I never quite understood the love affair with the sport of golf. I understood even less the love of The Masters tournament, and was one of the millions who convinced themselves that attending Augusta National and their Major wasn’t that big of a deal.
Well, I get it now; and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As most of you who read regularly (thanks mom) might know, I was born and raised about two and one half hours south of Augusta in Savannah, Georgia. I didn’t think about The Masters much, mostly because baseball season was at the same time and that is my true passion. I thought even less about attending the tournament, not solely because it wasn’t appealing, but also because a guy from my socioeconomic background couldn’t afford to get in; so why should I think about it? I always thought that the day I could afford to get into Augusta National I would be more concerned with buying other things completely unrelated to golf.
But this isn’t about golf, really; and quite frankly it wasn’t about money*. This was about an opportunity that led me to a completely different experience than I’ve ever had in the world of sports. I got to attend the “holy grail” of American golf tournaments and I’m a completely different person/professional because of it. I’m not going to get all religious, but I hope that some of you reading this understand that despite the bones in that clubs closet, despite what has been written, and despite any and all perceptions, The Masters is the only event I would want to attend year-in-and-year-out above any and all others.
*I’d like to give a shout out to David Meltzer, Warren Moon, and Scott Carter who I intern for at Sports 1 Marketing for the passes last week. So awesome.
by now I’ve convinced a lot of you that I’m crazy. Hear me out! I understand the draw of the Super Bowl, the BCS title games, heck if my Braves (my currently 11-1 Braves thank you) were in the World Series (or any World Series match-up) believe me, I understand the draw. But entering the front gate of Augusta National it hit me that I was doing something culturally different. Kind of like the feeling you get when you entered old Yankee Stadium or go to Fenway Park in Boston (or how I would imagine Wrigley Field would feel). Yet it was unique still. You’re walking along land that, at least for me, I never dreamed of being near.
I don’t claim to be a sports writer yet (I still hold delusions of grandeur that some director/movie/TV guy will think I’m funny and hire me to write scripts for them). It’s kind of like in high school when I was getting scholarship offers for tennis I still considered myself a baseball player. But I guess as a loaner to the genre I will try paint the picture like this: when you’re with your buddies and you’ve been to a game, be it NFL, MLB, NBA or whatever, and they say afterwards “yeah that was great, but I can probably have more fun watching this on my television.” This isn’t one of those more fun on television things. I’m not a golfer or a golf follower, I dabble in the names to keep myself in the know; but to see the sign that read “Playing today, but not competing in the tournament” with the list underneath that included Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer I couldn’t help but get goosebumps at the thought that icons of sport (not just golf, sport) were there and had conquered this legendary course. A real “holy crap this is cool” moment for a sports fan moonlighting as a guy who knows what he’s talking about in writing.
Then you see the caddie’s in white with their respective golfers names on the back and you can’t help but think “Am I honestly here?” As we walked in (I was with one other guy) we walked out onto the course to try to navigate our way around when at the 9th cross-way (I trust you don’t think I’m sounding smarter about this than I am) we were greeted at the waist by a rope letting us know play was resuming for that hole. From there, I looked to my right and noticed a golfer among the pine trees who was, obviously, in a bind.
That golfer, was 2004 Masters champion Phil Mickelson.
He proceeded to take a few practice swings (lefty of course) before unloading a shot that made me realize that golf is played at a higher level than anything I could mentally understand. From about 275-yards out, among pine trees and pine needles he hit a shot within four feet of the hole. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it in person and my initial thought was if Tiger Woods is better than that something isn’t right. It couldn’t possibly get any better.
Enter 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship champion Rory McIlroy.
His group came through and from about 300-yards on the fairway he hit to within ten feet of the cup. I was in a different world indeed.
I got an all-access view of the course I had seen hundreds of times on television and in pictures. I saw the scoreboards adorned with flags from different countries and names of today’s great golfers. I walked the pine tree and azalea lined paths to iconic spots like “Amen Corner”, Hogan’s Bridge, Eisenhower’s Tree, Rae’s Creek, Sarazen Bridge, and even got lost enough before going to walk down Magnolia Lane. It was as beautiful as pictures and television make it every April; and was another reminder of why I loved my home state of Georgia so much. My only “what a bummer” moment was that I didn’t have my phone because they confiscate all electronics before they even scan your pass.
As spectacular as the golf was (and believe me, these men are athletes) it was more about what the club represented for me as an individual that overwhelmed me. being black and at Augusta National, in a non-working capacity, meant something to me. It meant that I was not only in one of the most exclusive places in the world watching golf’s premiere major of the season, it meant that I must be doing something right in a sense. That at 29-years old someone thought enough of me to hire me, grant me this opportunity, and once inside treat me like someone with ideas and as though I belonged.
Then I realized that isn’t black or white, folks, that’s what we all strive for. I never once felt as though I was an outsider or looked down upon which, to be completely honest, was what I was somewhat expecting to feel. In fact, lots of the interaction that I had with those attending were quite positive. That isn’t to say they are representative of Augusta National, but any preconceived notion I had before going in was changed. These were people who had been successful, had worked hard, and were enjoying what they wanted to because they could. It represented to me what working hard was supposed to be about. You could overhear conversations that took place and know these are people who don’t take much time off, and when they do they enjoyed it. That, culturally, is sometimes a lot different from most envision from portrayals. I knew it wasn’t the opposite, but to see it is always a lesson.
Being around affluence isn’t foreign to me, I have been around, conversed, and worked with people of considerable wealth before. It was, however, a different view into how sometimes we should all take a step back from race, politics, etc. and understand life (and other people) can be enjoyed amid all the clutter that surrounds a particular venue or sport. Their wealth isn’t something to covet because, the beauty of this country is, you can obtain your own. Yes, I get there are situations in life that aren’t fair, and I am 100% aware that being black can be seen unfavorably by a lot of people without perspective. But let me reiterate my point: I’m 29-years old, attending the Masters, and it is because I made a positive enough impression on someone to give me that opportunity. Simply put: I took advantage of opportunities that were given me because of lessons I learned growing up. One of which was to work hard and do the very best you can. In fact the day before the Masters began I had the privilege of working sponsorship booths in 90 degree weather and humidity that reminded my why I seek refuge in the mid-Atlantic to further earn my keep and that opportunity, which made what I took away from the experience that much greater.
I am not rich, I’m still working to reach a height of respectability and comfort everyone should work for. To be able to provide for my family in a way that is in harmony with my beliefs and respectable/enjoyable. This isn’t meant to be political in nature, and this certainly isn’t meant to offend. But if it does, then it does. Eventually, even a highly competitive person such as myself has to realize “you can’t win them all” And I’m sure I won’t.
I am fully aware of Augusta National’s checkered past with inequality in regards to women and African-Americans. believe me, as I walked up to the gate and saw that a majority of the ticket scanners and ushers were African-American, and that plantation feel that was exhibited came to mind I understood that even today there are appearances to things. I know that the first African-American member invited to Augusta National was as recent as 1990 (I was six) and that the club only recently admitted its first female members in 2012. And those are things that, like every other problem, have to be addressed. But It didn’t affect how I felt being a native of Georgia attending the Masters for the first time. I don’t condone their actions from the past, I hope and advocate for better in the future, and I still learned something valuable.
If you didn’t get any of that last paragraph you aren’t alone. neither did I.
I look forward to the future because one of my goals is to be in attendance regularly. It is a place that is rich in history and the history is out there, both good and bad. But this lesson in history, this opportunity to do something I never dreamed of even 12-months ago is something that I will appreciate for a long, long time. The Masters isn’t like any sporting event you have ever been to. It isn’t just about the sport of golf, it is about the cultures and social struggles that converge as well.
It’s something I want to witness in person every chance I can.