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Commentary

The Masters loves its traditions. But can Augusta National really reconcile with the political reality?

A stroll down Magnolia Lane can be nostalgic, though a stop sign appears on the road, a notice from Augusta National.
A stroll down Magnolia Lane can be nostalgic, though a stop sign appears on the road, a notice from Augusta National.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The beauty of the Masters is that it is timeless.

The burden of the Masters is that it has allowed itself to be stuck in time.

And each year, when the famously private Augusta National Golf Club opens its gates to host the first major tournament of the season, the past and the present have a way of colliding in dramatic fashion, sparking yearly conversations that reckon with the club’s history of racism, sexism, classism, and elitism or push forward with the club’s efforts in diversity, inclusion, reparation, and growth. Sometimes, we even talk about golf.

As we emerge from a pandemic that shifted last year’s Masters to a one-time November tee off and return to the traditional April start, the backdrop of politics is once again strong, this time centering on the state of Georgia and its recent passage of the Election Integrity Act, a collection of changes to the state’s voting laws that threaten to suppress voting predominantly in communities of color. Major League Baseball responded unequivocally, pulling the All-Star Game from Atlanta and moving it to Denver. Many corporations headquartered in the state have made statements against the bill, including heavyweights Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines.

The Masters will make no such dramatic Georgia exit. It wouldn’t be the Masters anywhere else but in Augusta. Unlike a one-time reward like a baseball All-Star Game, the permanence is the point. Time can only stand still in familiar surroundings.

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Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley made that position clear in the annual Wednesday morning state of the Masters news conference, but he also made it clear he would not be taking his membership into the deep end of this political pool. Ridley closed his opening statement with a brief comment on the controversy.

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“I believe, as does everyone in our organization, that the right to vote is fundamental in our democratic society. No one should be disadvantaged in exercising that right, and it is critical that all citizens have confidence in the electoral process. This is fundamental to who we are as a people,” he said. “We realize that views and opinions on this law differ, and there have been calls for boycotts and other punitive measures.

“Unfortunately, those actions often impose the greatest burdens on the most vulnerable in our society. And in this case, that includes our friends and neighbors here in Augusta who are the very focus of the positive difference we are trying to make.”

Pressed later for a definitive stance, Ridley said, “I don’t think that my opinion on this legislation should shape the discussion … For us to make a proclamation on this. I just don’t think that is going to be helpful to ultimately reaching a resolution.”

Other corporate entities obviously felt differently, but Augusta National is nothing if not isolationist, willing and happy to ignore outside noise while freezing its hallowed traditions.

How else could it sell its memories of a sports world where simplicity reigned and social media didn’t? The same 60 trees that were planted in the 1850s still line Magnolia Lane, the road that serves as the main entrance to the course. The same hand-operated wooden scoreboards that sprout amid the 18 pristine golf holes remain the only way to know the score of the tournament. Pimento cheese sandwiches still sell for $1.50, patrons (not fans) are still barred from running, and phone calls are limited to the various banks of landlines that allow free long distance calls. Cellphones are not allowed.

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When those private gates swing free, a door to history opens in a way that separates the Masters from anything else in golf. Past champions are deified in equal measure, whether they be all-timers such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods or one-timers such as Charl Schwartzel and Danny Willett, their accomplishments preserved not by a screenshot on a phone or by a tweet on the web, but in the memory of a roar or the reverence of a whisper. The near-spiritual experience competitors feel when they reenter the grounds lives in declarations such as the one Lee Westwood made this week: “There is nowhere else like Augusta.”

But the truth is, there are still too many places like Augusta, places where barriers remain and exclusion reigns. For all the love and devotion to the golf we see this week, there is an understandable flipside of discomfort and need to reckon with an ugly past.

Augusta is the same place that stubbornly stood by its exclusionary ways for so long. Founded in 1932 by legendary golfer Bobby Jones and New York banker Clifford Roberts, the Masters mandated all Black caddies until 1983, with Roberts infamously credited with insisting his chairmanship would forever include only white members and only Black caddies.

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Augusta did not have a Black competitor until Lee Elder played in 1975, notoriously denying Charlie Sifford in 1967 despite Sifford having won two PGA events that year, fulfilling traditional qualifying standards. The club did not admit a Black member until 1990 and finally capitulated to public pressure by adding two women members in 2012. The green jackets who roam the grounds during the tournament are predominantly older, white men, while the workers who serve them remain mostly young and Black.

The stubborn disregard for female membership led to a particularly ugly chapter, fueled by former club chairman Hootie Johnson and his nemesis, Martha Burk. The Burke-led protests not only elicited Johnson’s steadfast refusal to be moved to action “at the point of a bayonet” but made him so incalcitrant that the 2003 Masters was televised without commercials. Augusta funded the entire operation itself rather than feel even an ounce of outside pressure from corporate interests.

Slowly, however, the club moved forward. It added a women’s amateur event in 2019, with the final round played on the Saturday prior to the Masters. It sponsors a youth-infused Drive, Chip, and Putt championship. It funded men’s and women’s programs at nearby Paine College to increase minority participation in the game, and traditionally welcome amateur champions from around the globe as part of the Masters field. This year, it invited Elder to join Nicklaus and Gary Player on the ceremonial first tee. Commendable? Yes. But long overdue? Also yes.

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Cameron Champ, the 25-year old Californian with a booming driver and mixed-race background, is in the field for his second career Masters. For him, celebrating Elder represents something he rarely witnessed as a rising junior golfer.

“There were no people of color. I was really the only minority, to be honest,” he said. “It’s not just in pro golf. It’s in junior golf, amateur golf, women’s golf — it’s the whole aspect of golf. Like I said, it’s a great start, but I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, but hopefully in the next. Things have to go in the proper directions in order for it to happen.”

Golf might feel like the last place to look to for progress, and Augusta might be the last place in golf to look to as an agent of change. But it is trying. Even as the PGA Tour maintained its Georgia presence for the Tour Championship (and really, if golf moves out, what about the Braves? Or the Falcons? Or the Dream? Or professional soccer, or for that matter, symphony houses and theaters?), its statement included the following:

“Our intention to stage an event in a particular market should not be construed as indifference to the current national conversation around voting rights. The PGA Tour fully supports efforts to protect the right of all Americans to vote and to eliminate any barriers that may prevent citizens’ voices from being heard and counted. It is the foundation of our great country and a critical national priority to listen to the concerns about voter suppression — especially from communities of color that have been marginalized in the past — and work together to make voting easier for all citizens.”

Augusta National did not co-sign, choosing instead to go it alone. But once again, as is so often the case here, issues outside the gates make their way inside anyway. Like the tournament’s own slogan tells us, it’s a tradition unlike any other.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.