Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Golf Digest. George Plimpton's unique brand of participatory journalism includes the classic first-person account of life on the PGA Tour, The Bogey Man. His stories for Golf Digest include 1995's "Playgrounds of Privilege" on golf in the Hamptons.
Late last winter, the editors of Golf Digest asked me if I would like to attend the Masters--a tournament I had never thought I'd see, because it is so difficult to get a ticket. So naturally I accepted, thrilled to the marrow. The editors then informed me that while they were interested in my general impressions of the goings-on, they particularly hoped that I would look into the question of how to become a member of the National, one of the most exclusive clubs in the golf world. So off I went to Augusta, armed with a notebook, delighted for the opportunity whatever the assignment, and of course a suit coat and tie for social occasions to pursue the membership matter.
On my return, I was asked by so many friends what it was like that it occurred to me to offer my views in the form of a conversation with them. Thus the reader should imagine a group out on the golf club terrace in the shade of a sun umbrella, drinks about to arrive, and one of them turns and remarks:
Q: Well, how was it?
A: Vijay Singh won the thing, of course, and Tiger wasn't up to snuff--which is memorable--but what I will truly remember about my first Masters is the trouble it gave my feet.
I'd packed some tennis sneakers thinking they were mine. When I arrived in Augusta I discovered they were my son's--a size too small. So my first day on the course was an exercise in utter agony. I became acutely aware of this when I ran across the clubhouse lawn early that first day to catch a glimpse of a great Masters tradition--two venerables, in this case Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, hitting drives off the first tee. Over the heads of the crowd I caught a glimpse of Snead's familiar straw hat with its colored band, then the rise and fall of a clubhead. The pain in both feet suddenly became so sharp that I stopped fast as Snead's drive bounced down the edge of the fairway. So that was my first impression of the Masters--a sharp pain in both feet and the fact that when the crowd broke up, I heard a woman calling after Byron Nelson, "Nice to see you, Mr. Hogan."
Did you interview Nelson or Snead?
No, but I remember Snead from years before. The old rascal! I played golf with him on the Boca Raton course where he was the professional in the early '60s--one of my first ventures in participatory journalism. I had a notebook, a good automatic pencil, one in reserve, my hopes to get little tidbits of information, perhaps a tip on my swing, a story or two, enough to round out into a nice portrait.
The trouble was I never got a chance to talk with him. We met briefly on the tees and greens. After his drive, he would climb into his golf cart and off he'd go with my girlfriend at the time--slender, in a yellow summer dress--while I struggled along far behind. On occasion she walked with me. "Hey, do you know what?" she said. "Sam says he can lift me off the ground and tell me within two ounces what I weigh." She told me later that she had fended him off, joshing with him, but at the 17th green, while I was extricating myself from a distant bunker, she had relented and let herself be picked off the ground.
"How close was he?" I asked.
"He was off by six pounds."
You say you were playing with Snead as part of a participatory-journalism stint. Were you at the Masters to try the same sort of thing?
I'll admit something: It was my hope to climb over a fence and play a couple of holes at night. That was the best I could hope for as a participant.
Is that what Golf Digest had in mind?
Absolutely not. Beyond my impressions of the tournament, the editors wanted me to find out how you become a member of the club that hosts it--one of the more secret of organizations in the country, right up there with Yale's Skull and Bones, the Bohemian Grove and other bastions of secrecy and mumbo jumbo. Very hard to get into. One of the stories is that Bill Gates, the Microsoft tycoon, has let it be known that he would like to be a member, willing to pay anything for the privilege, and has been rebuffed. The magazine wanted me to ask the club's chairman, Hootie Johnson, about this.
It's true, isn't it, that the members wear a green coat during the tournament? Did you think of wearing a green coat and infiltrating?
Frankly, no. I had a blue blazer. Incidentally, by tradition the newly coated champion takes his green jacket off the grounds for just one year. Then he returns it to his locker in the champions' room. As for the membership, no one is allowed to wear their green jackets except on the premises.
Why is that?
The idea is, the club mustn't be dishonored by having a member wearing the green jacket falling down drunk in some honky-tonk bar, say in Hong Kong. The word would get back to Augusta. So the jackets stay, hanging in a cedar closet on the premises, arranged alphabetically on hangers, and when a member calls to say he is coming down to spend a weekend, he arrives in his room to find the jacket waiting for him. A member told me that he was informed that his jacket looked a bit "scruffy." He was urged to get a new one. He didn't dare not comply. This done, he got what he described as a "whopping" bill. Incidentally, my friend tells me that the tournament winners--Tiger, Vijay Singh and the others back through history--do not get billed for the first jacket that is draped over their shoulders in the Butler Cabin. But they've got to pay for any replacements.
All right. Let's get to the point. Did you go up to someone wearing a green coat and ask how to become a member of the National?
Yes, I did. Heart in mouth. I went up--sort of tiptoeing, because of my feet--to a green-coated member sitting in a golf cart. I bowed slightly and then after a quick glance for anybody lurking close I leaned into his golf cart practically to his ear . . . all this to suggest I knew all about the mumbo jumbo and keeping my mouth shut and so on and I whispered to him, "How do you get into this nice club?"
Very aggressive. What happened?
For an instant he looked into what I believe is called the middle distance. And then he said, "There are some application blanks up there at the clubhouse," and he drove off.
Nonsense, of course. Actually, sitting on a table on the second level of the clubhouse there is a 200-year-old gift from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews--a voting box, an ornate dovecote-like thing with a round opening in the front for ballots, and two tabs marked ADMIT and REJECT. The box is obviously a fanciful offer from the Royal and Ancient, really a sort of joke since that's not the way the election business at the National works at all.
Did you consider putting your name in there just in case?
I did so. I wrote my name on a paper napkin with a message scribbled above it: "For consideration." It's probably still in there.
Incidentally, are all the marshals in green coats?
By no means. We came across Dow Finsterwald standing alone on a hummock overlooking the course. He was dressed in a rather severe dark suit, no one around him, a solitary figure, available for a ruling if called upon, but looking more like a fragile figure in a Daliesque landscape. I was introduced and we talked for a bit. I asked him, "Have you been called on for anything?" "Nope." He seemed a permanent structure out there. He had a lot to think back on--in 1960 he missed a short putt on the fifth, and after holing out he dropped the ball on the green and in his misery and frustration made a practice putt. Wrong. He turned himself in and was assessed a two-stroke penalty. Arnold Palmer won the tournament with a 282, Finsterwald was two strokes behind with a 284. No green coat.
Where did you stay? In the clubhouse?
No. The practice at Augusta is for a large percentage of the populace to turn their houses over to the golfers, the press, dignitaries and so on, and then head elsewhere for the week, raking in enough in the rentals to send their kids away to college. We--meaning the Golf Digest crew--were settled into a large bungalow-style house with a swimming pool out back. Food was supplied--a large ham in the kitchen. The living room is graced by a large table, its glass top set on the paws of an iron bear lying on its back. The golf writers sit around the table and talk golf. You can't believe the trivia. I was overwhelmed by it. They got talking about Lee Trevino's tattoo. Ann was his girlfriend, and he had her name tattooed on his arm. Then their lives drifted apart but Trevino didn't have the tattoo removed. He covered it up with a Band-Aid. One of his associates at the time tried to get an endorsement from the Band-Aid people. When that failed, the Band-Aid was removed and Ann was back in the world. The question around the bear-paw table: What was the situation with Ann's tattoo at the moment? Someone looked at me, and I had to say I didn't know. I didn't even know about the tattoo in the first place. I was out of my depth.
They would ask things like this: "All right, who was the last player to lead the Masters who wore a goatee?"
So an argument would break out. And then another discussion would start about David Duval's goatee. Then someone would say: "Duval. He shaves his arms."
Or someone else would say: "Hey, you know what? There's never been a great deaf golfer." On and on. All beyond me. I was out of it.
A lot of the discussion was about the golfers they had drawn in a complicated kind of daily calcutta in which the writers teamed up in pairs. The night before the first day's play, the handicapping was something to hear--every bit of arcane information about the picks was traded. Guy Yocom, one of the writers, took me under his wing as his partner. I had absolutely no information to give him. I was going to tell him that I'd heard from somewhere, perhaps right there in our house, that Vijay Singh closes his eyes when he putts from under 10 feet. I resisted. I gave him $20 instead. We won quite a lot the first, lost the second, evened out in the third ... very volatile, like a Nasdaq tech stock.
You must have heard some good stories.
The best story I heard involved Willie Peterson, Jack Nicklaus' former caddie. One year he couldn't come down to Augusta. He was in the hospital. He was in there with a gunshot wound. He had come home to find his wife in bed with another man. In a splendid reversal of the usual plot, his wife pulled out a gun from under the bed and shot him!
Not bad! Hey, did you speak to any of the golf press about your desire to play a few holes at Augusta National at night? Not that first day. But I noticed that Dave Anderson from The New York Times had brought his clubs down. Perhaps he would let me borrow his 5-iron. He's played the course that runs adjacent to the National. One year he hit a ball over a fence onto the hallowed grounds, which gave him a certain standing as a participatory journalist. He can say, "I've played the 12th at the Masters on the second day. Lost a ball there."
Did you have a roommate?
I did indeed. Yocom, my gambling partner. It turned out that his true passion, other than golf, is tornadoes. He was grand about tornadoes, specifically a monster storm known as the Great Tri-State Tornado that moved thunderously though Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on March 18, 1925 (I remember the date because I was born on March 18). As he lay in bed across the way, he spoke of it rapturously, as if describing a piece of valuable property, and I had the sense that when he half-closed his eyes it was to better see in his mind's eye the enormous funnel, black with what it had sucked up, including a cow dropped through the roof of a restaurant.
He sounds like the kind of person who would have scaled the fence with you and played some night holes. Ah, yes, but he would have lost his credentials and thus be limited to covering events like the Tallahassee Open. Astonishing memory. When I first met him he started quoting some lines that suddenly, after a second or so of bewilderment on my part, I realized were from my own books.
Since this was your first Masters, did your bungalow mates take you around?
Yes, they accompanied me to the places I wanted to see--like the spot from which Gene Sarazen made his double eagle. After that, we went down to look at the 13th and the creek that fronts the green. It was here during the third round in 1953 that John de Forest, the '32 British Amateur champion, hit the ball into the water, just a few inches from the bank. He had an option--to drop another ball and take a one-shot penalty or to try to explode the ball from where it lay. He decided on the latter. He sat down on the bank, stripped off a sock and removed a shoe. High drama! The crowd realized he was going to go for it! But then, idiotically, de Forest stepped down into the water with the foot with the shoe on it, the bare foot up on the bank. Too late to do anything about it. ... The thing to do was to brave it through, very British. He made the shot from that strange straddling stance, almost weeping with embarrassment, one had to presume, and flubbed the shot, barely scraping the ball out onto the grass. He eventually became titled Count De Bendern, but I suspect he was never able to look at a water hole on a golf course without thinking back on that Masters.
We were there for quite a while. My feet hurt so much getting down to the 13th that I toyed with the idea of doing the count one up and removing both my shoes to cool off my feet in the water. I resisted.
As you were being led around, what were your first impressions of the course?
That to my naive eyes it looked so easy. There is no rough to speak of. It was Bobby Jones' notion that golf is a game to be enjoyed and that there is no fun in looking for lost balls. What a splendid notion! Jones once proudly commented on the Masters rough that you couldn't lose a pin in it, much less a golf ball. Last year the rough, or what passes for rough, was increased by six-eighths of an inch and there had been quite a lot of discussion about it. At one point I was standing behind Tiger Woods' mother alongside a fairway when her son hit a wayward shot into the "rough." I overheard her complaining about the six-eighths of an inch, as if it were a personal act designed to put her son at a disadvantage. Tiger then hit a shot to within a foot or so of the flagstick and she gave a little laugh as if she suddenly came to realize that no imaginable rough deters him. Incidentally, I have a theory about those mammoth drives of Tiger's--that he hits the ball so high that it gets into thinner air, and since there is less interference up there his ball goes farther down the fairway.
Did you explain this to your pals in the bungalow?
Anything else about the course?
Enormous, polite crowds, as if subdued by the beauty and history of the place. Alistair Cooke, the debonair host of "Masterpiece Theatre" and a great golf fan, likened the grounds of the Masters to a vast Edwardian garden party. Amazingly kempt. I was reminded of Japan, where the fans who smoke carry little portable ashtrays. Everybody at the Masters seems to be in motion. Tiger Woods siphons off a huge percentage of the crowd. You hear whispers: Where is he? I remember hurrying to cross a fairway. The marshals let the ropes down and the thick crowds on either side, 20 deep, start across like medieval armies bent on doing mischief to the other--an impression heightened by the fact that many are carrying umbrellas, shooting sticks, camera cases as they come, and then just before the inevitable clash, each incredibly passes through the other and passes out the other end unharmed, one last straggler, me, hobbling into safe ground just as the rope is raised again.
Did you continue to wear your son's sneakers?
No, the second day I wore the pair of city shoes I'd come down in. Too late. My speed afoot remained constant. On the third day the temperature suddenly dropped, a horn sounded, and the word swept across the course that tornadoes were in the vicinity. I thought how pleased Yocom must have felt hearing the news--a tornado at the Masters! We were urged off the course, a vast crowd headed for the gates. I hobbled along behind--a Stalingrad straggler.
A marshal in a green coat came by in a cart, shepherding people along. I thought perhaps he'd give me a lift, but he sailed on by. Somewhat fancifully, it occurred to me that the alarm was false, that the men in the green coats had had enough--enough of strangers cluttering up their course! Off you go!
Actually, Yocom told me that within hours of the end of the Masters a horde of workmen descends and all the stands, the eating sheds, the comfort stations, the scoreboards, anything to do with the tournament, all of it is dismantled and borne away--the place completely reclaimed within days or so for the green-jacket people.
What was the high moment of your visit, other than the plan to climb a fence and play a few holes at night? I got a glimpse of the champions' locker room. It's on the second floor of the clubhouse--truly a sanctum sanctorum. Can't go in there unless you're a past champion or the guest of one. I was lucky. Gay Brewer, who won the Masters in 1967, took me in to show me around and offer me breakfast. (I knew him from my experience on the PGA Tour to write The Bogey Man.) It was sort of like walking into a wax museum. There they were: Sam Snead. Tom Watson. Bob Goalby. It's a small room bordered by wooden lockers, highly polished, some of them half open--I could see the green jackets hanging there. The space is limited and many of the champions have doubled up in the lockers, with twin brass nameplates such as Crenshaw-Demaret, Goalby-Nelson, Sarazen-O'Meara.
They were talking about Bob Rosburg, how deft he was with a pack of playing cards, that he could take a card and scale it under a door and into a hat on the other side. Very impatient on the golf course. Brewer told a story about Rosburg leading a tournament in Portland, but then the next day bogeying the first hole, double-bogeying the second before walking off the course in disgust.
Just then, Tiger Woods came in and sat down. There were greetings all around and then the Rosburg stories were continued, one of them about his reaching out after a missed short putt to tap it backward between his legs into the hole and having it miss, drifting on out between his shoes. Brewer said: "You had to see that one!" The others laughed. I watched fascinated as Tiger ate a bacon-and-lettuce sandwich, french fries. His breakfast. He was listening intently. I wondered what I could say to initiate a conversation.
Finally I leaned forward from my chair and said well, er, um, that the stories were pretty good. He nodded and said that he felt it was important to listen to them and remember them: "Got to keep the traditions." I wrote that down in my notebook.
So that's the best you could do with Tiger?
My mind was blank. I didn't know any Bob Rosburg stories.
You could have told the story about Snead and the slender girl in the yellow dress.
I resisted. It wouldn't have seemed appropriate with Snead sitting in the room, and besides, I thought it was interesting what Tiger was doing, storing up information about the game he loves.
Were there other points of interest you were taken to?
Dan Jenkins, my old friend from Sports Illustrated days, who was celebrating his 50th Masters, took me on a tour of the clubhouse. The original press box was out on the veranda that looks out on the front lawn with its massive oak tree, 200 years old and held together by wires, and the golf course beyond. The area around the tree is roped off and reserved for those with special tickets. A lot of green jackets. Dan explained that an outside bar used to be directly below the veranda. "We pulled up drinks in a bucket."
Dan was famous for spending most of the tournament up there on the veranda, where he said you could listen to the Masters. He could tell from a whoop, a groan, a sustained roar what was going on and subscribed to the principle, as he said, "that many of the best shots are served in tall paper cups on the upstairs porch."
Considering the state of your feet, you must have agreed with that theory.
No, no. I was diligent. Dan took me to see Hootie Johnson over at the headquarters. Hootie is the chairman of the National and the obvious person to see about the membership and the mumbo jumbo. As we were about to enter the chairman's office Dan urged me to start off by asking Mr. Johnson, "Now let's get it straight--is it Hootie or Hooters?" I resisted.
We went in and I looked around. Paintings by Dwight Eisenhower, rather weak with his use of colors, I thought. A painting of Bobby Jones, a photograph of Hootie posing with Clifford Roberts, who with Jones founded the National. A lifelike sculpture of two pheasants on the coffee table. Hootie Johnson sat behind an impressive desk with nothing on it. He is a very successful businessman from Columbia, S.C. He looked at us rather warily, I thought. I wondered vaguely if he'd overheard Dan out in the hall.
I started off by asking about Bill Gates. Was he up for membership?
"We don't discuss that. Can't comment. ... I will comment," he went on to say, "that Bill Gates is a great American."
After an uncomfortable pause I said, "Well, what do you look for in a member?"
He looked thoughtful. "A kindred spirit, perhaps."
He began talking about the tournament itself. He said: "There are always improvements to be made here. We look at the tournament as through Cliff Roberts' eyes."
He went on to say that one of the best things about being the chairman was being allowed, the only outsider, to attend the yearly past champions' dinner. He was referring to an institution Ben Hogan had come up with in 1952, the year following his first victory in the tournament. The idea was a simple one: a reunion of former champions to reminisce about "old times and great moments," as Hogan put it. His golf pals thought it was a great idea, especially since the defending champion--it was Hogan's suggestion--was required to pick up the check. The defending champion also by tradition was supposed to select the menu. After Tiger Woods won, he had cheeseburgers.
Well, did you get anything else out of Hootie?
I'm afraid not. It's in the tradition of the Masters to be very protective, even aggressively so, especially with the press. Cliff Roberts wrote directives in which he stipulated that undulations in the fairway should be described as "mounds," not "humps." There is an oft-told story about a member who sent in a mild complaint, upon which he received by return mail the following message: "Your complaint has been registered. You are no longer a member."
And yet one story I heard about him suggested that despite all this, Roberts, rather grim-faced to look at, had a sense of humor. One year Roberts ordered the water level in the pond by the 16th tee lowered by eight inches and had the workmen construct a small path across the pond. Then he had the water level raised back to normal. Roberts strolled nonchalantly off the tee onto the path and strode across the pond, the water lapping at his shoe tops, proving to the astonished onlookers that the chairman really could walk on water. This was filmed to be shown later at the club's annual Jamboree tournament, and the footage also shows a caddie trying to copy Roberts and tumbling knee-deep into the pond. There's also, apparently, a film clip of a bear ambling upright through the pines, who takes his head off in front of the camera, and there's Roberts trying to twist his face into a smile.
Did you feel you had let Golf Digest down by not getting Hootie to spill the beans about membership?
Very likely. But I was able to piece together how it happens. Originally, a candidate was proposed with letters of recommendation by other members, then there was a vote by the admissions committee. Normal procedure. This system was dropped because those turned down ("blackballed" in fraternity lingo) were, in Clifford Roberts' words, "unhappy to a degree that made things unpleasant for all concerned." He went on to explain that every golfer in the country liked Bob Jones to such an extent that to be turned down for membership was a tragedy, not just a disappointment.
The policy then adopted was that one became a member "by invitation only"--which from the start gave the club a kind of mystical aura. One day the invitation arrives in the mail, on occasion somewhat to the surprise of the recipient, I would think.
And who are these people?
Power. Tycoonery. Tycoonery is pretty much the base. There is a kind of osmotic understanding about whose candidacy is appropriate. In Georgia, Coca-Cola country, it does not help to drink Pepsi-Cola. Richard Nixon never made it with the Masters crowd, because he had identified himself with Pepsi during the famous kitchen debate in Moscow's trade fair when he maneuvered Khrushchev, the Russian leader at the time, into the Pepsi booth.
What about women at Augusta?
Men only as members. No ladies' tees. It would appear that the only woman to gain any sort of acceptance, if indeed on the periphery, was Mamie Eisenhower, the president's wife, despite the fact that she had no interest in golf. In the early days members were expected to refrain from any social activities not related to golf. These days things are a bit more relaxed. The club has one of the great wine cellars of the South. There are a number of yearly events--perhaps the largest at Thanksgiving, which has become a kind of family affair. Women can play the course. Still, very exclusive. No nonsense about that. A member is allowed to bring only one guest. If he brings an extra friend, he is required to find another member to play with him on the course. Fortunately there are enough local members in Augusta to call upon to fill out a foursome and thus keep to the rules.
You could have played the course during Thanksgiving with a member.
Not the same as infiltrating it during Masters week.
Ah, yes, what about that--your plan to infiltrate the course at night?
Well, it was the third night when I was thinking of doing it; 3 a.m. my starting time. I was staring up at the ceiling in the darkness when Guy Yocom, my roommate, sat up abruptly in his bed and announced: "Abdomen of a hamster," and then fell back down.
What does that mean?
I have no idea. It was discussed afterward around the ham in the kitchen and no one else knew either. At any rate, it seemed a kind of omen. I looked over and said something like: "Are you all right?" No reply. So I lay back down and continued to plan. Snitch a 5-iron from Dave Anderson's bag. Two or three balls. Stroll over to Washington Road. Scale a fence. I began to imagine it. Under a half moon, the course is a deep velvet. Head down toward Amen Corner. Pause in the coolness of the pines and take a swig of bourbon from a hip flask. Heart beating fast. They had Pinkertons out there in the gloom, swift of foot, and perhaps they had Doberman pinschers, even swifter, along with mace, nighttime binoculars, and stun guns with laser beams with those red dots that shine between the eyes of the unsuspecting victim. No matter. Put it all out of mind.
Another swig from the hip flask and then creep through the pine groves, heading down to Rae's Creek and the par-3 12th hole they call Golden Bell. Dwight Eisenhower once sank past his knees in Rae's Creek at the 12th in what turned out to be quicksand. Two Secret Service agents had to pull him out by the arms. Perfect place to try the nighttime shot, setting the ball down in the dew-cool grass, hefting Dave Anderson's 5-iron, the waggle, the soft hum of brandy in the head, the exhilaration of it all, the club coming back, held that little instant, and then the downswing, the wonk of the ball coming off the blade, followed, alas, by the popping sound in the dark of its quick entry into Rae's Creek. No matter. Another ball available. But then the dreadful call, as if from the depths of Hades, "Hey, you!" The Pinkertons! No time to run, no time to jump Rae's Creek, no time to fend them off with Dave Anderson's 5-iron. The hot snuffling of the Dobermans closing in fast. A brief tussle. A desperate shout: "But I'm from Golf Digest!" To no avail. Handcuffed! Then thrust headlong, half-pushed and half-carried (this last a relief since my feet hurt) up the length of these famous holes, past the clubhouse, up Magnolia Lane and into a paddy wagon. In the jailhouse they would take away my press badge, maybe Hootie Johnson himself would do it, and I'd be barred for life!
So in fact you never did it ...
It was only because ...
I know ...
Yes, my son's sneakers. My feet would have let me down. If not for my son's sneakers, I would have had a grand story to tell!