Masters 2014: Augusta is how the world might look if you were given a blank piece of paper and a set of crayons, an Arcadia of power made perfect

 

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The Independent Online

To refer to the new practice facility at Augusta as a driving range would be both insult and gross misrepresentation. The area given over to the players and members to prepare for their rounds fills the north-western quadrant of the 360-acre site and is a golf course all of its own, including full-length fairways dotted by trees, half a dozen sculpted landing areas and a separate pitching and chipping zone.

It was unveiled in 2010. In 2009 it was a car park. The transformation in 12 months from gravel scrub to landscaped Arcadia is typical of the soaring ambition, vision and resources behind the most powerful institution in golf.

The Masters Tournament is not just a week in April, it is a year-round micro economy driving commerce in the locale. The club spent $40m to acquire land to the west that provides free parking for 8,500 vehicles. It was formerly host to modest residential plots. Negotiations with the owners began more than 10 years before the completion of the new practice facilities.

It was a soft coup, generous in most cases. Homes were bought at values substantially higher than the market rate. There was no pressure to move immediately and some were allowed to remain in their homes rent free until the end of their lives.

Another chunk of land bordering the Washington Road to the east was acquired in February for $8.3m (£5m). The spend is part of expansion plans that have grown the plot by more than 100 acres, throwing a protective arc around the property at all points east, north and west. To the south the course is bounded by the Augusta Country Club, a fine course in its own right that predates Augusta National by 35 years. All things are possible for a club with untold wealth and some of the richest members on earth. The tills in the club shop take in one hour during the tournament almost as much as Wayne Rooney makes in a week, $250,000. The club does not disclose its accounts but revenues are estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars from broadcasting rights, tickets sales and merchandising.

A new $20m traffic scheme along the bordering Berkmans Road is to be funded with a loan by the club, one of many acts of generosity that buy huge political and social influence – not that Augusta National is interested in colonising the region, simply protecting its own environment and finessing relations without its walls.

Mystique and temperate, understated exclusivity are at the heart of the enterprise.  These were acquired to a degree by accident; they are maintained rigorously by design. As part of that process committee men from Augusta National are engaged in exchange visits with the All England Club at Wimbledon, another annual sporting event known globally with a unique cachet and a licence to print money.

The club closes at the end of this month and opens again in October. The summer months are spent perfecting this sylvan idyll, ensuring blades of grass are the same shade of green and the flora explodes into bloom in Masters week. Nothing is left to chance.

The same prescriptive impulse governs the whole operation, channelled through an attitude of stately benevolence typical of deeply conservative bodies. As a rule, golf in America is attached to traditional values associated with a benign ruling class. Deportment and manners matter. This is magnified at Augusta, and reflected in the control exerted in keeping the modern world at arm’s length.

Broadcasts are heavily restricted, sponsors are afforded nil visibility, the press is not allowed inside the ropes, there are no scorers following the play, no electronic scoreboards. Even the italic green font used to point the way on signposts is layered with Edwardian messaging. Anyone caught in possession of a mobile phone beyond the restricted areas of permitted use risks expulsion without trial. The experience is overwhelmingly civil, but suffocating at times and, if the inner cynic in you is active, you might wonder what lies beneath were you to drill deeper into the workings of a society held together by secrecy.

At the level of appearances Augusta National is how the world might look if you were given a blank piece of paper and a set of crayons. It is the perfect setting, an environment free of want, quietly respectful and utterly secure, provided its conventions are observed. Ostensibly it’s about the golf, about a tournament that has become the most eagerly anticipated of the year, that has surpassed the Open in all but historical importance. The Masters Tournament drives the business, but the business is now about so much more than a game.

Augusta National has the cash reserves of a small country. It is small country, its borders patrolled by 24-hour security, its rules its own and indebted to none. It is amazing what a Green Jacket can do.

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