tournament. Our guests for 2008 included legendary broadcaster Tom Brokaw and illustrator Mark Ulriksen, whose work accompanies Brokaw's words.

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THE RIGHT HONORABLE BILLY PAYNE
CHAIRMAN AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA

Dear Mr. Chairman,

It was good to see you in the new cafeteria of the media center of Augusta National on Saturday at the Masters.

My friend Dan Jenkins was giving me a tour, explaining that the old press lunch room was a pretty spare arrangement. "You could get a cup of coffee and a Krispy Kreme, and that was about it," Dan said, chuckling at the memory and plainly impressed by your upgrade, which included heaping helpings of eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and grits for breakfast and an appealing assortment of hot dishes, sandwiches and salads for lunch.

(I had the pulled-pork-on-a-bun two days running. Very tasty.)

Smart move. Journalists expect to get into heaven on a press pass, and they expect to be fed well -- and for free -- along the way. Anyway, as I told you, Dan and the editors of Golf Digest invited me to be their guest and to write an essay on my impressions as a first-time spectator at the Masters. I accepted with alacrity (a word I seldom use, but we're talking an invitation to the Masters here).

I'm not much of a golfer, playing 10 times a year, but I am a dedicated Big Event Sports Fan. I've been to five Olympics, a half-dozen Super Bowls, two Rose Bowls and two Orange Bowls, at least eight World Series, two NBA championships, one Final Four, four Wimbledon finals, two heavyweight title fights, Daytona and the 1955 State Class B South Dakota High School basketball championship (a helluva game, but that's another story).

I'd played Augusta a few years ago -- the caddies are sworn to secrecy -- but the Masters was the last Big Event on my check-off list when Jerry Tarde, the editor of Golf Digest, called with the offer. That was the good news.

The bad news came after he gave me an essay the late, beloved George Plimpton wrote for the magazine when he attended his first Masters. It was classic Plimpton: smart, droll, insightful, self-deprecating and, as always, a stylish, witty narrative that placed the reader at George's side as a boon companion.

It was so good I wanted to retreat to my room for the duration. But I had come all this way, and I really did want to join the thousands of pilgrims who every year make up those reverential galleries.

I wanted to hear those hushed tones everyone uses when talking about the Masters, the one-stage-above-whisper "majestic" and "unlike any other" in every commentary and conversation. I was so conditioned I half expected the very pleasant and efficient people manning the security screening gates at the entrance to be dressed in choir robes and singing softly, "Welcome to Augusta, where majesty reigns and cell phones do not ring. Bless you for coming, but remember, at the end of the day you must return to your ordinary lives."

Instead, Mr. Chairman -- can I dispense with that title, Billy? After all, we've known each other since the Atlanta Olympics, where you presided with good-ol'-boy charm and the determination of the Georgia Bulldog defensive end you once were.

Billy, I quickly learned that your golf club during Masters week is not so much church as it is a kind of pop-up principality, a sovereign nation with its own economy, laws, citizens and culture tucked away in northeastern Georgia among the strip malls, Jiffy Lubes, Hooters, Waffle Houses and bait shops of Augusta.

When I shared that observation with golf friends, they said, "Be careful. The members of Augusta National Golf Club are thin-skinned about criticism. They don't want any help from the press in telling them how to run their tournament."

You've got to be kidding, I thought. Good golly, so far as I know your membership is made up of captains of industry, financial titans, big names in sport, members of prominent American families -- men who have arrived to such a degree they have been admitted to the most coveted club in golf. They have money, power and a green jacket. Surely they have much more important matters to worry about than an occasional barb in print or a pointed commentary on the air.

Besides, the annual effusive press and broadcast praise for the Masters, the long list of barons desperate to become members whatever the price (what is the price, by the way?), the faithful thousands who come every year as volunteer workers and spectators -- isn't all of that a comforting buffer against the random press shot across your clubhouse veranda?

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THE REPUBLIC OF AUGUSTA NATIONAL

Back to my discovery of Augusta as a golf club-cum-sovereign nation. I was a little ashamed I hadn't realized that before. I take a certain pride in my reputation as a political reporter, and yet all these years I'd overlooked the tiny but powerful republic of Augusta National Golf Club.

Think about it, Billy. Besides your own economy, laws, security, rules for citizenship, you have housing, parkland, culture, tourism and a wine cellar as a hedge against the devaluation of the local currency. Your immigration controls are already much better than those along the southern border of the United States. If you wanted to raise an army, you'd have no shortage of generals volunteering to run it.

I guess all you're missing is democracy, and I gather that won't be coming to Augusta any time soon. But, hey, Russia is officially a democracy, and Putin made Augusta look positively Jeffersonian.

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