Masters mystique continues to grow

Top 10 Masters Rounds: Tiger Woods (1997 3rd Round) (1:12)

Tom Rinaldi and Andy North look back on the third round of the 1997 Masters, which saw Tiger Woods shoot a 65 to increase his lead and go on to win the Masters by 12 strokes. (1:12)

From Gene Sarazen's double-eagle at the par-5 15th hole in 1935 to Bubba Watson's 50-yard hook from the woods on the second playoff hole in 2012, the Masters owns an outsized proportion of golf's most memorable moments.

The 1986 tournament was the first time I fully considered the greatness of the event. Jack Nicklaus shot a back-nine 30 on Sunday to win his sixth green jacket at the age of 46.

That was my favorite Masters until Tiger Woods' historic 12-shot win in 1997.

A year earlier, when Greg Norman squandered a six-shot lead in the final round, I turned away from the TV as if I were watching a horror movie.

We remember these flashes of the game's storied past mostly because of the players and the setting. The Augusta National Golf Club is the only major venue that never changes.

The tournament's mystique is shrouded in its exclusivity and traditions that date to its start in 1934. Rick Smith describes being at the Masters as almost like an out-of-body experience. "You feel different when you're there," said the noted swing instructor, who worked with Phil Mickelson during two of his three Masters wins.

The aura of the place begins to take shape on Magnolia Lane, the 330-yard driveway that takes players to the clubhouse under a canopy of magnolia trees. For the players, the drive down the lane is the beginning of a wonderland tour.

"Your sense of arrival is a lesson in an entrance," Smith said. "It's not like you are on a highway and boom, you're on a golf course. Your sense of entry is amazing."

The Masters signals the arrival of spring with blooming shrubs and flowers that recall a time when the 365-acre property was one of the biggest horticulture centers in the South during the 19th century.

"People are getting out of the winter, happy to get on the golf course," said David Duval, who twice finished second in 11 appearances at the Masters. "And you turn on your television and see this giant green carpet with trees growing out of it."

When I asked 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh what made the tournament special, he told me it was that everything was green, almost to say that the event was responsible for the popularity of the color.

Of course, all of this stagecraft is carefully controlled and rigorously monitored by the Augusta National members. Peter Nanula, chairman of Concert Golf Partners (a private equity firm that operates golf courses), recently told Golf Digest that Augusta National is the "most profitable and most liquid club on the planet."

The membership, which includes Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, consists mostly of corporate titans who treat this club almost like a secret society. Standing out in their green jackets during the week of the Masters, they go about in an understated business-like manner, performing rituals and chores that have been passed down through the years. Discreetly, they continue to purchase hundreds of acres around the club.

Most of the famous members stay away from the Masters, either because they don't want to do some of the mandatory committee work of tournament week, or because they don't want to be a distraction. President Dwight Eisenhower, an Augusta National member, never went to the Masters during his two terms in the White House for the latter reason.

"The members have done a great job at protecting that history and tradition," Smith said. "You can't play it or see it 51 weeks out of the year. It's hard to even get a practice-round ticket. The more they protect its exclusivity, the better it is."

Smith explains that Augusta has its challenges to deal with. "As a teacher, it's the only event where I can't walk inside the ropes with my players during a practice round. You would like to get up closer to your students. But you respect the rules. You have to embrace it. If you want to fight it, don't go."

Davis Love III would love to bring some of Augusta National's rules and etiquette to his tour event, the McGladrey Classic, which is held in November on Sea Island, Ga.

"The rules at Augusta make it feel more special," said Love, who has two second-place finishes in 19 starts at the tournament. "You go in the locker room. It's just the players. It's not a bunch of people hanging out. You're in some member's locker that you might be sharing with another player."

Perhaps the most meaningful expression of the club's exclusive traditions for the players is its refusal to expand the field beyond the 90 to 95 that it annually invites. The three other majors have closer to the typical 144-man fields of most PGA Tour events.

"But you still got the top 70 players in the world in the Masters," said Chad Campbell, who was in that 2009 playoff at Augusta, won by Angel Cabrera. "It's not like somebody got [cheated] getting into the tournament. If they ever expanded the field to 144, that would take away some of the mystique of the event. You had a good year if you are in the Masters."

Everything from the size of the field to the number of tickets sold is deftly controlled to protect the 7,435-yard golf course, the Alister MacKenzie masterpiece that is the most sacred asset of the club.

The first time I walked the course, I felt like I was trespassing on a place that was too precious for divots, spike marks, mud, litter, footprints or stadium seating. Every hole tells a story that's inscribed in the annals of Masters history, especially once you reach the back nine into Amen Corner at holes 11, 12 and 13.

"Augusta National is a unique course in the world of golf," said Stewart Cink, who first played the course while he was attending Georgia Tech. "That's what makes the tournament so different."

"Bobby Jones and the members are a big part of the club's mystique," he added. "But most of the players these days don't know that much about Jones. What everybody knows, though, is the golf course."

And then there are the roars. No place in golf produced roars like Augusta. You knew the roars that came with a Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson birdie because they echoed all over.

"It's quieter now," Smith said. "The place was set up for birdies. Now it's got to be spectacular for the roars because it's such a harder golf course."

The course has had to evolve to keep pace with chiefly technological advancements in the ball that once threatened to reduce Augusta National to a pitch-and-putt for the long-hitting contemporary players. But the foundation of the layout, its perfectly manicured rolling hills and diabolical green complexes, are as the club's founders envisioned 80 years ago.

"The maintenance of the course is the best," said Smith, who is also a course architect. "But there are good and bad things to this. The bad thing architecturally is that as the game progresses, not everybody can sustain a golf course that's green wall-to-wall like Augusta, which influences what a lot of owners want to do.

"It's great for the mystique, but owners have to look at if they are trying to grow the game into what's most cost effective."

Unfortunately, the mystique of exclusivity in the club has come at the expense of inclusion.

The Masters didn't include an African-American player until 1975 with Lee Elder. Augusta National didn't invite a black member until Ron Townsend, a Gannett media executive, joined the club in 1990. And women didn't break in until 2013, with the admission of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and powerful financier Darla Moore.

More recently, the club has been reaching out to the world. In an effort to promote the game in Asia, the tournament has offered the winner of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship a spot in the Masters field since 2009. To grow the game in Latin America, it has helped create a similar amateur event, the winner of which will receive an exemption into the Masters.

This year, the club will host during tournament week the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, which will gather boys and girls ages 7 to 15 for a nationwide junior skills competition.

These moves reflect the global reach and vision of the club, burnishing its reputation as the mecca of the sport and the leader in a golf industry-wide effort to grow the game.

"Augusta National has almost become a governing body of the game," said Justin Rose, the reigning U.S. Open champion. "They have so much clout and power around the world."

But nothing looms larger than the club's invitational every April. We're in awe about what has already happened there, yet the mystique continues to grow every year.

Hopefully, my new favorite Masters will become the one that begins April 10.