The Fantastically Retrograde Spectacle of The Masters

Courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle

Today, as I’m writing this, the Masters have begun. People have come from all around the globe to experience the flowering dogwood, the spectacularly manicured lawns and a cheap Southern staple known as a pimento cheese sandwich. It’s also a rite of Spring and carries the connotation of a certain unofficial changing of the seasons for some. To be sure, this is a golf tournament, but the significance it has taken on over the years for a certain demographic (read: white people) as an event has rendered it a sacred retreat, a place to escape a world constantly screaming at their privilege through social media and otherwise. It’s an event that admires and supports privilege through a tangible avatar, the sexualization of female patrons, and Gone With the Wind-like romanticism provided by CBS and ESPN. All of this is a problem.

One of the biggest prizes in professional golf, a sport that can only be played by adhering to country club exclusivity, is the heralded green jacket. The jacket, with its embroidered Augusta National logo, is only given to members of the club. In order to become a member, you have to be invited (rich, white males preferred). You can receive the jacket if you win the Masters but not the membership. Wearing the green jacket without the membership though still offers you the same membership distinction that club founder Clifford Roberts intended with it’s signature color. In order to attain the jacket and the distinction of belonging, you have to navigate through the halls of a power structure that lauds and promotes those that adhere to a certain social order. Only then will you become a member of a fraternity that many (especially those who attend the University of Georgia) mistake for everlasting life.

This is why the green jacket itself has taken on a life of it’s own through Tom Rinaldi’s eloquent soliloquies and Jim Nantz’s hushed tones. To attain this material item is to attain a hierarchical dominance, not unlike other sports championships. The attainment of the green jacket, however, also puts you in the same esteem as members who made their way in because of what they represent within society’s constructed order. It’s one thing to be the best in your sport; it’s another entirely to be on the same tier with capitalism’s ruling class.

Billy Payne Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and current Augusta National Member, and Billy Payne, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, are pictured together during the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National Golf Club on April 5, 2015 in Augusta, Georgia.

Source: Andrew Redington/Getty Images North America

The dignified air of wearing a green jacket distinguishes you from those without one. You were either invited or you won, and because those two have become equated through the Masters Tournament, there’s a sense that the wearer holds a perceived added importance over those who don’t have one. All of this, once again, is because of Augusta National’s extreme exclusivity: only since 2012 have women been allowed to join.

While Augusta National – and golf in general – isn’t likely to acknowledge the classism that inherently exists within its membership framework, it has been patting itself on the back ever since it accepted Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore into the fold. Yet, while racism and sexism are items that club chair Billy Payne can cross off his list by citing his new “friends,” it doesn’t mean that they don’t persist.

Golf, as a whole, has a problem with women. The LPGA exists, but the women in golf are largely there to be sexualized rather than commended for their athleticism. This was made wholly apparent by GolfDigest‘s Lexi Thompson cover, which featured the golfer topless with nothing but a towel. While Thompson defended the agency in her decision, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that GolfDigest would never ask this of golf’s male stars. Even if you’re not a participant in the professional associations of golf, you’re subject to a leering male gaze.

The same publication that published the Thompson cover recently released candid photos of attractive women enjoying the game which was labeled as ‘The Hottest Masters Patrons at Augusta’. If women are playing the game and allowed into these same country clubs, I’m sure they’d like to feel like they are more than window dressing for a magazine. Though Augusta National cannot be entirely blamed for the rampant sexualization of women¹ in the sport’s supplemental publications, it doesn’t do a great job of enforcing a notion otherwise.

Earlier in the week, Payne was asked to comment on whether or not the club would play host to a women’s tournament. Instead of answering the question, Payne talked about a goddamn dead tree, and then ended the conversation with a statement of how the grounds could not endure two tournaments. For all of the HGTV-like attention that the grounds receive, it’s an incredibly ridiculous notion that the club could not hold another tournament when there are 300 club members who, in all likelihood, don’t even play once during the year.

Despite all of the evidence that there are things deeply problematic and insular from the outside world at Augusta National, the broadcasts provided by ESPN and CBS would have you think everything was a-ok. Ah, the lush rolling greens. The brutal beauty of Amen Corner. Nothing could be finer. Yeah, it could. No dress code and letting me bring my cell phone inside would be great.

While the two companies both employ sportswriters who have had their share of exhaustive thinkpieces on the club’s problems of privilege, their telecasts feature little to no criticism. Everything is just outside noise that cannot penetrate the dome-like feel that surrounds Jim Nantz’s calm whisper.

Unlike Jeff Van Gundy or Bob Costas, two sports anchors who have both been outspoken critics of the Masters in addition to the sports that they each cover, the broadcasters that cover the tournament make you cherish every waking moment that you’re with them. They wax rhapsodic about how each year is such a special moment in such a special place. Most of this has to do with the astronomically high ratings that boost both networks during the coverage. Augusta National has all the power to run to another network should the criticism be too heavy handed. That’s why both networks refuse to comment during their telecast and instead perpetuate the myth of the Masters as a sacred event.

It’s an agreement that each network sticks to in order to avoid retribution from the arcane, archaic club. So, whatever the club says goes. It’s a petulant stubbornness which reflects a deeper societal attitude that is unwilling to progress. The fact that it uses money as a motivator to keep the status quo represents an uncomfortable reality that happens outside of its golden gates, in places like St. Louis and Chicago.

You could try and view the Masters as just a golf tournament, but that would take away the context of everything that’s led to its hallowed existence. You could go for the spectacle and participate in something that, on the whole, is representative of some of capitalism’s structural flaws. Or, you could not watch it all. Golf and Augusta National will still exist, but as fraternities, both formal and informal, deteriorate because of their retrograde ways, how long will these two institutions last in their current form?

¹Golf’s sterling reputation for bigotry lies partly in a long-standing “joke” about how golf stands for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.”

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