Sports Nut

Below the Hole

The Masters’ underground technology fetish.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Augusta National is one of the world’s most beautiful golf courses, a landmark that all golfers dream of seeing once before they die. When I made my first pilgrimage to the Masters last year, I expected to be immediately overwhelmed by the famous dogwoods and azaleas. Instead, I ran into a metal detector. “No cell phones, pagers, or electronic devices on club grounds,” a security guard sounded off like a metronome. “Violations will lead to permanent loss of credentials.”

Once I made it inside, I listened in as Masters patrons passed around war stories about the club’s fatwa against technology. The anecdotes all share a basic structure. A patron, not thinking, whips out a cell phone or a BlackBerry. Nanoseconds later, he is escorted from club grounds without recourse. When it comes to the tech ban, the lords of the Masters do not discriminate. One gentleman I tracked down was banned permanently for illicit cell phone usage, even though his family has attended the tournament since the 1950s. It’s true, what the security guard said: If you’re caught with an electronic device, you will be escorted from the course—never to return again.

The no-tolerance policy fits Augusta National’s image. The club fancies itself as the most tradition-bound of golf bodies, one that prohibits anything high-tech from disturbing the peace on its grounds. The scoreboards for the Masters are all manually operated. The only prominent clock at Augusta National is a sundial dedicated to Bobby Jones. Blimps are forbidden in the skies overhead. Even electric vacuum cleaners are taboo in the clubhouse.

All of this makes for great theater, as golfers, visitors, and TV viewers are transported back to a world free of Jumbotrons and Gnarls Barkley ringtones. But while the Masters brass has carefully cultivated a technology-hating image, all this Luddism is a façade. Beneath the club’s manicured greenery lies an arsenal of technological wonders that keeps the course looking timeless and pristine. Indeed, take a deep enough divot at Augusta National and you’ll unearth the most technologically advanced setup in golf.

The greens, for one, are state-of-the-art. Beneath each putting surface is a latticework of pipes, pressurized valves, electric motors, and radio controls. Most clubs manually aerate their greens to get oxygen into the soil profile. At Augusta National, a groundskeeper fires up electric motors that pump oxygen directly to the roots from pipes below. If it starts to rain, the groundskeeper can switch the motors to “vacuum mode” and suck water out of the green almost as fast as it is pelting on the surface. Last year, the greens were just as fast after a stormy Saturday as they had been at the start of the week.

You’ll find more high-tech gear beneath the fairways. A cutting-edge irrigation system is wired to the club’s on-site weather station. When a storm gets spotted on radar, the sprinklers automatically shut off until the bad weather has passed. The fairways also bear thousands of feet of high-definition cable. The fiber optics snake beneath much of the course, coalescing at CBS’s production pad.During Masters week, the CBS team simply hooks into “drops” on each hole and begins shooting the action in the highest of high-definition formats. No other golf course in the world has such a fancy setup.

At Augusta National, it seems, there’s a weird gizmo around every corner: an advanced soil lab to analyze problematic dirt samples, a conveyor belt that helps remove and recycle grass clippings from mowers and golf carts. Last year, while the final round was underway, I spotted an official near the 14th fairway wielding what looked like a cross between a sniper’s rifle and a TV camera. He seemed to be electronically tagging each golfer who passed. After the tournament had concluded, I saw a man on the second green armed with a long stick that emitted a neon green light from its tip. The man appeared to be taking some kind of reading on the cup. When I asked exactly what he was up to, all he would say was, “data collection.” The club’s PR department wouldn’t elaborate.

Don’t be fooled. Augusta National is a genuinely backward place. Everywhere you turn on club grounds there’s a reminder from Bobby Jones about proper etiquette and the menace of running. Martha Burk will be happy to tell you about other prelapsarian charms. (Read: no women members.) Augusta National doesn’t love technology; it loves that 21st-century advances can maintain the tournament’s pristine image. The greens are just as fast each year because of the technology that lies beneath. The fairways are just as verdant because of the state-of-the-art irrigation and soil lab. The coverage is incomparable, thanks to the fiber optics.

So, how did the Masters become such a high-tech hub? Each April, dozens of golf’s premier course superintendents volunteer at the Masters. The relationship is a two-way street. Sometimes, superintendents get a peek at new technologies and then institute them at their home courses. The aeration system beneath the greens, for example, was pioneered at Augusta National in the mid-1990s and then built into a company called SubAir. Now SubAir suction systems whirr away beneath many of the elite layouts in the country, including Pebble Beach, TPC Sawgrass, and Pinehurst No. 2.

Other times, superintendents bring ideas of their own. In that case, Augusta National has the financial resources to develop those visions. The club has one of the fattest piggy banks in the game. Unlike most private clubs in America, which are set up as nonprofits, Augusta National is a highly lucrative corporation. According to moderate estimates, Augusta National Inc., rakes in more than $7 million in profits from the Masters and $12 million in revenue from merchandising each year. Such income allows the club to invest in whatever golf-course technologies it wants.

The members list doesn’t hurt, either. The list of 300 or so men who don the green jacket includes Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and former IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner. Perhaps Gerstner is the reason the club’s Web site, powered by IBM, is ahead of its time. Venture there this week and you’ll see the most visible signs of Augusta National’s technological about-face. You can watch an hour of play-by-play action daily, coverage that’s exclusively online prior to the cable and network broadcast. That’s a first for a major sporting event. Online visitors can also listen to full tournament coverage on Masters Radio and watch players warm up on the driving range in real time.

If you like to troll the Internet on your cell phone, you can click on Mobile Mastersto browse real-time scores and tournament news. Just be sure not to whip out that mobile device on Augusta National’s grounds. Looking up real-time golf scores is fine when you’re at home, but it’s downright uncivilized when you’re on a golf course.