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First trip to Augusta elicits a (quiet) cheer

AUGUSTA, Ga. If there is one landmark American sports event about which I know next to nothing, it is the Masters. There's always other stuff going on in early April and I cannot say I've ever watched more than five straight minutes of the Master...

AUGUSTA, Ga. If there is one landmark American sports event about which I know next to nothing, it is the Masters. There's always other stuff going on in early April and I cannot say I've ever watched more than five straight minutes of the Masters on television.

So when a friend of mine, Abe Schear, invited me to the Masters on Thursday, I decided it was time to find out what the fuss is all about.

Unlike other sports events, the Masters does not permit any electronic devices on the premises, which would spare us from the ubiquitous self-important fan at baseball and football games who chatters to his friends all through the event. But there were free phones free phones in discreet little clusters far from the course. I was already impressed.

Once we were inside, I noticed that there are no advertisements, no logos, no corporate presence whatsoever. The predominant color is a somber green, setting a tone for the event. They also hand out free start lists with a diagram of the course on the back. I decided to be a good guest and leave issues like the lack of female membership for some other day.

We stopped for the $1 coffee and, for me, the $1 biscuit and sausage subsidized, I am sure, by the gigantic television contract. A middle-aged woman asked if she could cut the line to buy a banana for her mother (price 75 cents), and Abe asked her how long her mother had been coming to the Masters and the woman said over 50 years.

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Everywhere we looked, we saw middle-aged children escorting aging parents to this event that clearly means a great deal to all of them. Everybody was polite. Young men in Ohio State or Florida gear, who might have been a trifle boisterous at the Final Four in Atlanta last weekend, were on their best behavior.

It was now time for golf. We headed toward the course, through solid pathways and elegant stone embankments and exquisite plantings of azaleas and dogwood in bloom. Everything had a feeling of permanence to it, even though this extremely private club plays host to the Masters for only four days a year. The television camera towers at every hole are a dignified green, built solidly into the ground, with no thicket of cables splayed all over the grounds, as there is on the perimeter of other major events.

We walked the course, with Abe pointing out the historic moments that have taken place here and there. On the 17th hole he recalled how a jovial Arnold Palmer, playing one of his final rounds here a few years ago, paused before hitting the ball to wink at a pretty young woman standing a few feet away.

We joined the patrons near the first tee. I am careful to say "patrons" because I have heard how the distinguished commentator Jack Whitaker was banned from the CBS broadcast by Cliff Roberts, the grim mandarin of the Masters, for the crime of referring to the "mob" one day. The Masters does not consider them to be "fans" or "spectators," either. So "patrons" it is.

Dressed in black, the left-handed Phil Mickelson hit the ball into a corner and gave a disgusted wave of his hand. We watched him trudge off in pursuit, but everybody applauded just the same. From a distance we watched him reach the errant ball, make five or six chopping motions with his left hand to approximate the magic he would have to perform, and then he missed his first putt anyway.

I've made up my mind to pay more attention to this event in the future.

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