April 9, 1999
Just about every golfer thinks they know Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament. Thanks to decades of television coverage, with very little effort even casual golfers can describe the last nine holes and how they should be played.
Far fewer people can describe the total Masters experience, especially from an historical or sociological perspective. Fewer still can place that experience in the context of the town of Augusta, Georgia, home of the tournament.
Curt Sampson’s book does this, and more.
The Masters is a blend of character studies. The town of Augusta is portrayed here as a sort of character itself. Sampson details the city’s history before and after the Tournament’s creation. The book sets out the complex interplay between a club that desires a very high level of privacy – except, paradoxically, for its major tournament – and a southern city that depends on the tournament and yet can’t be part of it.
As with most portraits of the American South, race issues are a continuing theme running through many of these chapters. Sampson uses stories of locals such as Beau Jack, a former champion boxer, and James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” to illustrate the world just outside Magnolia Lane and its connections to the golfing world at the end of that boulevard.
In many respects, the Augusta portions of the book will remind readers of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the long-time bestseller about nearby Savannah, Georgia. The parallels are striking between Savannah’s high society, the Augusta club members, and the two groups’ interactions with the respective locals in both towns.
Much of the book is devoted to the personal histories of club founders Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones. Jones is among the great tragic heroes of golf, because of the debilitating disease that struck him down in his prime. Sampson is respectful of that history.
On the other hand, Roberts is a more compelling character. Deeply flawed human beings are usually more interesting than others, and Roberts was an extremely interesting person in his own right.
Sampson faced a daunting task in trying to find out enough information from guarded sources to provide a rounded portrait of Roberts, and appears to have succeeded. It isn’t a pretty picture. Few people with his single-mindedness are candidates for sainthood.
On the other hand, Sampson successfully shows how and why the Masters Tournament became a major, without devoting a chapter specifically to that purpose. Three stories stand out: Art Wall’s victory in 1959; Greg Norman’s 1996 collapse and his classy response to that disaster; and Ken Venturi’s memories of his travails in the 1956 tournament. In addition, Sampson’s segment on Augusta native and 1987 Masters Champion Larry Mize is especially uplifting.
The Masters Tournament each spring benefits from the continuity of its location, the hard-fought beauty of the place, and it’s storied past. Sampson’s book provides a bit of realism to the fantasy world we see on the televised contest during Easter season.
Golfers should be grateful for this reality check, which nonetheless respects the handiwork of Augusta National’s all-too-human creators.