Golfnutter: It’s Masters time


Thursday 9 April sees the start of the year’s first major, the Masters.  We take a look at some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the running of the Masters, and look at certain facets which help set Augusta National apart.

Golfers who have written about their real-life experience of Augusta National invariably refer to it is a memory much cherished.  That the drive from the entrance-way, down past the magnolias, is but the start of a wondrous visual experience.  While I am sure the spectacular display of flora is breathtaking, especially when you’re close enough to smell it, what would interest me more is the grass, especially the Bentgrass on each of those putting surfaces.  As many an expert will attest, their nuances hold the key to triumph or disaster.

It is not just about how one plays Augusta’s greens that can invite trouble, it is also about how one describes them.  In 1956, CBS was first awarded TV broadcast rights to the Masters, but only for a period of one year.  That 12-month contract has been renewed every year since.  Most broadcasters offer mega-bucks to secure long-term rights to show golf’s majors, but Augusta is a hugely rich private club unlikely to be swayed by money.  What they do want is a presentation that fits their image of how Augusta should be viewed, and spoken about.

Restrictions placed on CBS include minimal commercial interruption, currently limited to four minutes per hour – a lot less than the US norm of 12 (offshore viewers may not get the benefit of this).  Unlike other courses that host majors, Augusta limits those permitted inside the ropes to competitors, caddies and rules officials only.  When watching a Masters broadcast, you will see little evidence of cameramen, microphone jockeys, sign-bearers or reporters.  And coverage showing messy TV cables sneaking into view – well, that is completely forbidden.

These and many other restrictions exemplify the fact that CBS’s broadcast of the Masters is always subject to compliance with Augusta’s strict requirements.  And in case the broadcaster forgets their place in the scheme of things, they are reminded when the contract is reviewed, every 12 months.  This is a major reason why the Masters is, year in and year out, television’s best presented golf tournament.

Regardless of what aspect most takes your fancy, the presentation of the entire golf course, whether in real-life or on TV, is a sight to behold.  I have often wondered how Augusta goes about its agronomic challenges, how it manages to have the dogwoods and azaleas flower just so, at the right time, every year.  And those greens – how do they have them so wickedly fast yet still able to grip a ball that has been crisply struck, thus rewarding the good golf shot but penalising the not-so-good?

Starting immediately after the completion of a Masters tournament, members have just a month before the course will close for renovation and maintenance work over the summer.  It will not re-open until October.  That’s right; Augusta National does not permit play from late May through to October.

During this time the greens will be subjected to continuous coring, and top-dressing if appropriate.  This is a period where the weather is at its hottest and most humid, with the threat from disease a real concern.  Shade tents and fans are installed on the greens to supplement the internal cooling systems – a system of sunken pipes that allows for warming or cooling through what is known as SubAir equipment.

As March approaches the maintenance programmes intensify.  The mowing regime is increased to produce the most pure ryegrass and bent surfaces possible.  Green speeds are closely monitored ensuring consistency, day to day and green to green.  The results are recorded and maintenance practices are modified to achieve ‘membership speeds’ or ‘tournament speeds’ – which are a closely guarded secret.  It has been assessed by notable experts watching the Masters over recent years, that variance in speeds over all eighteen greens rarely exceeds four inches on the Stimpmeter.  To those who know a little about greens maintenance, this is a phenomenal statistic.

Aussie green-keeper, Daniel Cook, recalls the time he was put in charge of the back nine greens leading up to and including the 2007 Masters:

“It was an amazing experience to take greens that far and not go over the edge.  The pressure was immense and anything less than perfect was unacceptable.  It was an awesome experience and I am definitely one of a privileged few.

“I will take many things away from my time at Augusta.  While the agronomics were second to none, the most important lesson I learnt was that it’s the small things that count.  Attention to detail is what separates the excellent from the exceptional.  Sometimes these can be so small that you don’t even recognise them.  I also learnt that planning is the cornerstone of success.

“It was a sad day to walk out of Augusta National for the last time.  It was very emotional to return my keys and credentials and know that I didn’t have access to the amazing facility that is Augusta National.  I will always smile as I embark on my challenging new role back in Australia with the experiences at Augusta strongly in my memory.  The road to Augusta National and beyond has been the experience of a life time.”

It appears golfers are not the only professionals in awe of Augusta National.  Indeed, the challenge issued each year to the world’s best golfers, appears also to extend to a dedicated team of green staff.  If Daniel Cook is to be believed, the motivation for Augusta’s agronomists to perform is every bit as strong as it is for the pros.

Little wonder the Masters presents as it does – year on year.