Augusta's master stroke


PLATFORM:The Masters is an oddity: a major sporting event that has prospered by keeping commercial interests in check, writes RICHARD GILLIS

NOTHING IN golf comes close to matching the Masters Golf Tournament, which reaches its climax this weekend. Each year, the world’s top players make their way to the deep south of the US to play four rounds (they hope) of the first major of the year at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. At stake is a big cheque, a silver replica of the clubhouse, and the iconic green jacket.

The event is synonymous with the potential of spring; each April, stunning pictures of the course’s azalea-lined fairways and dyed blue lakes flood our grey, dull living rooms.

It also retains a power to keep millionaires awake at night. Every player, from Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy, is never more than a hole away from globally televised humiliation as they tackle greens like upturned woks covered in kitchen lino.

One of the small joys is hearing the players deny their fear. Some even employ psychiatrists to convince them that this is just another tournament, of the sort played week in, week out all over the world and for which they get paid absurd amounts of money. “Stay in the moment, this is what you practise for, a putt for the Masters, focus, focus, focus.”

But they know, we know and the trick cyclist knows this is different. This is not about money; it’s about history, bottle, and the fear of being exposed. By rights it should be banned; it’s a blood sport played in chinos and sun visors.

Players and fans often refer to the traditional look and feel of the whole thing (not least in its absurd attitude to women, who are still not allowed to be members of the club). There is an old-fashioned aspect to the business of the tournament too. For example, it costs less than $5 (€3.77) in total for a beer ($2), a sandwich ($1.50) and a Coke ($1) from the concession stands on the course (bear that in mind when you visit the Irish Open this year).

No advertising boards are permitted around the tees or greens, allowing spectators (known as patrons at Augusta) an uncluttered view of the players. There are no agents or other hangers-on inside the ropes to get in the way.

Other features of the event, such as the winner being fitted for the green jacket in the Butler cabin, have been going on since well before it was covered on television. This sense of tradition informs the attitude of the Masters committee to today’s commercialised world: you do what we want or you don’t come in.

CBS, a giant in US broadcasting, is treated like just another service provider. It has been going cap in hand to Augusta every year since 1956 to renegotiate its year-on-year contract. When star commentator Gary McCord described the greens as having been “bikini waxed”, it offended the committee’s sensibilities to the extent he was not allowed to cover the tournament again.

He recalled that one year a ball bounded over the 14th green and he remarked, “Oooh, that one’s in the cheap seats”. “I silently began counting the seconds, and I didn’t get to four before [producer] Frank Chirkinian shouted in my headpiece, ‘There are no cheap seats at Augusta National’!”

Cameras were forbidden from filming the entire final round until as recently as 2002, remarkable given the fortune CBS pays for the rights. The event has only three sponsors – ATT, Exxon-Mobil and IBM – and between 2002 and 2005 it got rid of them altogether to avoid coming under pressure to relax its rules on allowing women members.

This all makes the Masters something of an oddity: a major global sporting event that has prospered by keeping commercial interests in check. Something is clearly going right. Viewing figures for last year’s event were up 15 per cent on 2007, at about the 100 million mark. By taking the long view, the Masters committee has built equity in the event, something it protects at all costs.

It was Rance Crain, editor-in-chief of Advertising Age, the bible of the US marketing industry, who remarked that, “advertisers will not be satisfied until they put their mark on every blade of grass”.

I think back to Sabina Park in Jamaica, during the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup: local fans were forced to endure the humiliation of taking off their team jerseys at the gate because the logo on the front clashed with one of the event’s sponsors. Unbelievably, I saw soft drinks taken away from children because Pepsi was a sponsor, and you could only buy its drinks inside the stadium.

But this is just part of a bigger trend. As the recession bites, the pressure to bow to commercial interests will increase – and with this will come more logos, more intrusion on to the field of play, more commercial noise.

Paradoxically, the end result is a homogenised product – watch golf on any given week of the year for evidence of that.

But this weekend is different. Sit back and enjoy.