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  • Writer's pictureConnor Laubenstein

We Need Augusta’s Help; Or, We Don’t Need It At All

Golfers love the Masters. To some, the tournament and its annual host, Augusta National Golf Club, represent the pinnacle of perfection, and golf’s holy grail. But to many others, the Masters and Augusta are the physical manifestations of golf’s problematic history with exclusivity, entitlement, and racism. Two sides of the same, tall fence.

The club’s chairman, Fred Ridley, is a prophetic voice, whose words and actions ignite righteous fervor that a large faction of the industry emulates; as Augusta goes, so goes golf. It’s this level of quasi-blind devotion from golf enthusiasts that has sparked debate over Augusta’s reckoning with historical injustices, and if its Masters tournament should retain its current level of otherworldly exaltation. Civil rights groups have recently called for the Masters tournament to be relocated, and some members of sports media believe the tournament should be renamed.

The golf community is predictably reluctant to make these kinds of changes. In country club dining rooms and Reddit threads alike, when someone pushes against exclusionary practices at Augusta and the Masters, it’s often met with pro-traditionalism talking points. But there's ample space to address past injustices and present-day reparations as a lead-up to the 2021 Masters tournament next week.

The Masters dates back to 1934—an era worlds apart from today’s social context. Yet, until recently, little had been done to close the inclusivity gap.

Augusta National’s co-founder Clifford Roberts reportedly once said, "As long as I'm alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black." The club only admitted its first Black member in 1990, and didn’t allow women to join until 2012. It took 41 years for the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters, when Lee Elder stepped onto the tee in 1975. For this, he received death threats.

Now at 86, Elder will become an honorary starter for the 2021 tournament in April, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in hitting ceremonial shots off the first tee. In addition to making Elder a starter, Chairman Ridley said the club would provide two golf scholarships at nearby HBCU, Paine College, and also fund a new women's golf program at the school. Most recently, the club and its corporate partners announced a $10 million gift to renew two under-resourced neighborhoods in its home city.

Augusta Chairman, Fred Ridley (left), named Lee Elder (right) an honorary 2021 Masters starter.

For Augusta, these reparative actions are steps in the right direction, but long overdue. The question looms: why now? Why not 10 years ago? Why not 20? Augusta’s communications team might answer that the decision to support the next generations of Black golfers and honor Elder was sparked by the 45th anniversary of his groundbreaking Masters appearance. Timelines might suggest that the move was an attempt to ride the larger trend of the sporting world’s racial awakenings, scrambling to make compromises on larger societal demands for equality. In addition to the NBA, NFL, and NASCAR, the Masters, too, has been called on to make changes.

Deadspin contributor, Rob Parker, published a piece in June 2020, titled “We’ve Lived with the Masters Name Long Enough”. Parker grinds his axe on the racist and slaveholders’ connotations he associates with “The Masters”, suggesting the tournament should return to its original name, the Augusta National Invitational Tournament. Parker received an inordinate amount of backlash, mainly at the hands of white male bloggers who fetched their internet torches in defense of something few of them will likely ever see in person, let alone experience.

Let’s be clear: changing the name of a building, removing a public statue, or renaming a golf tournament is not revising history—that history very much still exists. It’s instead the recognition that the statues we erected, the men we valorized, were deeply, unforgivably flawed—regardless of the cultural context they existed within. It’s the acceptance that those characters should no longer hold exalted positions atop our awnings or at the center of our traffic circles.

James Baldwin spoke to the reality of racist institutions in a 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show.

“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions… I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me—that doesn’t matter—but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.”

James Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show, 1968.

Baldwin could have said the same about the institution of golf: that the systemic denial of Black people—and other underrepresented groups, more broadly—from playing the game, signals a targeted effort to maintain segregation and preserve white-dominated spaces. In golf, it doesn’t stop at the Masters. From 1934 to 1961, the PGA once upheld a “Caucasian clause”, which prohibited people of color from becoming members of the organization.

Augusta’s devout commitment to keeping people outside its gates has driven fanatic allure from the golf community since its founding. But why do we collectively drool over something that actively doesn’t want us in return? At the heart of it, we want what we can’t have.

The Masters tournament each year is Augusta’s form of dropping dopamine-soaked bread crumbs that keep us coming back to ogle at its dyed fairways and creeks. At its best, Augusta is the aloof high school crush you can’t stop thinking about, and ultimately wants little to do with you. At its worst, it airs its abusive underbelly on full display.

Augusta National is undeniably beautiful. The Masters tournament has yielded some of the most memorable storylines in professional golf. But does this fetishized bastion of traditionalism in golf love you back? To this, I say, “We’re watching. We’re listening.” Current acts of reparation should be just the tip of the iceberg. If golf is to continue on its path toward inclusivity, we need the drive of Augusta’s cultural influence engine. Or, we don’t need it at all.


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