The Landline’s Not Dead (at Least at the Masters)


Augusta National Golf Club has long forbidden cellphones for almost anyone at its hallowed tournament, but patrons delight in making free calls the old-school way.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Georgia, an old-fashioned custom keeps one of the country’s most beloved golf tournaments connected to its past.


Reporting from Augusta National Golf Club, where Alan Blinder also called his wife (and remembered the number she’s had since high school).

They call to check in with their bosses or spouses. They call to brag. They call to offer up weather reports, food reviews, golf commentaries, celebrity sightings, souvenir spending confessions, legal advice and trips down memory lane. This year, they called to talk about the solar eclipse.

And no one used a cellphone.

Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia has long forbidden cellphones for almost anyone inside its gates for the Masters Tournament, which is scheduled to conclude Sunday. The event is a proudly aw-shucks anachronism — $1.50 sandwiches, fairways free of towering sponsor logos, spectators invariably described as “patrons,” not fans — but its ban on a device that is the most ubiquitous of our times may be the most reality-suspending throwback of all.

Augusta, though, offers an alternative: Anyone looking to place a call may repair to one of the simple, black courtesy phones with gray buttons and coiled black cords. One of the world’s most hallowed golf clubs, along with a handful of other places like prisons and hospitals, stands as one of the last refuges for the communal telephone.

“Dad, it’s Ali,” Ali Daschbach began this past week.

She paused, a shared moment of anticipation stretching from a phone near the 17th green in east Georgia to Washington State.

“I’m calling you from Augusta.”

Her father had answered, but callers sometimes have to leave messages, a free Masters souvenir for people who check voice mail. AT&T, a tournament sponsor, covers the bill for calls worldwide from Augusta’s phone banks, as stickers by each phone note, along with basic instructions, like pressing 1 to begin the dialing sequence for a long-distance call.

Although Augusta National is renowned for its daunting greens and splendid horticulture — if golf is not your thing, check out the azaleas during Sunday’s broadcast — it is also a place where resistance to modernity, for better or worse, has often been a fixture.

This is a place, after all, that still quaintly mails printed invitations to play the Masters. But it also carries the stigma of exclusion, having resisted admitting Black people as members until 1990 and women until 2012.

When it comes to telephones, Augusta’s present policies can feel prehistoric, but there was a time when the club was decidedly advanced.

By the early 1940s, less than a decade after the club opened and a time when less than half of American homes had telephones, Augusta National had installed underground phone lines as a part of the Masters scoring system. The 1955 Masters went down in history not only for being Arnold Palmer’s debut at the tournament but also as the first where all 18 holes had phone service to aid in scoring. In 1983, after a man briefly took hostages in the pro shop and demanded to speak to a visiting President Ronald Reagan, the commander in chief used a radio phone to call from the 16th fairway.

Reagan, though, was not attending the Masters; instead, he was playing Augusta with the secretary of state, the secretary of the Treasury and a future Treasury chief. For the tournament, the club has barred fans from carrying cellphones onto its verdant grounds since at least 1993.

Cellphones were the novelty then. Landlines are the novelty now. So is the seemingly lost art of remembering a phone number to call.

“I couldn’t tell you my wife’s phone number,” Hiram Brownell said. “Couldn’t tell you it. Couldn’t tell you none of my friends’ phone numbers.”

So he called no one and talked in person to someone about how, up close, Tiger Woods did not seem all that big.

Nearby a few moments later, Nick Doggette proudly recited his wife’s number. He had just called to tell her he had spent $855 on souvenirs, after the couple had left the previous weekend’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament about $1,000 lighter. She knew it was him since, in many instances, caller IDs flash with word that the calls are coming from Augusta National.

Hayden Love brought a list of numbers, neatly handwritten above his shopping list. He had not memorized the number of Bianca, whom he has been dating for close to a third of his life.

“I called my mom, my girlfriend, my dad — he didn’t answer, and you can put that in there,” Mr. Love said. “And then I called my buddy, who has never been here, and I really just wanted to impress him and flex on him because the caller ID says, ‘the Masters.’”

Mission accomplished or missed cut?

“He answered the phone and said, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Gigi Lamar called her husband with a romanticized version of the message Mr. Love delivered to his friend: “I’m here alone, and it’s been perfect, and the only thing that’s missing is you.”

Her husband’s response: “Oh, you’ve been drinking,” Ms. Lamar relayed, a plastic cup of white wine in her hand.

Players have long viewed Augusta National as sacred ground for golf and a sanctuary from modern distractions that are part of the landscape of just about any other sporting event.

“You just feel that everyone’s very, very present,” Jordan Spieth, the winner of the 2015 Masters, said on Tuesday. “They’re not focused on if they got the right shot that they’re sending and maybe they don’t even know where your ball went, right?”

Cellphones are permitted at the other major golf tournaments — the British Open, the P.G.A. Championship and the U.S. Open accept only digital tickets — though there are restrictions on where people may place calls. At Augusta, paper tickets, known as badges in Masters parlance, are compulsory, and guards search for phones at security checkpoints.

Augusta National has shown about as much interest in relaxing its phone policy as, say, letting a weekend duffer slip on one of the green jackets intended only for members and Masters winners.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate,” Billy Payne, Augusta National’s chairman, said after a reporter asked in 2017 about his enduring opposition to cellphones. “And the noise is an irritation to not only players, the dialing, the conversation, it’s a distraction and that’s the way we’ve chosen to deal with it.”

Payne’s successor, Fred S. Ridley, has said he does not “believe that’s a policy that anyone should expect is going to change in the near future, if ever.”

(There have been exceptions: Standing outside the Augusta National clubhouse this past week, Charles Coody, the 1971 Masters winner, grinned broadly as he told a story about talking with Payne years ago when the chairman’s cellphone rang. “He says, ‘Guys, I know I’m not supposed to have this out here, but with my job, I’ve got to be in touch,’” Coody recalled. Augusta National declined to comment.)

AT&T said it did not have any statistics about courtesy calls from Augusta National, where its chief executive, John Stankey, recently became a member. But when Ms. Lamar called her husband, she found herself trying to perfect the etiquette of phone banks.

“He said, ‘Why are you talking like that?’” Ms. Lamar said. “And I said, ‘Honey, there’s someone to the left and to the right of me. I haven’t talked like this in forever.’”

Ms. Daschbach said it had been years since she was phoneless at a public event. The last time, she said, had been when her battery died.

But when she called her father, the man with whom she had watched the Masters while growing up, she had a lot to tell him.

“It rained on us a little bit in line this morning, but now it’s perfect,” she said.

She told him about how she had watched Woods, Justin Thomas and Fred Couples play together. Dad had witnessed the wonder of Woods at Pebble Beach. Now, Ms. Daschbach had seen him at Augusta.

“It’s amazing.”

But before all of that, she had given this reminder: “You can’t have a cellphone on the course.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.



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