Augusta National's Golf Elite Face Questions on Race and Power

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It’s the mean green season in Augusta, Georgia. On Thursday, the most exclusive golf club in the U.S. opens its hedge-covered gates to several thousand of the paying public to stroll among its storied azaleas and dogwoods and gush over 18 of the most finely manicured holes in the sport.

The Masters Tournament also provides small businesses in Augusta an opportunity to earn a substantial share of their annual income in just one week. Local entrepreneurs cater private parties around town, wait tables and bartend at packed restaurants, and rent out their homes to professional golfers and corporate executives. The hotels in town justify their existence, with 7,000 rooms fully booked and $1.4 million in sales taxes going to the city.

Augusta National's Golf Elite Face Questions on Race and Power

According to the Augusta mayor’s office, this year’s tournament will have a crowd of about 20% of its full capacity. In the years before the pandemic, the tournament’s 30,000 daily attendees included top executives, sports stars, celebrities and those fortunate enough to pay an average of $4,000 for a single ticket for the four-day competition.

In a colonial river city where Black people comprise two-thirds of more than 200,000 residents, this is American exclusivity at its zenith. An iconic tournament that takes place on a onetime plantation has White privilege and segregation deeply rooted in its existence.

“Everyone associated with Augusta National is in pursuit of power,” said Wendell Haskins, a former PGA of America executive and an outspoken advocate for diversity in golf. “It’s American. It’s privilege. It’s power. And there’s an illusion of inclusion.”

This year’s Masters takes place against a complicated backdrop of economic recovery from a global pandemic, social unrest following the death of George Floyd, and controversial new voting legislation in Georgia. With looming threats of boycotts against corporate sponsors, and days after Major League Baseball moved this year’s All-Star Game out of the state, Augusta National’s chairman Fred Ridley on Wednesday addressed the issue without taking a position.

Everyone at Augusta National, he said, believes “that the right to vote is fundamental in our democratic society.” As for any potential impact on the tournament, Ridley said the calls for boycotts “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.”

Augusta National's Golf Elite Face Questions on Race and Power

The knot of power, politics and social issues has created something that Augusta prides itself on avoiding: Complications for its members. The roster of an estimated 300 names includes Bill Gates, Condoleezza Rice, and Warren Buffett. Supporters of Georgia’s GOP-backed voting legislation have asked MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who made the decision to the move the game out of the state, if he will also relinquish his membership at Augusta. “As you are aware, the exclusive members-only club is located in the State of Georgia,” Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio wrote in a letter to Manfred. So far, Manfred has not announced any plans to resign from Augusta National.

Of the 72 Black executives and board members who signed a public letter last week criticizing the Georgia law, at least three, including former American Express chief executive officer Ken Chenault, are members at Augusta. The club admitted its first black member in 1990, media executive Ron Townsend, and there are an estimated nine Black members at Augusta National today. David Grain, founder and owner of a private equity firm that specializes in telecommunications, is the club’s newest Black member, having just joined in recent months.

Long-standing major sponsors of The Masters include Mercedes-Benz, IBM and AT&T, and current and former executives are among the club’s members. Augusta National has always shielded itself from outside influence, even in the face of strong public criticism. When the club was being pressured to accept women as members, it chose to broadcast the tournament commercial-free, to protect sponsors from controversy. And unlike most other professional tournaments, sponsor names and logos are not plastered around the club.

Augusta National's Golf Elite Face Questions on Race and Power

The city of Augusta stands in stark contrast to the parade of wealth that descends upon the 88-year-old club each spring. Augusta's most famous native son, soul singer James Brown is immortalized in a life-size bronze statue in the center of town. Hosting the Masters year after year stimulates the local economy so much that it’s like being awarded the Super Bowl each year. “We call the Masters the thirteenth month,” said Bennish Brown, CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The international name recognition of Augusta is of a value that we can’t even put an amount on.”

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis does not deny the boost the tournament brings, but says other areas —medicine, manufacturing and cybersecurity at nearby Fort Gordon military base — are also critical. “The Masters tournament just happens to be icing on the cake,” he said. “We wear it as a badge of honor, a symbol of pride,” he added, sitting in his city hall office clad in a sweater with the Augusta National logo on his chest. Hardie, who is Black, said he would like to see more Black-owned businesses benefit from the tournament, and for someone from Augusta’s Black community become a member of the club. “That’s the next frontier in my mind,” he said.

For the past 10 years, Lenzell Ponder, a native of Augusta and owner of an iron and fabrication company, has worked at Augusta National, where his company builds temporary structures and facilities for the Master’s tournament parties and events. Ponder, who is Black, said he has a good friend who rents his home out each year for the tournament at such a premium that he earns enough to cover his mortgage for half a year. The friend, he said, uses a rental agent to remain anonymous and makes sure his house shows no signs of being owned by a Black person, to avoid diminishing its rental value. 

Augusta National's Golf Elite Face Questions on Race and Power

Last year, when the tournament was cancelled in April and then moved to September, Ponder and others took an economic hit. “We didn’t have any work last year,” he said. This year, with a limited crowd size, Ponzer is working at the club again, “but it’s not as busy as it usually is,” he said.

Christy Beckham, an Augusta real estate agent who owns Par 3 Rentals, a company that manages Master’s week rentals for homeowners, said that her business is operating at about 25% capacity this year. Her customers include pros playing in the tournament and members of Augusta National. “Last year was tough,” she said. “Business isn’t that much better but there are a limited number of corporate clients making moves and trying to entertain.”

When the club was first established by golf great Bobby Jones and Wall Street banker Cliff Roberts in 1933, its members were the rich White elite from around the country. The people who worked at the club — cleaning, cooking, waiting tables and shining golf shoes — were all Black residents of Augusta. A premier job was to caddie, and for many years the pros who arrived to play at The Masters were required to use caddies from among the club’s all-Black staff.

Augusta National's Golf Elite Face Questions on Race and Power

Roberts famously said, “As long as I’m alive, all golfers will be White and all the caddies will be Black.” Roberts died in 1977, only two years after the club invited its first Black golfer, Lee Elder, to play in the tournament. In 1997, Tiger Woods became the first Black man to win at Augusta. But as golf purses grew and the share of the pot for caddies grew as well, the rules were changed. The Black men who had carried bags for golfing greats at Augusta, imparting deep course knowledge in the process, were replaced by the nearly all-White ranks of caddies who now arrive from all over the world each year with their respective pros’ bags in tow.

This Thursday morning, at the start of the first round, Augusta National invited the 86-year-old Elder to tee up as an honorary starter. It’s the first time such an honor has gone to a Black man. Haskins, the former PGA executive who pushed for the idea and is widely credited for bringing it to fruition, will not be in attendance. Augusta National did not invite him. As Haskins said, “They would never want it to appear that I, or anyone from the outside, influenced them to do anything.”

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