Hazard of the Masters


Much to my great surprise E.S.P.N. played Nina Simone’s recording of “A New Dawn” as a musical introduction to one of their segments while covering the first day of this years’ Masters Golf Tournament. The controversial black singer’s version of this hopeful, optimistic world view song must have had Clifford Roberts spinning in his grave. Roberts was the long time Chairman of Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia annually the site of the Masters. Roberts, who committed suicide on the course in 1977, oversaw decades of racism and misogyny at Augusta on the pretext of preserving Southern tradition.

The true construct of the Masters, played at Augusta National since 1934, has always been to showcase the lifestyle of the Southern gentleman. From the highly venerated Magnolia Lane, the Southern Yellow Brick Road, leading to the antebellum style club house, to the tradition of caddies still forced to wear gleaming white bib overalls, to censoring broadcasters from CBS, which has televised the Masters’ weekend play since 1956, forcing them to refer to the gallery as “patrons”, not “fans” and to never use the term “rough”, but rather “second cut” when a shot misses the fairway.

Clifford protected the images with a particular vengeance. Vengeance can, however, turn to venom and the Masters’ history is replete with poisonous actions.

Unlike most major golf tournaments the Masters refers to itself as an “Invitational” tournament. However, like the other golf events, some player performance criteria, such as winning certain other tour events or a player’s earnings ranking, has been in place. Some people claim these criteria were in the past changed to exclude black players such as Charlie Sifford who won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open from qualifying. While intent of these changes can be impossible to ascertain, it is true that no black played in the Masters until Lee Elder qualified in 1975.

More damning is the fact that Augusta National itself had no black members until 1991, a full 58 years after its inception. Equally disturbing to many was the club’s insistence that the golf pros use the black local caddies rather than their own caddies for the Masters. This tradition continued until 1983 well past the time all other tournaments used local caddies. So incongruous was this arrangement that John Updike wrote an essay in 1980 called “Thirteen Ways To Watch the Masters” in which he declared, “A Martian skimming overhead would have to conclude that white Earthlings hit the ball and black Earthlings fetch it.”

I can recall as a youngster watching the Masters on television in the 1950’s and 60’s that the cigarette smoking, dark skinned caddies clad in their heavy white bib overalls following the white golfers resplendent in their pastels presented a visibly plantation picture.

The Augusta National’s treatment of woman fares no better. Membership remained a privilege offered to only males for the first 79 years of the club’s existence. Pressure begun in 2002 by Martha Burke of the National Council of Women finally bore fruit when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore became the first female members in 2012. In August of 2014 a third woman, Virginia Rometty, C.E.O. of IBM joined the ranks.

So, yes, Augusta National has moved, or been forced to move, forward on social issues. Tiger Woods with his four Masters championships has blasted the racial divide. Television sponsorship boycotts during the female membership debates moved that decision along.

As an avid golf fan I watched young Jordan Spieth, from Texas, win this years’ Masters with a record tying 18 under par. As always I marveled at the courses’ beauty, meticulous condition and envied the player’s skills. Yet for me, this joy is always tempered by the unsettling history of this place. I try to embrace the hopeful words of Simone’s “A New Dawn” and the new day it extols. But, the garish memories evoked by another Simone song, the deeply dark “Strange Fruit” alluding to the lynching of blacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sits uneasily in the back of my mind.

– END –

Jim Raftus is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland.
Contact: jraftus@aol.com
Follow: whorlofwords.com

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