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Masters 2017: Fred Couples holds court, a new media center is unveiled, and other notes from Augusta

Only at Augusta National could a media center be what everyone is discussing at the top of Masters week.

It’s technically not Masters week until Monday morning, but that doesn’t mean Augusta National was sleeping on Sunday. Some notes from an active Sunday before the Sunday.

The Media Palace

The media bragging, complaining, discussing, or even referencing their travel, accommodations, food arrangements, or workplace setting is almost always, always tiring. It’s cliche and you don’t want to hear about it. The new media center at Augusta National should be an exception. It’s that grand, awesome, obscene, whatever superlative opinion you prefer to attach to it. Tweets about it from the media members are going to fill up your timeline for the next few days and that will probably get annoying, if it hasn’t already. Augusta National expected as much, deciding to release hi-res photos of the new palace on Sunday because they knew this would be a story unto itself.

The building is more expansive and well-kept than probably 99.99 percent of the actual clubhouses, no matter the exclusivity of the club, in this here United States. It’s an enormous building with rows and rows of workstations, a posh press conference center, multiple restaurants, lockers, showers, multiple terraces, and a two-story glass view of the driving range. There are foyer and landing spaces bigger and nicer than most homes. There are also multiple elevators, which will be useful for all the weary media folks engorging free chicken biscuits and pimento cheese sandwiches all week.

Most of the biggest events in golf set up a temporary tent with an outhouse trailer on the side of it. It’s perfectly fine living and a privilege just to cover the tournament.

Augusta? Well, they tore down the old one and built this new palace in nine months and it’s really only going to be used extensively one week per year. This is its own country club operation. It’s the latest way in which the folks at the Masters have demonstrated that this is an entirely different kind of major championship.

Organizing a game

Masters week does not officially start until Monday morning, but the grounds open on Sunday morning so patrons can enter Augusta National to watch the kids participate in the Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship. The merchandise shop is open, the concession stands are up and running, security and staff are guiding your every move. You just can’t really go on the course, save for a few spots around the No. 1 tee, No. 10 tee, and the 9th and 18th greens.

Concurrent with the DCP competition, however, are a bunch of practice games trying to get off and onto the course. This is not like other practice days in that an amateur — often a member, and some friends or family members — also goes out with one of the playing pros. It’s a mix of stand bags (with some of the most baller club logos on them and pro bags with brand logos on everything). I was struck by how informal everything was in the sorting, ordering, and scheduling of these practice games. It somewhat resembled the scene at a local club or course, where a mix of players mill about the first tee and putting green trying to get onto the course — you know, minus the talent, hundreds of patrons, and the most prestigious course in America.

Jordan Spieth just hung out on the first tee for a half hour or so chatting with pros and amateurs teeing off before and after him. Then he went out and played with his dad. Fred Couples joked with everyone. The CEO of a certain company decided he’d switch games and joined a different game on the 10th tee with a bit of a backup on the first tee. Gary Player walked off the putting green, was told he that he probably wasn’t up yet, and just bounced back to putt a few more.

And all these pros and titans of industry just sort of mingled through the crowd, going from clubhouse to putting green to the tee. There was little barrier. If you weren’t looking, you’d barrel into Bubba or Mr. Player or, I don’t know, the CEO of Comcast. It was a cool opportunity to get up close with a lot of these players in what will be a much more informal setting compared to the regimented schedule and system for later in the week. And the clusters of patrons around the tees and putting green weren’t overwhelming.

Boom Boom holds court

There were more accomplished players, businessmen, and celebrities hanging around the first tee, but everyone wanted a piece of Fred Couples. And he was thrilled to be back holding court at Augusta National. He laughed, hugged, backslapped, and engaged just about everyone inside the ropes who came around the first tee over the course of a 30 to 40 minute stretch. Everyone wanted to BS with Freddie.

PGA: Drive Chip and Putt National Finals
Boom Boom is the man everywhere he goes at Augusta.
Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

He has this one specific move where he puts his hands on both shoulders of the person he really wants to chat up. He puts the bill of his cap almost against his chatting partner’s hat and then bobs around looking like he’s having the most easygoing conversation in the world. The only time I laughed out loud happened when Couples enthusiastically grabbed the shoulders of distinguished Secretary Condoleezza Rice as she walked up onto the tee and then started animatedly bobbing his head. Freddie was the most casual and cool friend to everyone who came near him it seemed, including the reserved Secretary.

Even the pros want in on the merch shop

Another staple at the Masters is the merchandise shop. It’s the only place you can get official Masters products — there’s no online shop like the other majors. You have to be there in person. There are also no major brands plastered all over the shop — there’s not a Nike section or Adidas section or Polo section. It’s all mostly Masters-branded stuff. This is a well-known aspect of the Masters at this point and even on a slower day like Sunday, the patrons were still shoulder to shoulder in there shoveling product into their shopping bags.

William McGirt, who is playing in his first Masters this year, could not resist. The pros presumably have access to some pretty sweet and exclusive gear, but McGirt had to check it out with his family.

The kids take over

The Sunday before Masters Sunday is still for the kids. The Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship is a worthwhile endeavor and cool to see, even for the most cold-hearted cynics.

Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National Golf Club
The DCP is taking root at Augusta.
Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The course doesn’t need to be closed off for the pros only and Augusta should be commended for opening its doors and making this a national event. Parents are hit over the head with baseball and basketball and soccer leagues and training to sign up for their kids. It’s ubiquitous and there’s always someone to take your money for those kind of leagues. It’s harder to find competitive golf events and leagues that could make the game fun. This is one opportunity and it comes at the biggest stage in the game with the major U.S. organizations in golf all putting their weight behind it.

As Golf Digest’s Ryan Herrington noted, with the DCP now in its fourth year, some of these competitors are now playing because they saw it on TV and were influenced to give it a go. Kids doing AimPoint and taking forever to grind over their shots is brutal, but this remains a great way to break into Masters week.

Now it’s Masters week and the crowds will become deeper, the pressure more suffocating, and the proceedings official.