Some years back, I was stumbling around at dawn in the other worldliness of Augusta National golf course when I encountered an ebullient, utterly happy gentleman. I wished him a good morning. He beamed back. In one of the most delicious Southern accents I’ve ever heard, he exclaimed, “It’s April in Augusta! What could evah be wrong?!”
I could have offered up a couple of notions, such as the lack of good coffee at that hour around the golf course, but I didn’t want to blunt his enthusiasm for the sheer joy of smelling azalea bushes, and watching the dew glisten on greens that were as manicured and brushed as a show pony. I also didn’t want to attract attention to myself and my genuine mystification at the sheer, boundless passion this swatch of greensward, located in a town in Georgia that you might only be prompted to get off the interstate and investigate if you really needed gas, prompts in the golf crowd.
That mystification actually fueled some decent pictures during my one and only visit to Augusta National. Everything was new, and exceedingly strange to me. And, not in a bad way. I was genuinely curious about this annual ritual, and eagerly observed the proceedings. The first thing you become aware of at Augusta is the rules. There are so many of them! No cell phones is a biggie. Don’t run afoul of that one, or you’ll be shown the door. There are many others, of course. Like, photographers aren’t allowed on the course to shoot until something like 9am, or so, which exactly corresponds to the disappearance of good light. I got around this by showing up ridiculously early and going through the service entrance with other folks who were actually doing something useful, like bringing in boxes of keychains, umbrellas, wallets, hats, sunglasses, pencil sketches, all emblazoned with the Masters logo. To my recollection, you can’t order this stuff. You actually have to be at the course during Masters week to buy it. And buy it they do. The tent where all the merch is sold generally looks like the Times Square subway platform at rush hour, only more polite.
I screwed up on the rules, big time. I had seen one of Augusta’s more prominent members of their security detail at the end of a lane that was lined with trees and quite picturesque. He had a face like a basset hound, a state trooper’s hat, and was bigger than Ceelo Green. I thought, well, I’ll just go down there and ask him if I can make his picture!
He started frowning at me from about 100 yards away, and when I reached him he had his arms outstretched, palms facing me. They said stop. He looked at me. Actually, he eyeballed me. There’s a difference. “Who told you that you could walk down Magnolia Lane?” “Uh, no one, sir.”
“Do you know that no one can use Magnolia Lane except members, their guests, and past champions? And I suspect you’re not any of those things, are you?”
“Uh, no sir, I’m not.”
I love southern accents, but there’s something about being addressed this way, in a drawl, that makes you feel particularly stupid. During his line of questioning, he left unspoken, no doubt for reasons of decorum, that which he truly wished to say, which might have been along the lines of “You big city, shit for brains, dumb ass. What do you think you’re doing on my beloved Magnolia Lane?” Indeed. I had chosen to try and photograph the Lee Ermey of Augusta National.
Given the splendid start to our relationship, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I came away without a photograph. I’t didn’t help that I had trundled a four wheel cart filled with strobes and c-stands down there with me, and therefore looked for all the world like an itinerant vendor calling out “Clothes, rags, bottles!” All I was missing was a broke down nag and a wagon, a roughly painted sign and a gypsy dancing girl.
In short, I didn’t fit in at Augusta real well. Which is okay. As a photog, you are often an interloper, a stranger at least occasionally eyed with suspicion or dismay, the guy at the bar with no one to talk to. I was there courtesy of Golf Digest, and had the benefit of course of being coached by their wonderfully experienced set of staff photographers. I still screwed up, but less than I would have. But, truth be told, they actually brought me in there because golf is not my world, and the newness of it can really fuel some odd or different pictures.
I did have a good time down there, to be sure. I was fascinated by the decorum which prevails, and the fan rituals, such as rushing to locate your vantage point near one of the prime greens. Every morning of the tournament, Augusta stages its own version of the Oklahoma Land Rush. You secure your spot by placing your chair down, and that placement is respected throughout the rest of the day. To get this prime seating, you rush. You fast walk. But you do not run. Those are the rules. It’s probably a good thing, ’cause people are so keyed up for the morning opening of the course that the lords of Augusta could probably borrow the mechanism of start off from another time honored American sports classic, the Kentucky Derby, and just put these folks in chutes and ring a bell. Best they don’t do that, as most of the Augusta watchers are not exactly in thoroughbred race horse shape, and someone could get hurt, or worse, just keel over from the sheer excitement of it. The imagination I have of that happening brings me to an old golf joke about George and Harry, best friends who played a round together every Saturday morning for thirty or forty years. Upon his return home, Harry’s wife asked, “How was the golf today, dear?” He replied, “Horrible. On the third tee George had a heart attack and died!” “Oh goodness,” she exclaimed, “That’s terrible!”
“You’re tellin’ me! After that third tee, all day long, it was hit the ball and drag George! Hit the ball and drag George!”
The folks at Augusta are super nice, so I’m sure they’d drag along whoever fell down or had a heart attack racing for a good spot on the course. As long as it didn’t slow them down too much.
Passion prevails across the undulating, lushly green sweep of Augusta National. Passion and tradition. Two powerful things to photograph, even when, not being a golf fan, I didn’t completely understand them. I was more comfortable amidst the messy, stark differences the rough edged town of Augusta offers, relative to the manicured, meticulous nature of what goes on inside the gates of Augusta National. James Brown was Augusta’s most famous son, so I photographed him in a downtown building lobby.
And I wandered into some neighborhoods, and quite wonderfully stumbled into a church, where I was welcomed by the minister.
Pastor Grier might have thought it strange that I wanted to photograph him in the context of shooting for a golf magazine, but he was amenable, and stood before my camera, holding the cross as powerfully as the golfers teeing off down the block might hold a three wood. He, too, represented passion and tradition.
In all their forms and expressions, those are quite amazing things to witness with a camera in hand.