Monetary giant lurks behind Augusta charm
It's 6.30am on a rainy morning in Georgia, still dark before dawn, and Washington Road is already snarling up with traffic.
The pilgrims arrive early, joining the smooth-moving line of cars streaming into the massive free public parking lot. For many of those who come from every state in the Union and other countries near and far, it's once-in-a-lifetime journey. So they don't want to miss one minute of their day at The Masters.
The gates open at eight and a torrent of people, bubbling with excitement, pours through. This is much, much more than a golf tournament, it's a social phenomenon.
Tributaries flow towards the practice range, the souvenir store and, the largest one, straight onto the course, newcomers drop-jawed in awe at the breathtaking scale and beauty. Sport has many charismatic venues, but Augusta National is the only one I've visited that exceeded all expectation.
There's an old-world atmosphere in this place. Mobile phones and other electronic devices are among the wide range of prohibited items - pilgrims, known as patrons at Augusta, go through an airport-style security search.
So people walk around here (running is not permitted) with heads up and paying heed to one another, instead of staring into their own hands. How quaint.
The concession prices come straight from another era too. For example, you can buy a Masters egg-salad sandwich for a dollar-fifty.
A Masters Blend coffee, soft drink or iced tea costs the same, while domestic beer is available at $4, imported brew is a dollar extra, all of it served in clear plastic tumblers bearing the Masters logo.
Augusta National doesn't market official merchandise through mail order or on the internet. The only way to get it is to visit the club's massive souvenir store during tournament week, ensuring of course that their brand is the most exclusive in golf, if not all sport.
Everyone on the property, including club employees and tournament staff, has a list of must-buy items for friends and relatives, which explains why the huge shop opens at 7am each day, an hour before public admission.
In keeping with everything else they do, Augusta National run a slick retail operation. The range of items on offer is incredible, extending this year even to a Masters dog bowl, priced at $18. It's possible to clothe oneself from head to foot in there. Well, almost!
The selection of apparel is vast, from socks ($14), jocks ($25.50 to $40), T-shirts ($26 to $39), polo shirts (anywhere from $79 to $135), to an infinite array of blouses, full-sleeved shirts and jackets. You can accessorise with handbags, neck ties ($75) or bow ties ($65), watches (regular retail for $250 but 250 exclusive timepieces are going fast at $395 each), sunglasses (limited edition Maui Jims, in wooden presentation box, for $349) and a selection of jewellery for men and women (solid silver Tiffany cufflinks will set you back $350, for example).
Yet there are no trousers. At all. With people queuing Disney-style outside for much of the day, they probably don't want to choke up the operation with fitting rooms.
Being unable even to purchase a pair of rain-proof pants stymied my mission to discover how much it might cost to outfit oneself, top to toe, in Masters gear.
And caused a little contretemps with a middle-aged, Southern male sales assistant, when, in an effort to be creative in my quest, I asked his pleasant female colleague for the price of a skirt, telling her my predicament and suggesting I might pretend it was a kilt.
"A skirt … For you?" the man boomed so loudly, he might have been auditioning for the role of The Beadle in 'Oliver'. "This is a notional exercise," I retorted, wasting my breath.
As his neck beamed red with consternation, the lady chuckled, proffering a dainty little multi-coloured golf-skirt, explaining: "It has shorts underneath too!"
"Two for the price of one, eh, can't beat that I suppose," I said feebly, thanking her as I made my retreat.
For some patrons, the opportunity to turn a buck is irresistible, a staff member telling me of one guy who purchased 135 polo shirts. Few people have that many friends, unless they're on eBay.
For the most part, the Masters are conducted with Southern Charm, behind which lies a monetary giant.
Figures are never officially revealed or discussed, not even daily attendances. Upwards of 40,000 flock to practice on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Tickets costing just $65 each are distributed by lottery.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 or maybe more watch the four days of tournament play, paying $325 each for weekly badges which are virtually impossible for the general public to buy, unless they're willing to pay $5,000 on the black market.
In fact, Augusta National are said to buy up those badges from the black market and redistribute them as single tickets for each day's play.
In a recent 'Golf Digest' article estimating the income generated by The Masters, Ron Sirak suggested the event will generate $115m in revenue this year, with a net profit of $29m.
Sirak based these figures on $47.5m income from merchandising; $34.75m in ticket sales.
Add in corporate backing (the absence of branding on the property makes one hesitate to call it sponsorship); corporate entertainment in a massive 100,000-square-foot facility opened in 2013; plus TV income from a cosy partnership with CBS and foreign rights that supposedly generate $25m.
Not a whit of this matters to the pilgrims, who leave each night of Masters week laden with memorabilia and indelible memories.