The Masters

A few blogs back[1] I admitted that years ago I rushed home from a church evening service to watch The Masters golf tournament on TV, forgetting my (then) 15-year-old daughter Rachel had come to church with me. As I settled down in front of the TV, a friend phoned from church asking if I’d forgotten something. I didn’t think so. ‘Your daughter?’ she asked. Sinking feeling. What a bad father. I invited the friend for coffee and cake if she’d bring my daughter home, which she did. And watched the golf with me.

As I write now, it’s once more The Masters weekend. After two years without large crowds (because of the Covid crisis), about 10,000 a day are filling the course.[2] There’s huge excitement, and, if you believed pundits and commentators the whole world waits to see if Tiger Woods, returning from serious injury, can win the event.[3]

Because I’ve played golf longer than I can remember (my father put a club in my hand when I was about 3), I enjoy The Masters but dislike the hype about Tiger or any other player. Despite my normal determination not to make this blog about current events, I’ll share some of what fascinates me about The Masters, including details which show the quirkiness of the event. After that I’ll pose some challenging questions.

The Masters is an invitational tournament run by Augusta National Golf Club of Augusta, Georgia, in the south east corner of the USA, just above Florida. The word ‘invitational’ matters, because those who play each year are ‘invited’ to play by the club based on their world ranking or victory in significant golf events during the preceding year. Also, past winners of The Masters have permanent invitations to return and play. They continue to be called ‘champions’ and not ‘former champions’.

The tournament was started by noted amateur champion Bobby Jones[4] along with an investment banker friend, Clifford Roberts. In 1930 Jones won the Grand Slam, which, in those days, meant victories in the same year at the U.S. AmateurBritish Amateur, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. Jones triumphed in them all in 1930, a feat no-one has equalled since, including in its modern form which involves four professional tournaments, one of which is The Masters.

Just after Jones’ Grand Slam win, he partnered with Roberts, and bought a former plant nursery. Jones and noted course architect, Alister MacKenzie, then designed Augusta National golf course.

Jones was building a course for a golf club, but always had another plan in mind – to launch a special invitational tournament.  It was first played in March, 1934, at that time called the “Augusta National Invitation Tournament”. The winner in 1934 received $1500.

In 1939 the name was changed to The Masters. Bobby Jones said later: ‘I must admit the name was born of a touch of immodesty’.

The exact amounts paid to prize winners are not disclosed, but in the early 2020s the prize fund total is reckoned to be $11.5 million, of which the tournament winner gets $2.07 million.

The Masters is always played at Augusta National Golf Club, the only ‘Major’ tournament in modern golf played each year on the same course. Familiarity with the layout is an important reason why television ratings are high. The event is viewed in dozens of countries.

No-one can apply to become a member of the super-private Augusta National Golf Club. You must be invited, and have plenty money.  You also won’t be playing much golf there, because the course closes down from May to October annually to avoid wear and tear on the grass during Georgia’s hot summers.

The first African-American member was admitted in 1990, and first women members in 2012.

At The Masters, everything is carefully controlled by the Club, and they strictly enforce their rules. For example:

  • TV commentators must never mention the prize money
  • TV commentators must always be polite about the course. One CBS commentator, trying to be humorous about the speed of the greens, said ‘they bikini wax the greens’. Augusta National took offence, and banned him from ever commentating again. Other commentators have also been discontinued, likely because their less-than-serious style was deemed unsuitable.
  • The spectators at the event must never be referred to as spectators, or as fans. They’re ‘patrons’.
  • The patrons must always walk, never run. They are not allowed to talk loudly, applaud mistakes, and never permitted even to carry cell phones.
  • No litter must be seen on the course – cups and food bags are coloured green, as are the waste bins, so they’re camouflaged against the green grass.
  • The course must always look in perfect condition:
    • No weeds can be there; the ground staff remove every weed on the course
    • The azaleas which surround many of the holes are cultivated to bloom in Masters week
    • The ponds used to have food dye in them to make the water look blue
    • Bird sounds are added artificially to TV broadcasts to give the impression of an idyllic environment
    • If there are bare patches of ground, the ground staff paint the ground green so it blends in.

Despite its quirkiness, for most of the top professionals The Masters is the tournament above all others they most want to win. It’s almost certainly the most prestigious.

The patrons – those watching the play in person – are mostly the same people year after year. Tickets are sold only to those on the ‘patrons list’ which is closed. Tickets can be bought for pre-tournament practice days, but must be applied for well in advance and are allocated after a ballot.

The Masters excites and terrifies the best players in the world.

  • Gary Player, famous S. African winner, said: ‘If there’s a golf course in heaven, I hope it’s like Augusta National. I just don’t want an early tee time.’
  • Fuzzy Zoeller, a top US golfer of a generation ago, described what hitting his opening drive did to him. The shot was ‘the greatest natural laxative in the world’.
  • Sergio Garcia, the brilliant Spanish golfer, would probably agree with that after what happened to him at the 2018 tournament. One year earlier, Garcia won The Masters. He was thrilled – at last he’d captured a ‘Major’ – so when his daughter was born soon after, he called her Azalea, the name of the flower which grows abundantly at Augusta National. Then came the 2018 tournament, and Garcia hoped to win again. He did well for 14 holes of his first round. Then he came to the 15th, a par 5. He drove his ball well, and got into a good position to pitch on to the green. His ball landed on the green, but his shot had so much backspin, the ball shot backwards and down a slope into the pond which fronted the green. With a one stroke penalty, Garcia dropped another ball, hit it onto the green. It also spun back, down the slope into the water.  Next shot – backspin, into the water. Next shot, backspin, into the water. Next shot? Backspin, into the water. Finally he got one to stay on the green, and holed the putt. But Garcia scored an octuple bogey 13, and now shares the record for the highest score on any hole at The Masters.

Since 1949 the winner of The Masters is presented with a green jacket. The jacket becomes his property, but it must remain at the club where it’s kept in a special cloakroom. The only exception is that each winner may take the jacket away for one year after his victory (presumably to wear wherever he travels in that year). After that it goes into the club’s cloakroom. Repeat winners don’t get a new jacket, unless the jacket would need major refitting. (Now, why might that be necessary…?)

On the Tuesday evening preceding the tournament, a Champions Dinner is held, attended only by Masters winners and a few officers of the club. The menu is set by the reigning champion. Scotsman Sandy Lyle had haggis served, and Englishman Nick Faldo chose fish and chips. Tiger Woods was the youngest ever winner,[5] and his choices for the Champions Dinner were cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, french fries and milkshakes, justifying the menu as typical of what he ate.

In 1986, at the age of 46, Jack Nicklaus became the oldest winner of the Masters. It was his sixth win. The youngest competitor was the Chinese amateur golfer Guan Tianlang who was aged 14 years, 168 days on day one of the 2013 tournament.

I could write much more about The Masters. It’s an event of golfing triumph and tragedy, watched not only by golfers but by people who view no other golf event.

Here, however, are my hard questions.

  1. Is it right that someone earns over $2 million for four days’ work?
  2. The Augusta National course is often described as ‘heavenly’, ‘sublime’, a ‘beautiful painting, a masterpiece’ because it looks perfectly designed, manicured and beautified with gorgeous floral displays. In a world where many starve, and great atrocities happen, is that not obscene?
  3. It’s rare for anyone other than the most elite of players to win, because only they have the skill and determination to reach the highest level. Should anyone dedicate their whole selves to such an ultimately trivial goal?

I believe these are all fair questions. I will give short defences against them, but please trust me that I’m not unsympathetic to the issues these questions raise.

Here are the kinds of answers that would be given to my questions.

1. In the world of sport, the prize money for the winner of The Masters is by no means top dollar. Staying with golf, the winner of the 2022 FedEx Cup (partly based on season performance, but also winning an end-of-season event) will take home $18 million. Also, a controversial award, recently instituted, will distribute $50 million to players who have made the most impact (not exclusively on the golf course), the winner receiving $8 million. Away from golf there are many very rich sports stars (the best rewarded, sad to report, are all male). The Formula One star Lewis Hamilton had an annual salary in 2021 of $54 million. The ten top-paid athletes (across all sports) had pretax gross earnings of $1.05 billion in a 12-month period stretching across 2020-21. There is a Forbes list of highest-paid athletes; what it shows is startling.[6]

We must remember three more things. First, just because a tournament runs for only four days, it would be ridiculous to say the golfers only work for four days, as if the months and years of practice shouldn’t be counted. Second, many others get some kind of cut or salary from the wages of sport stars. They don’t get to keep all their prizemoney. Third, many sports people make more from sponsorships or business partnerships than they do from prizemoney. Sometimes it’s hard to know which numbers reflect ‘winnings’ and which reflect ‘total income’.  Nevertheless, whatever way you consider the issue, top athletes do very well financially.

2. The Augusta National golf course is not the norm, nor does it look so pretty all year round. The tournament is held when the azaleas bloom, the grass is perfect, the weather (mostly) good, and so on. And its sublime appearance is an intentional portrait, painted by a club which wants to show off a beautiful course. It’s a private club – tax payers don’t subsidise it. Its magnificent condition is paid for by the substantial fees earned from selling television rights, and by charges made to the club’s members.

Also, the Masters week is not just a competition but a major celebration. Don’t many people have their own celebrations such as birthday parties, anniversary dinners, Thanksgiving meals, Christmas gatherings? It wouldn’t be good to live like that all the time, but most of life isn’t a banquet. One week a year isn’t overdoing things.

Also, not just Augusta National but all of us could do other things with money rather than spend it on expensive things. Instead of changing car or home, we could give those tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars away. People used to make calculations about how many of the world’s poor could be fed with the money spent sending astronauts into space. But the hard truth – whether about cars, houses, space exploration – is that if we didn’t spend it there we’d spend it elsewhere, but probably not on helping the poor. I’d like to think that, if we care enough, we can do these things and aid the poor. Mischievously I’d like to challenge the top golfers at The Masters to give a tenth (a tithe) of their winnings to help people in need, both near and far.

3. It seems that everyone who wants to reach the top must now dedicate themselves entirely to their sport. Success requires great sacrifice. The age of an Eric Liddell, a gold medal winning amateur Olympic athlete, is gone. That’s the argument for complete commitment to sport.

But how can the elite give everything to their game and also have healthy marriages, or be good parents, or sustain friendships, or maintain their health, or their emotional and spiritual balance? One of the fears for Tiger Woods is that his determination to win, or at least compete well, has driven him to play before his body is ready. And that could damage his wellbeing for months or longer. If success requires selling body, mind and soul to a sport, a career, a hobby – putting that above all else – it doesn’t sound like a good deal.

So, I’ve asked hard questions and provided answers. Are they my answers? I said they would be ‘the kinds of answers that would be given’ in response to tough challenges. So, I agree with some points but not all points. Which is not really surprising, because these things are not straightforward. Complex issues tend to remain complex.

It’s good to enjoy major events like The Masters. I will. But I do think about the other needs of this world too, and won’t be distracted from them by The Masters.

[1] Blog: Have you forgotten something? January 22, 2022

[2] The host club for the event, Augusta National Golf Club, don’t release official figures for attendance, but estimates put the total at around 40,000 for the four competitive days. (Others attend on practice days.)

[3] If you want to know about Tiger’s accident and his injuries, there’s information here:

[4] I wrote a little of Bobby Jones’ story in the blog Why quit while you’re ahead? July 10, 2021

[5] Tiger Woods won in 1997, when aged 21. In total he has won five times, most recently in 2019 after a 14-year gap.

[6] The Forbes list of Highest-paid Athletes can be found here: The details can be found in several sections.