Critics of Georgia’s new election law are seizing on golf’s Masters Tournament to put heat on executives who belong to the storied home course, but pressuring companies to speak out by targeting their bosses is not easy because membership at Augusta National is a closely held secret.
Calls for a boycott of the tournament, now underway, percolated after Major League Baseball pulled its annual All-Star game out of Atlanta in protest of new voting rules signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp. But the effort soon fizzled, and one reason may be the club’s fierce privacy.
Nestled amid the pastoral pines and azaleas of Georgia, the Augusta National Golf Club, referred to simply as the National by members, works hard to ensure its 300 (or so) members receive the treatment and exclusivity that their power affords. The club, which is perhaps best known for hosting the annual Masters, is shrouded in lore and secrecy. Whether the executives of such Georgia-based companies as United Airlines, Coca-Cola, and others who have taken a stance on the Peach State’s new laws are members is unclear.
The Augusta National, founded by legendary amateur golfer Bobby Jones and investment banker Clifford Roberts, first opened in 1932. Roberts served as the chairman of the Masters from 1934 to 1976, during which time the allure of the winter retreat for the wealthy and powerful grew, as did his friendship with former President Dwight Eisenhower, who helped build prestige for the club and used it as a personal escape during his presidency.
One cannot simply become a member of the club by having money or power or by knowing those with money or power. Membership is strictly by invitation only. And if a person makes it known of his or her desire to become part of the fabled club, or actively seeks membership, the person will likely not receive an invitation.
Membership to the most exclusive golf club in the world is not as expensive as other elite venues. While exact dollar amounts are strictly bound by secrecy, one member told Golf Digest under the condition of anonymity that a decade ago, it was in the “low five figures,” and annual dues are reportedly just “a few thousand dollars.” By contrast, the Liberty National Golf Club charged nearly $500,000 in initiation fees in 2009 (Liberty National would not reveal its current fee when contacted by the Washington Examiner).
Membership at Augusta National has also been fraught with controversy. Lee Elder, who was honored during the Masters opening ceremony on Thursday, was the first black golfer to compete in the tourney back in 1975. Until 1982, when competitors were first allowed to bring their own caddies, all of the caddies were black. The club didn’t open its doors to any black members until 1990, and it only handed out its first invitations to female members in 2012.
But what does membership provide?
Members of the Augusta National have access to its legendary golf course and facilities from mid-October until late May. The course itself does not have a difficulty rating, further adding to its mystique, although estimates have been made. Keeping with its idyllic vibe, every hole is named after flowers located on the property: Magnolia, Juniper, Camellia, etc.
Much goes on behind the scenes to maintain the club’s almost unbelievably bucolic exterior. It has been reported that Augusta National paints patches of grass that appear off in order to maintain verdant uniformity, the ponds used to be dyed blue, and there have been rumors that artificial bird noises are piped into the course through speakers hidden in the foliage. The club’s pine straw is also imported and spread across the grounds, and the sand inside the bunkers is not actually sand, but rather quartz shipped in from a mine in North Carolina.
Security at the property is tight, and those working at the guardhouse reportedly know each member by sight. Members, who are given their signature green jackets after joining, are allowed to bring guests, known as patrons, with them to golf. The patrons are also permitted to play without a member present, although that member must be somewhere on the property at the time. Rounds of golf are escapist in nature, with cellphones and electronic devices absolutely prohibited at the club under penalty of removal.
Membership also affords access to the clubhouse — which is elegant and refined, but also understated and cozy. The three-story building is a Southern manor first built as the home for a plantation owner back in 1854. Nowhere in sight are gilded chalices or marble columns, although the facility is filled with treasures.
The clubhouse brings together some of the world’s most powerful people to drink and dine with one another. Rigid fraternity-like rules, many unspoken, permeate the walls of the building despite its casual, clubby persona.
“Dad was not a humble man, but he was always nervous at Augusta. He didn’t want to break a rule. The club turned these high-powered men into boys,” one person whose father was a member told the New Yorker.
The Trophy Room, which features portraits of Eisenhower, Jones, and Roberts, is perhaps the most exclusive place to dine on the property. There is a legend that the eyes on the paintings follow people no matter where they stand inside the room, according to the Augusta Chronicle. The Trophy Room includes the permanent Masters trophy, among other pieces of art and memorabilia from the history of golf.
The club’s library is similarly busting with history and houses a desk that Eisenhower once used. The locker room is a members-only space where they can huddle for private conversation and also eat breakfast or lunch.
Another unique feature of the clubhouse is the Crow’s Nest. Perched atop the Champions Locker Room, the Crow’s Nest is a living quarters that can fit up to five people. The room, which is certainly not opulent and is divided by cubicles, traditionally houses the amateur competitors who make the Masters cut. Golf legends, including Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, have all stayed inside the Crow’s Nest while competing as amateurs.
Along with the clubhouse, members gain access to 10 exclusive cabins nestled about the property. Members, their families, and patrons can stay in the units while visiting the course. Like most things at the course, the upfront costs are low, with a reported nightly price tag of just over $100. The cabins are also named after important figures to the club, including one designed specifically to house Eisenhower.
Each year, the Masters thrusts Augusta National into the spotlight. Hundreds of patrons descend upon the area to watch the tournament, but some receive even more exclusivity than others at a little-known refuge called Berckman’s Place. The hospitality area, which is reportedly 90,000 square feet and cost $30 million to build, is only open for one week each year.
Entrance into Berckman’s is rumored to cost $6,000 or more for the week (or for the day depending on the source), but once inside, there are no prices on the menus at any of its four restaurants. The facility, the walls of which are lined with historic memorabilia, also holds perfect replicas of Augusta National’s No. 7, No. 14, and No. 16 putting greens, where those invited into the club within a club can practice their shot with the best putters money can buy.
This year’s Masters will be the first held with spectators since 2019. Last year’s tournament was postponed from April to November because of the COVID-19 pandemic and was held without fans. While the identities of most of the roughly 300 Augusta National members remain a guarded secret, if they attend the tournament, they are required to don their distinctive green jackets — the only time the outside world may catch a glimpse of the who’s who in this elite group.
The club and tournament faced scrutiny in the lead-up to this year’s competition from liberal activists who were pushing members to denounce the tournament over Georgia’s voting law. Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also pressured executives, including Major League Baseball CEO Rob Manfred, to drop their membership after the MLB moved its All-Star Game and draft out of the state in protest.
Other known members include Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Atlanta Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk. The Washington Examiner attempted to find out if they will be attending this year’s Masters but didn’t receive responses.
Coca-Cola, which is now the target of a boycott led by former President Donald Trump over its statements about the voting law, is based in Atlanta and has had executives on Augusta National’s roster in the past. When contacted by the Washington Examiner to inquire about if its executives have ties to the Masters, a spokesperson for Coca-Cola emphasized that the company does not sponsor the tournament and said that it generally does not reveal information about its executives.
The Washington Examiner has reached out to other companies, such as Delta Air Lines, AT&T, and IBM, to see if their executives are members and, if so, would be attending this year’s Masters.
Augusta National itself has kept about its private nature and refused to take a public stand on the law other than to say its members support voting rights. It has opted instead to focus on this week’s tournament and not bow to outside forces, a tack very similar to the traditional, insular nature surrounding just about everything about the elite club.
“We realize that views and opinions on this law differ, and there have been calls for boycotts and other punitive measures. Unfortunately, those actions often impose the greatest burdens on the most vulnerable in our society,” said Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley.
Ridley added that while he knows some people want Augusta to take a stand, he doesn’t think it would “be helpful to ultimately reaching a resolution.”