The Masters: A Golf Apostate Meets The Wandering Ghost Of Bobby Jones

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 04: A Masters flag is seen during the Par 3 Contest prior to the start of the 2012 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 4, 2012 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The Masters may be a cult, but its long-dead founder's legacy has wandered to places well beyond Augusta National.

Before you set fire to the Masters, you have to admit a few harsh truths. For instance, you have to like certain things to like the Masters. If you don't like those, you're not going to get very far into the Church of the Masters.

For instance, you have to like golf. You like sports for experiential and temperamental reasons. Golf fails me and I fail it utterly on all counts. Golf is slow and lacks violence of any kind, and with that I'm out completely. Your sport wants me as a fan, someone has to be going fast or hitting something. Until rally carting is integrated into the sport, I'm not there.

The distaste not a result of lack of exposure. Golf was also the sport my dad forced me to play both with him and as my "sport of choice" (i.e. not really a choice at all.) As part of a failed curriculum to raise me into a successful businessman from birth, golf was supposed to instill the value of fair play, mental discipline, and whatever other vitamins are supposed to seep magically into your hands through the clubs.

NOTE: I think the ballwashers have something to do with it, too, but that's mostly because they still remain the most interesting part of golf for me. WHAT IS THE MYSTERIOUS FLUID? HOW DOES IT CLEAN THEM SO BRILLIANTLY? Because it's golf, I assume it's made from the ground-up bones of poor people, and no one can tell me differently.

I would play the first three holes of golf camp tours half-heartedly, and then because we were self-supervised I would walk the remaning fifteen holes and turn in a blank scorecard. If you think anyone cared, please remember that the supervisors of a golf camp are suburban golf pros. They're already dead, so don't cry for them, but children could have handed in suicide notes written on hunks of their own flesh and they would have mumbled, thrown it in the garbage, and then headed back down to the pool to pick up bored mothers.

I also lack the important father-son bonding element many carry over from golf. The following is a transcript of every game of golf I have ever played with my father.

[/a dot on the horizon three holes behind us appears.]

Dad: HURRY UP JESUS THEY'RE RIGHT BEHIND US

Me: Dad, I think that's a heron on 12. It has feathers. [hits ball off top at tee, dribbles 25 yards into rough]

Dad: GOD KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN PICK YOUR BALL UP DON'T GIVE ME THAT ATTITUDE FINE JUST GO WAIT IN THE CART AND MEET ME AT THE GREEN

Me: Dad, we're walking today. You said it'd be fun.

Dad: DON'T SASS ME WHY DO I EVEN DO THIS WE'RE GOING TO MAKE EVERYONE LATE--

[heron flies over, poops on golf bags]

Finally, I was terrible at it, and not in the way that inspires the determination to become better, persevere, and conquer your shortcomings. I was bad at it in the way that people are bad at golf, the soul-drowning, maddening slapping of a metal hook against a miniscule ball that could drive you to will yourself to die from self-hatred.

Failing golf on temperament, ability, and life experience is enough to disqualify you from ever liking the Masters period, and I'm clear on all three. Add a distaste for pimento cheese sandwiches, and I was doomed as a golf fan and a Masters aficionado from the start.

**************

It is about a bit more than that. The Masters is part of a constellation of things that, as a generic white guy in the South, you are supposed to appreciate as some kind of magic. You are by definition expected to understand the magic of Amen Corner, and Rae's Creek, and Norman's Divot.* Something about madras and a private club with no female members is supposed to move you, and thus grow more revered and powerful as a result.

*Norman's Divot is not an official point of pilgrimage at Augusta National. It should be, though.

I'm not in the pews, but by temperament I never would be. Augusta National does not admit women. This is their right as a private club, just as it is my right to point out how dated and stupid this is especially when they admitted whatever Lou Holtz is as a member. (Answer: half elf, half super-intelligent golden tamarind monkey.)

There is also the somewhat lazy accusation of racism, one usually made by sportswriters who take the visitor's cheat sheet for anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon and plug in one of five or six standard sports stories. If they were Southern, they'd like the Masters because duh, you're supposed to like it because it's great by definition, because I'm just living life off this cheat sheet. Same people, different landing place.)

That kind of autopilot narrative does not quite fit. Pigheaded, private, classist, and demonstrably sexist: those are established quantities about Augusta National. Racist is harder to pin down, since the club seems to value privilege and control over something as democratic as racism. (Remember: being racist means being part of a big club, something Augusta National abhors.)

They have black members, and have since Lee Elder played there in 1975 and broke the color barrier for participants. They have a handful of black members It is not a model for diversity, but places full of the richest people in the nation usually aren't.*

*Admitted: they are still called "The Masters" and play around a big white house in Georgia. If they don't leave fingerprints, they don't exactly make it hard to assume things, either.

***********

Elder's breakthrough came four years after Augusta founder Bobby Jones' death. This is sometimes interpreted as a sign that one element of Jones' legacy was a lingering racism at Augusta National, but if you're looking for evidence you will come up empty-handed. Jones left little of himself to the public in the way of commentary on race, and took whatever he thought to the grave.

Like Augusta, though, Jones' legacy is not his to control, and has gone strange places he could not have possibly envisioned. I am typing this a few blocks from the East Lake Country Club in Atlanta, the home club of one Bobby Jones. In the 1980s this was an urban shooting gallery, and golfers took little of value with them on the course for fear of being robbed while playing. The city's nickname for the neighborhood was "Little Vietnam."

Today the charter school in the YMCA boasts better pass rates than the city's most esteemed public schools. The course and clubhouse were redone, and the neighborhoods around the course are alive enough to support real grocery stores and businesses. Tom Cousins, the real estate developer responsible for the golf course, was interested for a lot of reasons: the need to give back, the obvious real estate value of the depressed neighborhood, and the glaring need of it all. That the course was the place Bobby Jones emerged as a golf prodigy in his teens did not hurt. Without him, I'm not typing this in my pleasant, comfy couch, and my son's classmates and parents might still be fearing for their lives on the way to school.

What Bobby Jones would think of his ghost inadvertently launching a much-lauded urban renewal project is unknown. He's buried in Oakland Cemetery under a headstone occasionally festooned with tees and golf balls. Unlike Augusta, he's very much open to the public. Like the home of the Masters, he's very much dead to the outside world, and certainly not saying anything about club policy.

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