Sports Nut

In the Hole

Watching the Masters in a recession.

Trevor Immelman (left) helps Angel Cabrera don a green Masters jacket

Despite the dire state of the economy, the sports-industrial complex has this going for it: People rely on sports to help them forget their real-life difficulties. Sure, athletes may be obscenely rich, but few Americans seem to hold that against them. But what about when it’s the fan base itself that is exceedingly wealthy?

Which brings us to the Masters, won in a playoff yesterday by Argentine Angel Cabrera. I’ve felt a twinge of pity for golf lately, as its bank and investment-house sponsor dollars have dried up. Tournaments have been canceled, prize money reduced. Northern Trust, one company that dared to continue sponsoring its annual tournament, even incurred the wrath of the U.S. Congress. Granted, the company had just taken $1.5 billion in TARP funds, so the financial services committee may have had a point.

Augusta National is well-known for its racist and sexist past. Former Chairman Hootie Johnson infamously refused to allow female membership, and the club didn’t have a black member until 1990. (The latter fact is particularly ironic given the predominantly black, poverty-stricken streets that surround the golf club.) The club has finally made superficial efforts at inclusion, but it still makes zero apologies for the elitism that is the plasma of the place. The membership process is steeped in secrecy, but one thing is known: You don’t ask to join; you are asked—like a Skull and Bones with ball washers. Members often helicopter in for a round in the morning and are back in the office after lunch. With the economy teetering, might Augusta take some steps to tone down this year’s Masters? Focus more on the golf and less on the club and its traditions?

Not on your life. When it comes to the Masters, Augusta wallows in pomposity like a hippo in the Zambezi. The three-hole minefield on the back nine is pretentiously known as “Amen Corner.”* Announcer Gary McCord was banished from the proceedings in 1994 after remarking that the greens were so slick the club must have “used bikini wax.”

McCord’s comment represents a rare slip, however. Typically, the tournament is abetted in its puffery by its broadcast partner CBS (and ESPN during the early rounds), and this year was no different. The water torture began weeks ago, during March Madness. The NCAA Tournament may have been boring this year, but CBS made sure it was irritating as well, thanks to the endless series of promos for its coverage of the Masters. The fey tinkling of the piano, the slow-focus pulls to the blooming azaleas, and the dread phrase, “A tradition unlike any other,” intoned by lead broadcaster Jim Nantz. Like the pollen that drenches Georgia in April, watering eyes and turning the streets chartreuse, those god-awful promos are an ill herald of spring.

The four-day telecast itself was even thicker with treacle. Give the club credit for limiting commercial interruption, but I’d settle for a few more ads if it meant less of the music and slow pushes on photos of winners from the ‘40s. As Phil Mushnick wrote in the New York Post, trying to watch the Masters with “all the scene-setters and homage-paying makes us wonder whether Augusta National members would prefer to watch the Masters as it’s being played live, or sit through a bunch of tributes to the course.” The main effect is to make the viewer want to give in and take that nap.

Sunday, as Phil Mickelson made a stirring charge on the front nine, the network went to a break. The moment demanded a bit of jaunty music, as the production truck cued up several replays of Lefty’s brilliant shots and impassioned fist pumps. Instead, the video was accompanied by that familiar, painful piano bar theme. (Titled “Augusta,” it is an instrumental version of a song written by a songwriter named Dave Loggins—so now you know who to blame.) Tradition is all well and good, but come on—this is still a TV show.

Phil was paired with Tiger Woods, and as both made a push for a come-from-behind win, the announcers reveled in the possibility, practically high-fiving over every birdie. (Nantz has always struck me as more of a corporate shill than a sportscaster, and you get the sense that his excitement tracks more closely with a potential ratings spike than with fine play on the fairways.) In fairness, this phenomenon isn’t reserved for Augusta—Woods’ effect on TV ratings is such that every telecast is sucked into his gravitational pull until he is mathematically eliminated. But it made yesterday’s endgame, when Woods and Mickelson collapsed and three relative unknowns vied in a playoff, seem like it was dropped in from another tournament being played down the street.

There is no denying that Augusta National is a difficult course. Scoring under par is an accomplishment. But the announcers yesterday seemed to be swept up in the swaggering ethos of the club. The commentary was all too willing to ascribe traits like “courage” and “bravery” to golf shots. Nantz & Co.’s reaction to a short birdie putt by Mickelson—after Woods had already eagled the same hole—made it seem like Phil had just stormed the beaches at Guadalcanal. David Feherty, a witty Irishman usually not prone to such claptrap, described an even shorter putt by Cabrera in mythic terms, imagining the allegory of Courage there by the golfer’s side as he gripped his putter.

At the end of the coverage, just after Cabrera’s victory, CBS showed the final scoreboard. Somehow, the sound of a videotape on rapid rewind bled through that accursed piano by accident. It sounded like someone was yanking the needle off the record in anger. Might Cabrera, who was abandoned by his parents as a toddler and grew up in poverty, be leading a populist revolt? Then the scene cut to Nantz and club Chairman Billy Payne in front of the fireplace in Butler Cabin, where the green jacket was awarded without incident. In the context of the dire economy, the clubby scene played a little differently than in years past. Usually, it celebrates the uniqueness of the great golfers who have won the Masters. This year, it was hard not to think of the uniqueness of being rich when so many others aren’t. Old money—a tradition unlike any other.

Correction, April 27, 2009: The article originally stated that stewards quiet the galleries with signs reading, “Hush y’all.” Such signs are typically associated with the Bell South Classic, not the Masters. (Return to the corrected sentence.)