AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s well known that the great oak behind Augusta National’s clubhouse is where the power brokers of golf and business gather during Masters week. Less known is how this crowd thins come Thursday, and dwindles further on the weekend. If their collective strategy could be summed in a phrase, it’d be: “I’m going to fly home and watch the tournament rounds from the comfort of my leather couch and air-conditioning.” Mostly, these are individuals for whom access and cost of Masters badges are non-issues. Their choice raises the question: Is it better to watch the Masters on television or in person?
The omnipotence of the broadcast is hard to beat. With the action spread across many holes, the truth is most of the media rarely wander from the press building. The cozy armchairs, free food and mega-screens forge, in some respects, a gilded cage. But for any journalist that needs to monitor the entirety of the tournament, the southern mansion with WiFi is the clear option. To walk with one group on the course, or attempt to bounce around among the leaders, is to lose sight of the forest for the magnolias. Even if Augusta National permitted inside-the-ropes access for writers (like every other major championship does) one still gambles missing too much. With Patrick Reed putting for birdie on nine and Rickie Fowler teeing off on 12, that ancient enemy of man re-emerges: Distance.
But forget the media with their deadlines, and the 1-percent with their private jets and general detachment from what matters in life. A grounds pass or a remote control—what is the better experience for the average guy who loves golf? I think I have a better idea of the answer because I hung with one.
On Sunday of the 2018 Masters, I left my eminently capable colleagues to cover the action so I could spend the day with my oldest brother, Nick, who had never been to a professional tournament and who, two days earlier, won final-round Masters tickets by putting lights-out in a boozy competition on a synthetic rooftop putting green sponsored by a bank in his hometown. With some embarrassment, Nick called it the biggest accomplishment of his golf career.
For most golf fans, a pilgrimage to Augusta never happens. So it’s with a large dose of self-awareness that I tackle this topic. But the original fact persists: There are a lot of people who could watch the Masters from the gallery, but don’t.
Of course, Nick and I were there for the opening tee shots of the final pairing. An auspicious start. Rory McIlroy’s tee shot rattled the branches above our heads and dropped at our feet. We scurried to beat the cameraman to position and saw exactly what Rory faced before Rory did. A low punch-out in any direction but sideways would be pretty spicy. The drama of Rory discovering this problem in the pine straw, licking his chapped lips as he discussed (just audibly) options with his caddie, then launching an impossibly high 9-iron directly over the loblolly in front to set up an opening par save was, well … as the late David Foster Wallace said about tennis, to experience such moments through television is “pretty much what video porn is to the felt reality of human love.”
Golf Digest senior writer Matthew Rudy was standing behind the 16th green with Hank Haney in the final round in 2005 when Tiger Woods chipped-in. The close-up of ball, with swoosh hanging, then toppling over the lip of that impossible back-left cup, is a three-second clip we’ve all seen replayed a hundred times. But the memory has been burnt longer for Rudy. “So much transpired before Tiger hit that shot, the way he studied the green and figured out the exact spot the chip had to land,” Rudy says. “That he then pulled it off, an absolutely perfect execution of skill, I think was more exciting than witnessing something like a completed Hail Mary pass in football, which is more about luck. … I’ll never forget Hank, who’s normally very reserved and observes in the manner of a teacher, letting out a little sound and rocking back on his heels, stunned.”
Science has shown that greater association with the senses makes for more vivid memories. But while the delicate waft of azalea pollen and the tender crinkle of short-clipped turf underfoot was nice, Nick and I missed almost all of Jordan Spieth’s 64. Of his nine birdies, we saw one. Of the hundreds of shots struck by those in contention, we witnessed, passably unobstructed, maybe two dozen. And while Masters “patrons” are the best-behaved fans in sport—a phenomenon known as trickle-down manners—waiting for a crowded crosswalk to open is still an experience not unlike what the domesticated animal faces in a herd. A spilled drink or a single comment of “dilly-dilly” and you think: Advantage, Jim Nantz.
Yet how can sitting alone—or with old friends who’ve run out of stories—in a living room be the ultimate experience? Because everyone is phone-less at the Masters, understanding the scoreboard from roars and groans is part of the unique charm. Facts are more savory when they take longer to reveal. Out of position to see approaches on the par-5 second, we incorrectly assumed the tiddler McIlroy missed had been for birdie. A tall Irishman corrected us that it had been an eagle attempt, which then led to an interesting chat about links courses in his native land and Donald Trump (wouldn’t have gotten that in my living room).
A sunrise on a camping trip is prettier than the same seen from a kitchen window, because of the preliminary ordeal. Should it be the same for a McIlroy long-iron? We hustled and strained on tiptoes to catch the missile that set up his birdie on the long par-3 fourth. But that hard things are inherently more rewarding because they’re hard isn’t logic everyone buys. Also like camping, going to the bathroom is not simple. In atypical Augusta-fashion, where restrooms are normally entered and exited with Swiss-like efficiency thanks to the repeating and voluble directions of a surfeit of workers (“If you need a stall, end of the wall!”), the lines near Amen Corner on Sunday snaked around and back on themselves. The weather was, after all, darn near perfect for beer-drinking.
Hunters figured out early on that waiting for big game is often more successful than seeking it on foot. So we settled high in a stand by the 15th green. The roar for Rickie Fowler’s birdie wasn’t quite soul-shaking, but in an alternate universe that was a shot different, it might’ve been. As it was, Reed’s birdie there elicited a groan not fully captured on TV. The champion’s relationship to fans is another story, but it was at this moment it felt evident there’d be no high drama, no playoff.
We headed in. Seeing the empty holes of the front nine, for the first time Nick was truly enamored by the course. A lone maintenance worker filling divots on the giant eighth fairway is an image you’ll never glimpse on TV. Walking past the impenetrable gallery lining the 18th, we talked about the likely winner, Reed. Coincidentally, Nick had caddied for me in the 2010 U.S. Amateur Public Links when I was paired with Reed for two rounds. Nick remembered something funny I’d forgot. How the brash kid with the Augusta State bag would hold his pose and say “See ya!” whenever he boomed a big drive down the fairway. Nick, an inexperienced caddie, also remembered Reed’s good sense of humor. When Nick tossed grass to gauge the wind and the dirty clump hit Reed squarely in the maw, Reed said, “Guess it’s going right at me.”
The only way to witness the grand finale at the Masters is to set chairs around the 18th green first thing in the morning. If you’re not one these couple hundred people, TV is the way to go. And so Nick and I watched from the press building. Here, we were surrounded by those who knew more deeply what had happened over the past five hours. Like generals, they understood the action in terms of war, which players had emerged victorious or defeated and why. My brother and I, I think, understood more like members of a congregation. To see up-close the physical grace and power of world-class athletes is a religious experience for those who love sports.
And growing up together, we both did. And still do.