The Masters vs. the Tiger Woods CircusBy
Fans are not allowed inside the wrought iron gates of Augusta National Golf Club. The sport's most prestigious American venue prefers to call its attendees "patrons." And when those gates swing open on the first day of the Masters tournament, Apr. 8, the patrons won't be holding tickets. Instead, they will be wearing badges, many of them handed down like heirlooms from parent to child. Patrons must check their cell phones and cameras, of course. They are forbidden to run and are expected to meet the standards of decorum set by golf legend Bobby Jones, who co-founded the tournament in 1934. Those standards are still printed each year on the badge's back: "It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty...but excess demonstrations...are not proper. Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player."
Beyond the genteel and exclusive grounds of Augusta National (which, despite protests, still counts no women among its 300 members) is a world where people make a good living off the misplays of the famous. Some of those people are on their way to Augusta National to sneak photos of Tiger Woods as he returns to professional golf. They don't care whether he wins a 15th major championship, but they would love to find a 15th alleged mistress.
For Giles Harrison, a Los Angeles-based paparazzo who shoots for Splash News, the game plan is as follows: Buy a Masters badge on the secondary market (where the Mar. 16 announcement that Woods would play the Masters caused the price on stubhub.com to spike 10%, to about $500). Slip a small camera through security. And compete to get the money shot: "Tiger Woods, a gorgeous woman walking by, his eyes looking in that direction."
Augusta National isn't used to dealing with photographers like Harrison. Its idea of a rogue shooter is the accredited photographer who squeezed off a shot in 2006, just as Phil Mickelson was driving from the 18th tee in the third round. That single click caused Augusta to clear the photo stand for the entire fourth round.
The stakes are higher now. Since the Nov. 27 SUV crash that led to revelations of Woods' serial infidelity and the unraveling of his billion-dollar image, paparazzi have camped outside his gated community in Windermere, Fla. A single image, such as the December shot of his wife, Elin, without her wedding ring, can fetch $100,000 from photo services like Splash.
Augusta National, however, is sticking with the official line that this is just another Masters. The club always has a robust force of security agents from Securitas, augmented by officers from the Richmond County (Ga.) Sheriff's Dept. (They came in handy in 2003, when Martha Burk, then chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, staged a demonstration over Augusta National's refusal to accept women as members.) The tournament doesn't plan to add security, according to a spokesman. The usual plainclothes agents in the gallery will be enough to cart away hecklers or stealth photographers, he says.
Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne knows something about security, having run the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the scene of a bombing by the American terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph. With luck, Payne's club won't have to contend with anything more lethal than a telephoto lens. "We welcome all visitors," said Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, "but we do expect them to act respectfully."
Colonel Gary Powell of the Richmond County Sheriff's Dept. says the tabloid media haven't been given a designated shooting area outside Augusta National's entry. "They can use public property, and that's it," says Powell. As of Mar. 29 he had received inquiries from only two celebrity-news organizations, the syndicated TV show Extra and the Web site TMZ.com. (The latter was already breaking news from Augusta about a Masters-week bikini contest at Hooters that, it predicted, would put "Tiger Woods' newfound willpower...to the ultimate test.") Other news outlets reported that one of Woods' women friends would spend the Masters week dancing at a men's club up the road in Atlanta.
Augusta thinks it can handle the media crush because it successfully policed singer James Brown's December 2006 funeral. "We don't know what to expect from [the paparazzi]," says Powell, "but we're not worried about them."
In truth, there's an obvious element of unpredictability here—the control freaks of Augusta can't possibly button down all the potential points of disorder. "How do you control a golf tournament?" asks PGA player and Augusta native Charles Howell III. "How do you control what somebody may yell or what somebody may say?"
Even in a worst-case circus scenario, however, with the paparazzi roaming the fairways or chasing Woods down the road to the club, the tournament would suffer no economic damage. That's because Augusta National is a club of wealthy people who aren't in this for the money—and who have never been interested in fully monetizing their brand. The club's membership initiation fee, a reported $25,000, is small change to members like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. (Liberty National in Jersey City, N.J., in contrast, charged original members $500,000.) Patrons pay $200 for admission to all four rounds, compared with $110 for a single-day U.S. Open ticket at Pebble Beach. The Masters charges $1.50 for sandwiches; $1 for a soda; $2.75 for a domestic beer. "They just want to make enough money so they can continue to reinvest in their product and make it better," says Gary Stevenson, a former PGA Tour executive who heads the consulting division of sports-management firm Wasserman Media Group.
Augusta National doesn't maximize TV revenue by putting broadcast rights out for bid, as major sports properties typically do. The club has signed annual contracts with CBS each year since 1956, trading off greater dollars for greater control. The network is limited to four minutes of commercials an hour and is expected to present the tournament reverentially. (One announcer, Gary McCord, disappeared from broadcasts after declaring in 1994 that Augusta greens were so fast, "I think they bikini-wax them."
In other words, this 66-year-old tournament is more important than money and bigger than any one golfer—even the best there ever was. And if Tiger Woods' brand has been wiped out by a tsunami of scandal, well, Augusta National can't do much about that. What it can and will do is make sure its famous green jackets don't get swept out to sea, as well.