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TEE TO GREEN, STEVE SCOTT: Time for Augusta National to take a stand that matches the Masters’ importance to golf

Tiger Woods walks to the 12th green during a practice at Augusta this week.
Tiger Woods walks to the 12th green during a practice at Augusta this week.

Everywhere I’ve been in 30 plus years as a golf writer, people have eulogised the Masters Tournament.

Regular readers down the year will know I don’t share the common urge in golf to genuflect before Augusta National Golf Club. I find it a very manufactured kind of ‘tradition’, constructed with an over-manicured artificiality. Almost as if they really wanted to play it indoors.

The myths and the tradition

My late friend Alister Nicol, long-time golf writer of the Daily Record, went every year for more than 25 years. He said he always tried to find a weed at Augusta, just one. He never did.

Such was Augusta’s commitment to control of nature that they were rumoured to have banned birds. This is actually more common at golf tournaments than you’d think – the R&A employ bird of prey handlers at The Open to keep pesky ball-stealing seagulls away.

But while the levels of birdsong you hear on the Masters broadcast are likely ‘augmented’ for effect, an outstanding piece of on-the-ground and in-the-bushes journalism from Shane Ryan for Golf Digest last year debunked that the theory that ANGC were so omnipresent they could ban birds.

Anyway it’s magical, golf’s Disneyland, I’ve heard some say. Yeah, sorry, I can’t stand that place either.

But it’s hopeless. The golf world – and perhaps more pertinently, the wider world – is in love with this thing.

I’ve moaned about it for three decades, complaining that what WE have had here in Scotland, for 150 years, is actually a proper ‘tradition like no other’, is miles better and much more in the true spirit of golf.

It’s no good. I’m like one of those board carriers outside the gates at ANGC in Washington Road, shouting at everyone that they’re going to hell if they don’t love Jesus. No-one’s listening.

The importance of knowing ANGC policy

Such is worldwide love for the Masters and Augusta that the club have assumed an authority and importance in the game way beyond a club that runs an annual invitational tournament.

Again, that’s not uncommon in golf. It happened with the R&A 250 years ago. No-one appointed them the guardians of the game; they just took it on.

But ANGC has developed a pretty backroom sort of authority. The club don’t really take a public stance on any of golf’s great issues. Indeed the chairman, currently Fred Ridley, is the only person within the club allowed to speak on behalf of the club.

Really. Even North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un delegates sometimes.

You do get murmurs from board members from time to time. But we wait each year for the chairman’s press conference on Wednesday of Masters week to get the definitive word on ANGC policy. And almost always, it’s underwhelmingly vague.

Ridley’s press conference this week should be different. There are huge matters for the chairman to address directly – the question of the new MLR ball proposals, and the future status of LIV Golf League players.

We really know where Augusta stand on the ball, they’ve given plenty hints.

The changes in 20 years

There’s the stretching of their precious course by 500 yards in the last 20 years speaks volumes. There’s the new back tee at the 13th, 35 yards up a chute of trees on a small patch of ground bought for a rumoured $25 million from neighbouring Augusta Country Club.

They’re tired of doing this, we hear. The club will got forequare in line with the USGA and the R&A behind a MRL ball when it comes into effect in 2026.

I’m pretty sure myself that the R&A and USGA would not have taken this as far as they have without the explicit approval of Ridley and ANGC.

And the chairman is golf’s premier establishment man, anyway. He’s a former president of the USGA, the last US Amateur champion not to turn pro, and an R&A member.

I remember being at a dinner some years back Fred when spoke of the R&A in such glowing terms that even Prince Andrew (then captain of the club) looked slightly embarrassed.

But it needs a definitive statement this Wednesday. When the Masters joins The Open and the US Open under a MLR ball, it means the three championships every golfer and fan treasures most are taking this step. A vague and equivocal statement will not do.

One area where ANGC should do nothing…

Ridley is also supposed to address what ANGC is going to do about LIV players. There are 16 qualified from the breakaway tour in this week’s field. Six of them are former Masters winners, with a lifetime’s pass into the tournament.

Fred’s statement when the initial field was revealed in December hinted the club were not happy. He’s expected to elaborate on this on Wednesday.

But, like The Open and the US Open, nothing needs to be done here. At all. If the majors want to support the established game, then they really shouldn’t change anything.

Former champions, and those who qualify by the already established means, should always be allowed to play in the majors. Even those of us who loathe the new tour agree that’s only fair.

The majors will never introduce exemptions for winners in LIV. We never thought they would. In their heart of hearts I believe all those who left ‘established’ golf fully understood that.

So there’s no real path for LIV players not already exempt to get into the championships.

The former champions will inevitably age, slip in form and become less of a factor.

Unless we have a spate of wins at the majors in the next few years from LIV players – hardly likely given how seriously undercooked they’re going to be competitively – they’re going to naturally fade away.