AUGUSTA NATIONAL — The unseen power and wealth that coats The Masters Tournament in armour-plated civility did its job on Tuesday as the headwinds buffeting the game beyond Magnolia Lane gained in force.
Augusta National is better equipped to repel reality than the Great Gatsby and Walter Mitty combined. There are no holes in the perimeter fence of this privileged enclave.
Hours before Rory McIlroy mounted the dais to take questions from the world’s media, news leaked in London of the DP World Tour’s victory at arbitration allowing it to impose £100,000 fines on members choosing to play in LIV golf events.
Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter were among 13 tour members appealing against the sanctions. Though the outcome is not due for official confirmation until Thursday, the golfers learned of their fate quickly enough via the bush telegraph.
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And not just those on the wrong side of the ruling. McIlroy had obviously been briefed given the legalese that informed his answers.
“I don’t know if I can comment on it too much. I’m not a lawyer. But if the arbitration panel think that’s the right decision, then I have to go by what they say.”
More candidly McIlroy voiced the opinion that this ruling changes the dynamic decisively in favour of golf’s established order.
McIlroy was in his seat a full 20 minutes offering opinions on everything from how it would feel to join the pantheon here to the love of the galleries that he enjoys, from what it would take for him to win at Augusta to the rolling back of golf ball technology.
The master of ceremonies went all around the room before reluctantly alighting on the man from the Press Association, who he rightly suspected might be seeking McIlroy’s view on the dirty business outside.
We await the response from the Saudi-backed league. They had already pledged to settle any legal fees involved and will not shy from appealing the verdict.
Alternatively they could accept the outcome and simply raise the stakes by, for example, increasing the prize money at their events. Victory in court would be as nothing should the Saudi investment fund throw a few dollars more at draining the major tours of more star names.
Whilst the LIV court defeat was being digested the Saudi initiative came under renewed criticism from family members of victims of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, who gathered 200 miles to the west in Atlanta to protest against the inclusion of the Saudi-backed LIV golfers in the Masters field.
The incendiary association of American golfers with a sports league backed by a country with alleged governmental involvement in the terror attacks of September 2001, claiming the lives of 2,977 people in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, remains a potent rallying point that acquires even greater force during Masters week.
The elevation of the political discourse to a moral plane serves the interests of the established order, chipping away as it does at the legitimacy of those attempting to subvert golf’s power structures.
The PGA Tour and the DP World Tour are, however, careful not to embrace the protests too enthusiastically for fear of exposing the double standard of organisations who in the past were happy to tolerate the Saudi incursion as long as it was on their terms.
The players, aided by the surreal surroundings of Augusta National, have done their best this week to effect a new détente.
Indeed McIlroy declared he would be playing nine holes in the afternoon with Florida neighbour Brooks Koepka, winner of the third LIV Golf League event of the year in Orlando last week. The central message is that the Masters is above the cut-throat business of real life raging outside the gates.
This place is more than a golf club. It is a vision of a world that no longer exists and for the majority never did. Into this bucolic splendour reality shall not intrude. Preserved within its walls is a landscape immaculately laid out, the grass a deep, vivid green bordered by towering Georgia pines, and embroidered by magnolias, azaleas, dogwoods, rhododendrons.
CGI is redundant here, pummelled by the sheer scale of nature’s bounty. No computer generated image could compare with the real thing. The clocks have been turned back permanently to a point in the early 19th Century.
Think of the aching civility of Cheltenham or Bath during the high Georgian period when gentle folk would mingle in ballrooms and summer lawns busying themselves with parish concerns and marrying off their daughters to the identified sons of gentry.
A sense of permanence flows from the clubhouse, the oldest cement structure in the south, built in the traditional plantation style with wraparound veranda and topped by a cupola. The many “cabins” dotted about the property take their cues from the period, all painted an unblemished white. The golfers love coming here for that and the protection from intrusion it affords.
There is no running or shouting. Reporters, though housed in the most opulent media centre on the planet, complete with Palladian columns and wood panelled rooms, are kept at arms’ length, prohibited from mobile phone use outside the building and forbidden entry inside the fairway ropes, a custom observed universally elsewhere.
On Monday the gates will shut, keeping the world at bay for another 12 months until we reconvene to talk about Tiger and Jack, Arnie and Rory, history and tradition at a tournament like no other. Assuming, that is, the game survives the battle tearing it apart.