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The Mystery Behind Magnolia Lane

The Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf club is one of the most special weeks in all of sports, and even pro golfers want to make the most of it
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Matthew McConaughey, March/April 2011

Tom Lehman never won the Masters but he was a contender, finishing third in 1993 and second in 1994. His experience inside the ropes at Augusta National was sublime. For those close to him, coming to Augusta every year was no less exciting.

“Over the years, the number of people—family and friends—who would come to any given golf tournament would dwindle,” says Lehman, now a Champions Tour player. “You’re talking something like the U.S. Open or the Phoenix Open. At the Masters, it just got greater. Nobody turns down a chance to come to Augusta.”

There is no more significant rite of spring in American sport than the Masters golf tournament, held every year around the first week of April—the 2011 event runs from April 4th to 10th. There is no American golf tournament so rich with tradition, so engrained into the national sporting psyche. There is no place harder to penetrate if you don’t have an “in.”

Think of the Masters and you think of green jackets, lush fairways, Amen Corner, Magnolia Lane, azaleas and Arnold Palmer. You think of the roars of the “patrons,” as the spectators are known, when they erupt from their reverence and gentility with a cannonade of cheers as a player makes a birdie or an eagle down the closing stretch.

The patrons themselves are as important to the Masters mystique as any single element of the tournament. Long ago, when the Augusta National Golf Club was under the iron rule of chairman Cliff Roberts, spectators at the Masters were referred to as patrons. Heaven forbid that you would now call their collective mass a gallery. That collective mass is thought to be about 30,000 per day of the tournament, perhaps 40,000 per day during the practice rounds. The club will not reveal the number of spectators it accommodates.

The patron’s badge is the single most difficult, and coveted, ticket in sports. Once the privilege of purchasing a badge comes into an extremely fortunate person’s custody, it can be held forever. There are Masters badges that now have been passed down through several generations. The badges have been the subject of divorce settlements, of contested wills.

Individuals and tickets companies make huge money on the scalping of these badges. Scalping them is legal as long as it is done a distance from the course, and some ticket companies rent houses and establish elaborate hospitality headquarters.

Woe be to the original ticket holder if the rules about distance from the club are violated; they can summarily lose that ticket forever. The face value of the badge is $200 and is good for all four tournament rounds, but a scalper can command well in excess of $2,000. If Tiger Woods were in contention on Sunday, that single day might see a badge go for $1,000.

A man who was a badge procurer for a ticket broker once came up so short of them, putting himself in a deep financial hole, that he killed himself. The patron’s badge is, you can see, much more than a ticket.

The players themselves can’t help but think about the Masters, too. It’s an ultimate destination for them, an ultimate symbol of arrival on the world stage. And winning the tournament itself makes you forever a member of the Masters family, allows you to come back every year to the enveloping arms of the Augusta National Golf Club and the warm embrace of the little city of Augusta, Georgia.

For those players who are past champions and those who qualify regularly through tournament wins and positions in the world rankings, coming back to Augusta every year truly is a rite of spring. And it’s one that every player wants to get in on. Who hasn’t heard a player, flush from a win on the PGA Tour, say, “And now I get to go to the Masters?”

What has made the Masters so special, beyond its recognition as a major golf championship, is that it is played on the same course every year. The other majors, the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, move around annually. The British Open has a closely defined rota of courses with the Old Course at St Andrews at its center, and has the longest history of any major. But every year, every second week of April, the world’s best players head for one destination: Augusta.

In a very real sense, Augusta has become the second home to many of the players privileged to play the Masters. For decades now it’s become a gathering place for family and friends, a place of abiding familiarity. And though the action takes place inside the ropes, the Masters outside the ropes has its own charm, its own special place in the lives of the players; in a sense, no matter where you stay, you are wrapped in the aura of the week’s events.

Gary Player, a three-time winner of the Masters, has been coming to Augusta since 1957. He last played in the tournament in 2009, but he continues to return every year to revel in the Champions Dinner and be part of an event in which he played so large a part.

When he first came, he took a modest house, then a larger one as his family expanded and his business associations started to grow. Now, 54 years after he first came, his family and business requirements require the renting of up to five houses, a large catering operation and the arrangement of corporate outings, largely handled by his son Marc who heads up Black Knight International.

“It’s funny, but back in the ’60s [super agent] Mark McCormick told my father, Jack and Arnie that they ought to buy houses in Augusta because they would be coming here every year. Spend $50,000 for one,” says Marc Player.  “My father said ‘You’re crazy.’ Well now 50 years later and everyone has spent at least 10 times that on rent, and that $50,000 house would be what, a million?”

Now Player’s Black Knight International is shelling out big bucks every year to rent houses at a development known as Champions Retreat, where Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have designed the golf course. Now that Player has stopped playing the tournament, he can do nine-hole corporate outings for his many sponsors such as Rolex, SAP and Mercedes.

“Last year at Champions Retreat we spent about $120,000 on renting five houses, catering, maid service and such,” says Marc Player. “Every Wednesday night we have a big barbecue, in South Africa we call it a braai, for 250 people. Ever since my dad stopped playing, we can have more time with him. We have a quick nine holes first thing every morning at Champions Retreat with our corporate guests. He’s really relaxed now and doesn’t have to focus on how he’s going to play the tournament.

“The Masters week really has become a family ritual, part of our lives. The [British] Open Championship is a wonderful week, but it’s always someplace different each year. The Masters is always at Augusta, you come back to the same places, see the same people. It is a very family sort of thing.”

It’s family and it’s familiarity. “You get to know a lot of people over the years,” says Player. “We’ve had the same chef for 15 years, a Southern cook who we say wraps everything in bacon. We call him ‘Doc.’ He’s a great character and we all love him. We have copious amounts of red wine and Belvedere vodka.”

There is a party atmosphere at one of the houses rented by Mike Weir, the Canadian who won the Masters in 2003. There is an abundance of wine (his own label) and beer, thanks to his sponsor Molson. The Masters has turned into a large production for Weir, who gets major help from his brother Jim, longtime teaching pro and friend Steve Bennett (known as “The Guv”), and IMG, the huge player agent group that takes care of renting dozens of houses in Augusta annually for its clients.

“It’s a real gathering of family and friends,” says Weir. “My brothers come, my parents sometimes, a lot of friends I grew up with come. We have 15–20 people there each year. I try to invite a couple of friends who have never been before to give them that experience.

“We rent the same house every year, but I don’t stay there. I rent another house close by or stay in a hotel. I’ll go to the big house after the day’s over at the club, have dinner and hang out with friends, then go back to my place and chill out, get a good night’s sleep.”

His brother Jim is the chief organizer, particularly when it comes to tickets. “We get eight tickets as players and get a few more for the practice rounds,” says Weir. “We often scramble to get tickets from maybe the international players who might not have family and friends coming. It means that sometimes they have to be shared and not everybody can go every day, so they just go play golf.  My brother helps keep everything organized.”

Bennett, “The Guv,” is the chef de cuisine for the week. Bennett was the club pro at Huron Oaks in Brights Grove, Ontario, where Weir learned the game. He’s still a teaching pro in Canada, but for one week out of the year in Augusta, Georgia, he’s Emeril Lagasse.

“I’m invited every year and they can’t get rid of me,” says Bennett.

“We feed 15–20 people every night and have a breakfast every morning. Monday night is the traditional Guv Burgers night. I put lots of good things in them: Worcestershire, garlic and stuff. Tuesday night is pasta night, but Mike can’t be there because of the Champions Dinner so I will double up on what I make so that we can have more of it again. Wednesday and Thursday are new menu item nights. I start watching the cooking channels in March for ideas.”

Bennett is one of those people in Weir’s life who he has rewarded with the Masters experience. Bennett has seen the grateful look, the sense of awe in the faces of many people who Weir has invited.

“He invited a guy from Australia who took him into his house when Mike was playing the Australasian Tour,” says Bennett. “He invited his high school buddies last year who were bag room boys at Huron Oaks when Mike was playing there. They were 12 or 13 at the time, then 25 years later, Mike invites them to the Masters. They could have never come on their own. That’s what Mike does.”

Bennett got his own special reward at the 2004 Masters. “I played with Jack Nicklaus at Huron Oaks in 1981,” says Bennett. “When Mike asked me to caddy for him in the Par 3 tournament the year after he won the Masters, he arranged for Jack to play with us. That’s the way Mike is. With such a big tournament going on, he still wants to take care of his friends.”

Another friend of Weir’s, David Dube of Saskatoon, got his Masters reward in 2010. Dube, CEO of the Concorde Company, had won a charity auction to carry Weir’s bag during a PGA Tour event in 2008. Weir subsequently invited him to the Masters in 2010, but Dube would only come with a stipulation: that he could cook a meal and take over from “The Guv” for a night.

So now Dube, who’s a pretty well-traveled guy in the golf world, finally got his chance to be at Augusta National. “There’s no place on earth like it,” says Dube. “You feel like you are walking on clouds. It’s pretty magical.”

After the Tuesday practice round, Weir asked him to caddy in the Wednesday Par 3 tournament. That got Dube a bit nervous, since he was slated to cook that night. “Mike’s caddy said ‘David, this is a once in a lifetime thing. You’ve got to do it.’ So I did and it was great, great fun.”

“It’s really something for the people who come for the first time there,” says Weir. “When you are not at the course it really doesn’t have the feeling of a real big-time event like some U.S. Opens or British Opens. But when they walk around to the other side of the clubhouse and see the course all out in front of them, there is a real wow factor.”

For Nick Faldo, he of the iron chest and steely demeanor, the Masters was all about winning, and he went about his business with authority and austerity during his playing days in Augusta.

“For the longest time I took rooms at the Courtyard Marriott,” says Faldo, now the lead commentator for CBS at the tournament. “When I won in 1989 and 1990, we were staying there, Gil [his first wife] and the kids and a nanny. We’d go out to eat, places where the kids would eat, maybe to Michaels, Olive Garden. I really don’t remember that much. I was playing in the tournament and wrapped up in that.

“After I won I said I should buy a house. It would have made things bloody simple, same place every year, but didn’t do it. I have been renting houses over the last maybe 19 years, and certainly since I’ve stopped playing and been with CBS, I have been able to be much more social about things. I love having my friends come now and enjoy the tournament with them, have a few laughs.”

And now Faldo, meeting his friends at the club most days, gets to see things he never allowed himself to see before. “We now sort of meet up in the morning at the club, on the back terrace there for breakfast. My son Matthew usually comes and brings a friend. I get to sit back and watch the people go by, which is pretty cool, actually.”

There is a considerable amount of corporate schmoozing going on at the Masters and most of it is off the property. There are a few discreet hospitality “cabins” at Augusta National, mostly out of sight off the first and 10th fairways. Like so many companies, Callaway Golf rents a house. “It’s a small town and the house brings that small-town atmosphere to what we are doing,” says Callaway spokesman Tim Buckman. “It’s a very rich experience for our retailers, customers and our own staff. Being able to come back to the same place every year, there’s just something extra special about it. The town is so happy to have us there. Everyone wants to go. If you asked our 2,500 employees if they wanted to go, every single one of them would raise their hand. It’s a family kind of thing.”

Tom Lehman always saw the Masters as a family affair, and one that he was personally involved in. “We would probably have upwards of 20 people, my wife and children, my father and mother, my in-laws, my brother, friends,” says Lehman, who last played in the Masters in 2006. “When the kids were young, not in school, they would come. And a nanny.

“I have an assistant that made the housing arrangements. I took care of the tickets, my brother took care of managing the tickets once I had them. He ran to the will call all the time, leaving tickets, dropping them off. It’s a real shuffle.”

Just to throw a little reality into this idyllic world, Lehman’s last trip to Augusta in 2006 was out of the ordinary. He was on his way to the Augusta airport to pick up his family on Tuesday night after a practice round, driving his courtesy Cadillac. A car pulled up along side him, and the next thing he knew, he heard a pop—the driver of the car had fired a shot at him, the bullet passing through the rear passenger door just in back of the driver’s seat.

“When I picked up my family they said ‘you can’t believe what a terrible trip this was,’ ” says Lehman. “So I say, ‘well you won’t believe what a bad trip this was to the airport’ and I show them the bullet hole in the car.” Their complaining stopped. A man was later arrested and imprisoned for the crime.

Nick Price’s experiences were far less eventful but no less memorable. “For me, the Masters was always an extra special tournament, coming back to the same course, seeing the same people, having relationships with the waiters and the locker-room staff and the security guards, and the members,” says Price. “When you stop playing there, it’s not so much that you miss the tournament, especially since you are not being competitive anymore. It’s the people you miss, the sort of family experience of it all.”

Lehman, like all other players who earn that coveted invitation from Augusta National, relishes his time at the Masters and knows that everyone around him did, too.

“To everybody, it was the best, the best, the best,” he says.

Just listen to what Jhonattan Vegas, a native Venezuelan, had to say after he won the Bob Hope Classic this year, qualifying him for the Masters and giving him his in.

“I know it’s a dream that my dad and my American friends have, to go to the Masters, just to walk around,” Vegas says with a broad smile. “That’s what they told me. It’s like, ‘Before I die, just please get me to the Masters.’ ”

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.

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