The Masters, of golf

img_1526The picture above shows a buff President Washington with a six pack posing as Zeus, king of the gods. This kind of florid, frankly, but likely unknowingly, homoerotic display, was typical of the 19th century men who commissioned this work. These men were confident in their mastery over the land and its peoples; they were sure of their place in the world. This kind of confidence brought about the American Century (the 20th) and colors us to this day. It was men with this uncluttered view of their place in the world that brought us Augusta National and the Masters. The neocons that ran purple rampant this past decade hark to this tradition, but I digress. It is dangerous to apply the morals and ethics of the moment to the decisions and actions of the past, just as it is to do use the morals and ethics of the 19th century to view the situations of the present. The beauty of Augusta National is something to behold, at least on television in High-Definition. But like an old line Southern family, there are a lot of bones in those closets. The Masters is a perfect bellwether of America’s difficult relationship with race, gender, and elitism. The Masters transcends golf, but because of golf, it is saved.

As a tournament of golf, the Masters, conceived and founded by Bobby Jones, is unique among the modern major golf tournaments in that it is held in the same place every year. This conservatism is the outward manifestation of a deep conservatism in the membership, and from its founding, the world view was  antiquarian and antebellum.

On one hand, it means that the very spot where Sarazen hit his shot heard around the world is an actual spot that you can see during the tournament. Past champions, members, and gallery attendees provide a living link all the way back to Jones, and the founding of golf in America and Britain. It also is a tournament that until several decades ago, insisted that only Augusta National caddies looped for the players -they were all African American wearing distinctively white overalls. This visual from my childhood of white guys strolling with black guys in crazy white mechanics uniforms carrying their bags in a tournament in Georgia called “The Masters” gave me clear notice as a teen in Jacksonville, Florida in the 80’s where progress really was.

This kind of haughtiness lampooned in Caddyshack but not half as funny when the membership’s frostiness to the brown skinned Lee Trevino caused him to let anger keep him from performing to his prowess at the Masters -he even boycotted it for two years and called it a “stupid course.” This is the thing -in America, up to the 1980’s, the popular media normalized blacks with such shows as the Jeffersons, the Cosby Show, and Urkel, but the Masters bucked the trend and showed where we really were at that time. When I was in high school, the San Jose Country Club, where my golf team practiced, was the site of a choral recital. An old lady (white), walked out of a concert there because several members of the chorus were African American. Restricted meant no blacks, Jews, or Asians. A club had fallen on hard times indeed if it let me in -and indeed, this was the kind of club we joined -Baymeadows in 1983, to get easy access to golf.  It also played into that club’s view of diversity having some “Chinee” in the locker room. The club has since closed down due to stress in the real estate market.

This changed slowly. In 1975, Lee Elder, played at the Masters, breaking the color line. In 1983, the requirement to use Augusta National caddies, uniformly African American, was rescinded -which had the unfortunate side effect of the African American caddies disappearing. The tsunami then occurred in 1997 with Tiger’s lopsided victory, but even there, the line was being defended, by Fuzzy Zoeller who stupidly had to make that remark about serving fried chicken.

“He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it.” Zoeller then smiled, snapped his fingers, and walked away before turning and adding, “or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.” (ref).

It cost Zoeller millions, but it was clear that it was the Freudian slip of a significant part of the nation. I don’t think there is a cross burning, lynching, evil-redneck bone in Zoeller’s body and his life of gentlemanly behavior on the course redeems him. The towel waving at the 1984 US Open was beautiful and epitomizes and elevates the game. He was joking, and he is known to be a joker, but in serving up Don Rickels at THAT MOMENT made Tiger’s victory all the more poignant.

It is telling that Augusta National in the years since Tiger’s victory, worked very hard to lengthen and strengthen the course. As if a fortress, once overrun decides “never again” by digging deeper moats and higher walls. The course which was suppose to be timeless, was lengthened in response to modern equipment. But modern equipment had been around since persimmon was dropped for graphite then steel then titanium, way before Tiger. The rough which had always been short, had allowed for a greater range of risk-reward, is now US Open style growth -the kind that gets you in trouble with not only the wife but also the neighbors if you forget to mow. This because of Tiger who has won four Masters.

The current battle is over the admission of women. This is not a problem at many clubs because of finances have dropped class, race, and religion for simple money, but it remains in the strange custom of Ladies Day -usually Tuesday after the club is mowed on Mondays. Meant to reserve the course for women as a tradeoff for restricting them from play on the weekends, it is a shameful reminder of the same antediluvian instincts that created exclusive clubs in the first place. The solution is very straightforward and fair -if you can’t play a hole in 10 minutes, you shouldn’t play on the weekends during prime time. And this is the strange thing that I have discovered in using Augusta National as our bellwether. Its accuracy is undoubtable -we now have an African-American President a decade after Tiger’s acceptance into Augusta National. Augusta’s line on women members reveals the last true fault line -one that I had frankly doubted in many heated college dorm arguments with feminist friends. The lady, my friends, is the last nigger.

So why do we watch the Masters despite its failings? It is the golf, of course.

Golf doesn’t care about your race, your viewpoint, your class, or gender. It’s the ball going from here to there, and its story a perfect mirror of your character and integrity. Life is not perfect, and nobody’s golf is, but golf holds out the promise of a more perfect round, and really a more perfect individual and nation.

My Picks:

The Iowans: Zach Johnson and Jack Newman

The Korean-American and Korean-Kiwi: Anthony Kim and Danny Lee

The Irishmen: Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington

The Cablinasion: E. Tiger Woods

The Chicago Cubs: Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman

and my final pick:

Fred Couples -I have modeled my swing intentionally on his effortless mechanics since I was a kid watching Boom Boom take the TPC in 1984 -I was there.