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FOCUS ON GOLF: THE 62ND MASTERS

The Suits Behind the Green Jacket

What's the Real Story at Augusta? Members Know, but They're Not Telling

April 09, 1998|STEVE EUBANKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Locals in Augusta call them "greencoats," a reference to their Kelly-green sport coats with the curiously tacky club logo emblazoned on the breast. Only members (honorary and otherwise) may wear the jackets and only then while on club grounds. The only exception to that rule is made for the defending Masters champion, who may keep his coat for the year he defends, after which it goes into the closet back at the club.

It seems like a silly rule, with even sillier consequences. To run across Washington Road to the grocer while wearing the coveted coat could result in expulsion from the club, a fate those allowed to don the green jacket fear more than death.

The men who make and enforce these rules are, of course, the 300 or so members of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters tournament. Wearing golf shirts and stately countenances to match their green jackets, this elite group hibernates behind the magnolias and dogwoods of its 365-acre golf oasis, only to come out once a year for the annual spring party.

Their by-laws (or customs, as they're called in Augusta) require members to remain close-mouthed about what goes on inside the club. In fact, the mantra given to any and all questions is, "Mr. Jack Stephens is chairman of Augusta National, and he will address all issues relating to the club."

But not really. The members at east Georgia's most exclusive private establishment are secretive, clannish and some of the most powerful men in America. At least one presidency of the United States is beholden to the members at Augusta. They are also responsible for some of the TV policies of one major network, as well as a number of the standards of professional golf such as gallery ropes and red-numbered scoreboards that have become commonplace today.

While you rarely see the greencoats, during Masters week, when they do come out to see their shadows, you find that they look like typical, gray-haired, private-club golfers--no auras, halos, horns or tails. It could be a Chamber of Commerce cocktail party, were it not for the setting and the fact that the men in the green coats are calling all the shots.

Don't be deceived. While the event they host is, by far, the most-anticipated golf tournament of the season, the players, advertisers, networks, U.S. Golf Assn., Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the PGA Tour have absolutely nothing to do with it. The members at Augusta National, the greencoats, try--with more than a little success--to control everything the public sees, hears, reads and thinks about their annual invitational tournament.

If you doubt that members of a golf club, no matter how good it might be, can wield that kind of power, look no further than the lap-dog treatment Augusta National and its members have always received from the media. Frank Deford, writer and HBO essayist, says "No sporting event in America, if indeed the whole world, has benefited from such a sweetheart press."

Among those who fall duplicitously in lock step with whatever the members at Augusta say is CBS, the network that has been beaming the Masters into living rooms since 1958. As Deford puts it, "The Masters controls television in a fashion that would make Nikita Khrushchev raise up from his grave with envy."

It has always been that way in Augusta. During the autocratic reign of the club's first chairman, Clifford Roberts, Augusta National not only dictated policy to the media (including CBS), it controlled the amount of advertising the network would sell, whom they would sell it to and what the advertisers could say. When American Express dropped out as a sponsor, it was Roberts, not CBS, who replaced it with Cadillac. He made this change by calling Cadillac President Don Aherns and saying, "You're it." Cadillac, along with Traveler's Insurance, has been "it" ever since.

Roberts also insisted that CBS severely limit commercial breaks during the Masters; the four minutes allowed per hour are by far the fewest in any major sporting event. But it wasn't enough for the Masters to be essentially commercial-free; Roberts insisted in 1966 that CBS make a special announcement at the opening of every telecast advising viewers of the club's benevolent commercial policy. At first, Roberts demanded that the network send Walter Cronkite down to Augusta for this 30-second plug. After more than a few coughs and throat-clearing grunts, CBS executives told Roberts that Cronkite was unavailable.

Not to be deterred, Roberts insisted that Alistair Cooke be sent down. Cooke declined. Worried that "Mr. Cliff," as they called him, might blow a gasket if this problem were not remedied, CBS offered to send one of television's entertainment icons, and a man who loved golf: Ed Sullivan. Roberts' terse reply was, "Hell no. Sullivan uses monkeys in his program."

Eventually, a little-known newsman from New York made the announcement, which has now been taken over by Augusta officials.

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