AUGUSTA, Ga. — To most of the world, the Masters is a golf tournament—a rite of spring, the first major of the year. Rae’s Creek, azaleas in bloom, sappy music.
But it is also the first day of school for those who don’t play golf for a living, but make a living in golf. And the schoolyard is the giant oak tree that literally overshadows the goings-on of almost everyone who is anyone in golf—especially from Monday to Wednesday—when everyone gathers to work, to talk and to play.
“On my way to our annual meeting with the [PGA] Tour,” Mike Davis, the CEO of the USGA said Tuesday afternoon, as he briskly moved through the throngs, glad-handing as he went. “I have to keep moving.”
There is really no such thing as being able to “keep moving” under the tree. The tree is a place where people speak to one another with one eye on whomever they’re talking to and one eye glancing over their shoulder in case they spot someone they want or need to talk to.
“I’ll be right back,” Greg McLaughlin, the director of the PGA Tour Champions said to two reporters, spotting someone he needed to speak to. He never returned.
Which isn’t unusual under the tree. When you find someone you need to see, you don’t take a chance that you won’t find them again.
A few yards away, Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion who is here working for ESPN, was talking to a group of old friends. A two-time U.S. Open champion always draws a crowd under the tree. People came and went, offering greetings to Strange, who almost won the Masters in 1985 before disastrous shots at 13 and 15 doomed him.
Strange had just been talking on TV about the new buddy-buddy relationship between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It reminded him of a story from his year (2002) as Ryder Cup captain.
“We were leaving at 9:30 for the golf course to practice,” Strange remembered. “Tiger, of course, was right on time. Phil and Bones and some of the other guys began to show up. Phil had a football and he and a couple of the others began tossing it around. Tiger walked over to me and said, ‘Hey captain, what the ---- are they doing?’ He wasn’t angry, just baffled.”
Shubhankar Sharma approached. The 21-year-old from India was invited to play here on a special exemption after winning twice on the European Tour in the last three months. Shyly, he introduced himself to Strange.
“Congratulations,” Strange said. “Be patient out there. That’s my only advice, be patient.”
Sharma smiled and thanked him. As he walked away, Strange shook his head, smiled and said, “If only I’d given myself that advice all those years ago.”
The roped-in area where people gather stretches beyond the branches of the tree. It extends to the veranda, where people sit at umbrellaed tables having a drink. If you want to eat you have to go inside, either to the Trophy Room, the clubhouse or the grill room, which is just outside the locker room.
Most business is conducted in the grill room, which is packed by noon every day. The best place to dine is the upstairs clubhouse porch which is shaded by the tree and looks down on all the activity taking place underneath it.
The tree itself is a massive oak, apparently planted in the 1850s, shortly after the Fruitland Nursery opened. It remained in place when Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts bought the property in 1931 intending to build a golf course and a golf club. It is now a golf icon, the place where deals are made, stories are told and every single player has to walk through either going to or from the golf course.
“You know during the week, you’re going to have to pass through there every day and there are going to be a lot of people—especially on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Rory McIlroy said. “It’s one of the things you have to prepare for. You don’t want to be rude to people, but you have to keep moving, especially when you’re trying to get to the golf course.”
When players finish warming up on the range, they pass through the portico in-between the locker room/grill room and the clubhouse. Occasionally they may stop in the locker room or walk through the building. “Sometimes you just want a blast of the air-conditioning,” Charley Hoffman said.
Once they emerge from the locker-room area or the portico, they have to make their way through those gathered under the tree. When they finish playing, they walk either to the clubhouse, where the champions locker room is at the top of the winding staircase, or to the main locker room, where they can eat in private. Many choose to eat in the caddie barn, because the food is better and it’s off-limits to the media.
Camera crews and media gather under the tree to grab players as they come off the golf course. On practice days, most will stop or promise to return after getting something to eat.
The big story on Tuesday was Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson playing a practice round together. Within the insular culture that is golf, this was stop-the-presses news.
When the foursome of Woods, Mickelson, Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters finished their nine holes late Tuesday morning, it felt as if the entire golf world was either under the tree or just outside the ropes that separate the credentialed from the un-credentialed.
Pieters came first, walking briskly. As he passed through the ropes into tree-country, he quickly turned left to head to the locker room. A few reporters asked if he would stop and talk. Apparently not wanting to answer one hundred questions about Woods and Mickelson he said, “Gotta eat, need to eat,” and kept walking.
Woods came next, surrounded by four security guards and two sheriff’s deputies, head down, walking so fast that no one would have even thought to stop him. Woods has never been an under-the-tree talker. When he talks, he does so in the media room.
One of the jokes among the media is that the new Masters interview room was designed by Woods because it is impossible for reporters to “scrum” after a formal interview is over. The interviewee sits on a high dais, with a moat of plants and flowers between him and the questioners. Woods is averse to informal questioning and the new interview room is built to prevent that from even being an issue.
Mickelson followed Woods with only two security guards following him. Then—finally—came Couples, sauntering along, smile on his face, no security anywhere in sight. He was the only one of the four who stopped for a tree inquisition.
There is one thing about the Society of the Tree that is unlike anything else in the sports world or the business world: No cell phones.
To say that Augusta National’s rules on cell phones are strict is like saying Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are revered around here. Even members aren’t allowed to use cell phones anywhere outdoors once inside the gates. The media is allowed to bring phones into the Taj Mahal-like press building that sits on the edge of the property, but is strictly forbidden from taking them anywhere near the golf course. Spectators—patrons in Augusta-speak—can’t bring them onto the property even on practice days.
To take out a phone under the tree or almost anywhere else is to risk banishment.
Several years ago, early one morning before play began, Golf Channel’s Charlie Rymer was standing near the old press building to the right of the first fairway when someone asked if he could check on a statistic. Instinctively, Ryder pulled out his phone to call someone and check on the stat.
Within seconds, he was set upon by two security guards, who took his phone from him and dragged him off to a small, darkened room where he had to wait for 45 minutes to learn his fate. The club finally decided to let him off easy since he was a first-time offender: he was banned from the grounds for the rest of the day, but allowed to return the next day.
Rymer, who loves everything about the Masters and Augusta, was devastated by the experience. Naturally, his friend and Golf Channel colleague Frank Nobilo, couldn’t resist teasing him.
“Hey Charlie,” he said later that day back at Golf Channel’s off-course headquarters. “I forgot my phone. Can I borrow yours?”
It is strange to see people standing and talking to one another without looking at or talking on their cell phones. The tree is a little bit like Vegas: because so many people now depend on their phones as watches, people often don’t know the time.
“If you make an appointment to meet someone here, it’s usually ‘about,’ that time,” said David Winkle, Dustin Johnson’s agent. “We get a lot of work done here. This is the place where you meet with international tournament directors and start talking about [appearance fees] for the fall events. You get started here and then you wrap things up, usually, at the [British] Open. If you’ve got a sponsorship deal that coming up for renewal, this is where you usually sit down to start talking. Everyone’s here from around the world. The only other event that’s close is the [British] Open.”
Sometimes, actual business takes place under the tree. Other times, the parties will meet at the tree and then walk inside to sit down and talk.
Mike Davis isn’t the only person that meets with PGA Tour officials. Commissioner Jay Monahan and deputies Andy Pazder and Ross Berlin go from tree-to-meeting-to-tree pretty much non-stop on Tuesday and Wednesday. Like a lot of the business people, they’re long gone before Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit their ceremonial tee shots on Thursday morning.
Among golf people, the notion of leaving town after business meetings but before any actual golf is played is known as “meet-and-run.”
One person who can tell a myriad of tree stories is Alistair Johnston, the longtime IMG vice-president who now runs Arnold Palmer Enterprises. This is Johnston’s 45th Masters. As he talked to people near the tree on Tuesday, he kept pulling out small pieces of paper and jotting notes.
“I write something down on every person I talk to,” he said. “I’ve kept a journal from every day I’ve been in the business dating back 45 years. It’s all there if I ever want to put it all together.”
Hale Irwin is not a note-taker, but he has a fail-safe memory for stories. Irwin won three U.S. Opens. He played here 21 times, finishing in the top five on four occasions. He last played in the Masters in 1996 but, as a past major champion, is always invited as a special invitee.
“First few years after I stopped playing, I didn’t come,” he said. “It was just too hard to not be inside those ropes.” He gestured at the first fairway. “Now, I’m far enough removed that I can come and see old friends and enjoy the memories.”
Irwin also comes to work—for 3M as part of their corporate hospitality program and for Sirius XM radio.
As Irwin talked, someone came over to say hello. His greeting was in French. It was Jean van de Velde, whose 18th hole triple-bogey 7 at Carnoustie 19 years ago might be golf’s most famous major meltdown.
Van de Velde and Irwin exchanged warm greetings and Irwin asked if Van de Velde, who is now 51, might play in some over-50 events anytime soon. “Had two surgeries on my knee,” he said, pointing at his right knee. “I hope sometime in the not-too-distant-future I’ll be able to play again.”
Van de Velde is here doing French TV.
“You’ll be at the Ryder Cup?” Irwin asked, referencing Paris this coming September.
Van de Velde grinned. “I hope so. I know the language pretty well.”
He walked away and Irwin shook his head. “I’m not sure I ever saw anything sadder in golf,” he said, referring to Carnoustie. “Very good guy, very good player. You wouldn’t wish that on anyone, much less someone like him.”
Reigning PGA champion Justin Thomas walked by, which reminded Irwin of a story from his days here as a young major champion.
“I never won here,” he said. “Led after 36 holes once, had a couple of chances on Sunday. But I think my coolest moment in golf probably came here. I’d played an early practice round on a Tuesday. I always liked to get out alone and get out early because if you don’t do that it can take forever.
“I don’t remember the exact year but it was in the 70s, after I’d won the (U.S.) Open for the first time. When I finished, I walked over to the Par 3 course. I just wanted to play it when no one was around as kind of a warm down. Walking over, I ran into Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen. They were getting ready to play nine holes over there, too.
"I knew Byron, but had never met Sarazen. They invited me to join them. Honestly, I didn’t want the round to end. Sarazen was such a character, great storyteller. It was the coolest experience I ever had in golf.”
It was mid-morning as Irwin finished telling the story. “I better get going,” he said. “I was on my way to buy some stuff in the pro shop for my wife and my sons.”
He’d been talking for 45 minutes. Which was no surprise. It's all part of the culture of the tree.