March 9, 2009

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."

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.)

"At the time of the Jamboree our scoreboards [for the Masters] are up," Johnson says, laughing. "It might be Johnson-Chapman, that's my partner [Hugh Chapman], or it might be Stephens-Johnson -- Jack Stephens and I won twice. It's as exciting as heck. You see your name up on the scoreboard with your partner's, then if you start stumbling around your names come off the board and somebody else goes up. You have eight or 10 leaders up there. If you win that, you receive a silver box with every attendee's name engraved on it."

These are some of the most powerful men in America, yet they are thrilled by receiving a silver box they could easily buy -- because they won it on the golf course.

"Everybody plays a nassau," says another member, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, in describing the competition at the fall Governors Party. "If you win $75, you had a helluva great day. If you lose $75, you had a horrible day. And if you break even, you're lucky."

What would Mr. Roberts do?

When Cliff Roberts ran the place, the Jamboree was not only a time to celebrate the club but was also a time to poke fun at his own autocratic rule. Each year he would show a short movie at the party. One time he depicted himself making a hole-in-one on No. 16 and then walking on water from the tee to the green, a feat pulled off by the construction of a bridge just under the surface of the pond. To add to the effect, his caddie was shown tumbling into the water. Another time, the movie had a bear chasing golfers across the course. Then the camera pulled in for a close-up of the bear -- the head was lifted off to reveal Roberts. Several times Roberts showed himself singing to a rubber duck.

"There is still a six- to eight-minute movie shown at the Jamboree with a mix of a little comedy, golf course beauty shots and sentiment," says someone who spends a lot of time inside the gates of Augusta. "There might be a piece on a member who recently passed away." Perhaps this year there will be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the membership confrontation with Martha Burk.

Although the legend of Jones is at the heart of Augusta, the essence of Roberts is its soul. The single-minded efficiency -- some would say arrogance -- with which Roberts ran the club as chairman from 1934 to 1976 established a road map for other chairmen to follow. Ask an Augusta member about a club policy, and the answer is likely to begin with the words: "Well, Mr. Roberts felt ... " Though Jones is listed as president in perpetuity, it is, in fact, Roberts who still rules.

"I'll tell you, he had a great sense of humor," Johnson says. "He'd kind of let you know what he was thinking without being too harsh sometimes. When shorts first came in on the golf course, men wearing shorts, Mr. Roberts was having lunch when Charley Yates bounded up with his shorts on. Mr. Roberts looked at him and said, 'Charley, what are you doing this afternoon?' And he said, 'Well, I'm going to play golf, Cliff, of course.' And Mr. Roberts said, 'Well, I hope the course is nearby.' It didn't take Charley long to change the shorts."

So what would happen if a member showed up now wearing shorts?

"We wouldn't look too favorably on it," Johnson says with a chuckle. "It's all right for ladies to have down-to-the-knee shorts. But men, we don't look too favorably on that."

When Johnson, 72, speaks of Augusta National, it is with a genuine affection. He first set foot on the grounds shortly after World War II, first played there 50 years ago and became a member, at the suggestion of Roberts, in 1968. Time and again as he shares stories about the club his sentences are punctuated with laughter or interrupted by wistful pauses as if a particular fond memory is replaying in his mind.

"The Closing Party is a great party," Johnson says. "We have a barbecue down by the Par-3 [Course], and we hit balls to the first green down there and all walk around with our drinks and our chef, James Clark, he'd get into it with us. He usually ended up winning the money. I only say those things," Johnson says, pausing to collect the words he wanted to use. "It's just a ... " Again he stops and laughs a private laugh as if remembering a story or a long-ago incident.

"There is a great camaraderie among the membership," he says finally.

"One of the greatest things I see is when two members, who likely haven't seen each other in several months, meet on the practice tee," says one who has been there to witness such reunions. "It's like two old college buddies meeting for alumni weekend. It's just good guys who like golf and each other's company."

Because of the difficulty of getting to Augusta (the town is almost a three-hour drive from Atlanta -- many arrive by private jet and fly into Augusta's tiny airport), members begin arriving on a Wednesday night for the big parties. It is those intimate gatherings when people are trickling in that Johnson remembers with the greatest fondness.

"There might be just 25 or 30 people, and we have a great get-together up there [in the Library]," he says. "And it's just an intimate place, a warm place. Most of the time we go to bed at a reasonable hour, but every now and then we might be up a little while."

The club frowns upon lights being on after midnight (the New Year's Eve countdown takes place at 10:30). But there are some nights when the rules are bent just a little. Especially when one of those sharing stories and playing bridge or gin rummy is the chairman, who most likely is beginning a yarn with the words, "I remember the time Mr. Roberts ... "

Washington Road is just a short par 4 away, but the harsh lights and honking horns don't make it far enough past the gates of Augusta National Golf Club to reach the clubhouse. Getting past that gate is a privilege reserved for 300 members escaping the demands of one world for the pleasures of another -- and for the chosen few they bring in with them.

Ron Sirak is Executive Editor of Golf World.