Wednesday 22 August 2018

Commerce the key for Augusta expansions

Bubba Watson all alone with his thoughts during a practice round at Augusta yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Bubba Watson all alone with his thoughts during a practice round at Augusta yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Sam Dean in Augusta

Amid the dizzying array of extravagances at Augusta National, it can be difficult to find an appropriate place on the scale of lavishness for the official Masters garden gnome.

With his smiling eyes and pristine caddie's uniform, our inanimate little friend is hardly one of modern Augusta's more harmful developments.

Yet the presence of a gnome at golf's most manicured garden, a course so immaculate that even the sandwiches are wrapped in green to avoid any litter showing up on television, does feel peculiar. There is also something rather jarring, something very un-Masters, about the thought of one of this week's 'patrons' - not 'fans', remember - brandishing a shopping bag full of $39.50 garden gnome as they furiously fist-pump over the latest Bubba Watson birdie.

The gnome, it should be made clear, is not an entirely fresh addition to the Masters merchandise store. After a year's absence since his 2016 debut, he has made a comeback to golf's most exclusive retail stock in time for grand opening of Augusta National's sparkly new shop.


At twice the size of the previous store, the new shopping area is the latest example of the club's passion for expansion.

Last year it unveiled a phenomenal new press building, and it has recently acquired chunks of land outside of its walls, alarming traditionalists who fear changes to the course.

The store itself, which boasts 385 mannequins (and one dog mannequin), is as pristine as the fairways, if not a little busier. An airport-style queue serves as a conveyor belt for cash-clenching patrons, while the shop floor is swarmed by an army of staff.

Money, it is obvious enough, is simply not an issue here. There are two workers for each of the 64 tills - one to scan, one to bag - while others are seemingly employed just to say smile and wish customers an earnest farewell.

Think, for a moment, of how many millions of dollars the club is turning down by not making merchandise available to purchase online.

"It's about the experience," it says in a typically syrupy promotional video. "After all, what is a memento other than a memory that you can hold?"

As well as the gnome, and the usual selection of t-shirts and knitwear, there are Masters playing cards, caddie jumpsuits for infants and even a Masters brand of lip-balm.

There's also an impressive nut bowl which catches the eye, and a limited-edition teddy bear.

The best-selling item, though, is the Masters hat, of which there are 125 different styles. The club says it shifts one every second.

The supersizing of the shop certainly seems to have impressed the patrons, although the same cannot be said for the recent purchases of land surrounding the course.

Last year, Augusta National completed the acquisition of more space behind the 12th green, leading to speculation that the club could extend the 13th hole. Preliminary plans filed in January show that the fifth hole could be another target for renovation under new chairman Fred Ridley, who took over from the long-serving Billy Payne in October.

The thought of meddling with the course has naturally ruffled a few feathers, but the growing concerns over golf's rising driving distances are hard for anyone in the sport to ignore.

"We are committed to taking whatever course of action is necessary to protect the integrity of Augusta National golf course," Ridley has said.

What is clear is that, if Augusta National wants to expand, there is little chance of anything stopping it. Talk to those who live in the area and they will tell you of locals in the club's vicinity receiving outlandish offers, often at two or three times the usual value, for their property.

Since the turn of the century, the club has spent a reported $40m buying and bulldozing nearby houses, and it is so rare for them to be denied that one family became a source of major media coverage after they repeatedly rejected offers for their home.

What Augusta National wants, Augusta National tends to get.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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