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It’s Dixie, not heaven: Alternative guide to Augusta National

Whiff of racism never far away from a club with a distinctly southern heritage

In an alternate universe somebody in CBS will grab hold of a microphone at Augusta sometime over the next four days and go completely rogue.

Ditching the cloying script about stately loblolly pines and blushing azaleas, our hero will offer an alternative guide to the most revered plant nursery in sport. Instead of pontifications about shrubbery and Jim Nantz’s trademark simpering prose, there will be some truth-telling about its hidden history, and it will sound something like this . . .

. . . Thank you for joining us. Over there, behind the 10th tee you can make out Ike's Cabin. A three-storey, seven-room construction, built in 1953 after Dwight Eisenhower became president. In order that he could continue to golf at his favourite club, the members had it designed to accommodate the secret service in the basement. Of course, Eisenhower was a hugely popular figure at the club. And why wouldn't he have been?

“These are not bad people,” he said, when trying to convince a supreme court justice to understand the plight of white southerners and to vote against desegregation of schools.

“All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big black bucks.”

A man apparently very fond of using the "N" word to describe African-Americans, there are charming accounts of Ike returning to Washington after his beloved golf trips to Georgia and regaling his inner circle with racist jokes told to him by Bobby Jones as they played the most famous 18 holes in golf. How fitting then that every April, the name of such an illustrious figure in this nation's history still gets invoked during the tournament.

As long as I'm alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black

The cabin has plenty more stories to give up. One October day back in 1983, Ronald Reagan, a worse golfer than he was a president, arrived to hack his way around with Nicholas Brady, somebody with the typical Augusta National member's resume (Republican senator and investment banker).

Hearing that the man he voted for was playing golf the same day that US Steel announced massive lay-offs, Charles Harris, an unemployed 45-year-old, decided to give Reagan a piece of his mind.

Wearing a baseball cap that said “Heaven is a lot like Dixie”, he drove his pick-up truck down Magnolia Lane and used his .38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver to take five hostages at the pro shop. Although he never got anywhere near Reagan (who was on the 16th at the time), he ended up serving five years in jail.

Of course, Smith and Wesson features too in the story of Clifford Roberts, the Wall Street banker who co-founded the club with Jones back in 1933.

That was his weapon of choice when he chose to end his own life on the par-three course on a September evening in 1977. At 83, he had a fresh haircut, put on new pyjamas and pinned a terminal medical diagnosis to his chest before his body fell into Ike’s Pond, a fishing pool built at Eisenhower’s suggestion.

Fried chicken

So many of the grand old traditions surrounding the Masters, including the name, can be traced back to Roberts. He was in charge when the powers-that-be kept the qualification system under strict control for years to prevent African-American players from getting in the door.

“As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black,” declared Roberts, infamously.

Having endured Lee Elder finally breaking Augusta's colour barrier in 1975, he was at least spared Tiger Woods putting on a green jacket after his 1997 triumph, a feat achieved with, gosh, horror, a white man on his bag. The racist who made this event possible would not have been pleased.

Still, his spirit lived on that year in the guise of Fuzzy Zoeller. In between the clubhouse and the first tee is where the 1979 winner held court and offered his own, ahem, unique veteran’s take on Woods’s dominance and its potential implications for the following April’s champions’ dinner.

“That little boy is driving it well,” said the old jokester. “And he’s putting it 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! Enjoy it! And you tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it? Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve!”

All of this is just part of the rich tapestry of the course sandwiched between Berckmans and Washington Road. Like the African-American chain gangs deployed to clean up those very streets ahead of the arrival of the golfers each spring, this kind of stuff speaks to its particularly southern heritage.

Like Rae’s Creek, the water hazard that winds through Amen Corner, lovingly named for John Rae, the Irish-born fur trader, slave owner, and convicted murderer.

It’s not just the world’s best players who have lost their way down that fabled stretch either. In 1976, a club security guard accidentally shot three black youths, one of them 12 years old, when he caught them fishing by the 12th green.

In his defence, the shotgun discharged when he was loading up to fire a warning shot over their heads. Upon being released from hospital, the trio were paid off and the guard kept his job because, after all, Augusta National isn’t heaven, it’s Dixie.