4/13/19

Down with Mystique

Tracking shots and puncturing Augusta's veil

by

Yesterday, Golf.com published a fun, playful column in which Alan Bastable mourns the death of the “mystique” of the Masters Tournament. He argues that this mystique, engendered by Augusta National Golf Club’s long-time insistence on limited broadcast coverage, has been under threat for years. In 1972, the telecast expanded from four to seven holes. By 2002, viewers could watch all 18. Then came streaming. Shot tracer. Masters-branded social media accounts.

But the mortal blow, Bastable argues, occurred on Thursday, when the Masters unveiled the new shot-tracking capabilities of its app and website. Now that we could see literally all shots hit on all holes by all players, what was left of the alluring enigma of Augusta National? For Bastable, not much: “Whatever happens, the Masters’ curtain is drawn, its long-guarded secrets revealed.”

On social media, the debate in response to Bastable’s article has centered on whether the Masters’ mystique is really gone. I’m more curious, however, about the assumption that mystique itself is a good thing.

Bastable defines the mystique of the Masters as “the intense intrigue and awe felt by tens of millions of envious golf fans every April.” The telling word here is “envious.” Mystique thrives on the denial of access. For decades, the Masters put TV viewers under a spell by allowing them to see only a handful of holes—just as Augusta National Golf Club has cultivated an air of magical secrecy by maintaining a small membership and keeping guest play to a minimum.

If exclusivity isn’t the mother of mystique, it’s at least a first cousin.

For too long in the world of golf, exclusivity and mystique have been confused with quality and tradition. Consider “ambience,” one of the seven criteria Golf Digest uses to rate courses for its top 100 list. Digest says ambience has to do with “how well… the overall feel and atmosphere of the course reflect or uphold the traditional values of the game.” Given golf’s origins on the commons of the Scottish coast, you might assume that these “traditional values” would include accessibility.

Well, no. In 2019, the three highest ambience scores went, in ascending order, to Cypress Point (9.16), Pine Valley (9.21), and Augusta National (9.39). Bethpage Black, ye olde municipal warhorse of Long Island, received a 7.58 in the category. This is not about the historical ideals of the game. It’s about mystique. It’s about the magic of seeing things that are concealed from others and, most of the time, concealed from you.

Magnolia Lane

If this form of magic is dying out, good riddance. Golf doesn’t need it.

When I look at a golf course, I prefer to focus on what’s on the ground: the terrain, the routing, the shaping, the strategy, and the complex interactions between the land, the architect, and the game we play. The courses I most admire offer good grounds at an affordable rate. Often these places manage this feat only because they don’t care about peripheral factors—like, say, mystique.

Today, a lot of golfers are growing more fascinated by the details of the course under their feet and less concerned with everything else.

The new Masters shot tracker fits with this shift in priorities. It allows us to see—to the extent that we can ever “see” a real thing on television—what’s on the ground at Augusta National and how the best in the world react to it. Want to compare Bernhard Langer’s and Dustin Johnson’s strategies on the par 5s? Now you can, easily, with video of their actual shots. You don’t need Jim Nantz, backed by Dave Loggins, to tell you what manner of course Augusta National is. You can see for yourself.

I’m not saying Fred Ridley is the leader of some kind of proletarian golfers’ revolution. As a physical space, Augusta National Golf Club remains as distant from average Joe and ordinary Jane as ever.

But at least in the online realm, Augusta National has elected to present its course in as unmystical a way as possible. The green jackets must think it will hold up under scrutiny. They must believe that they don’t need to manufacture fascination by limiting coverage, that the event will retain its power because the course itself and the competition itself are powerful. I bet they’re right.

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