News & Opinion

Don’t hate Masters in the Player game

2021 Masters — Honorary Start | Player Ball Controversy
Wayne Player, third from the left, prominently displays a sleeve of golf balls during the ceremonial honorary start to the 85th Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. The ceremony included a tribute to Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first African-American golfer to play the Masters.

The focus of a historic tribute to Lee Elder was hijacked by a controversial and impromptu marketing opportunity by Wayne Player, son of honorary starter Gary Player, and Augusta National is not standing for such Masters mischief

A street-smart expression used to make the rounds in our culture: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” The saying has a number of applications, not the least of which has to do with dating. The specific meaning essentially relinquishes the “player” of any wrongdoing or accountability because they are doing what they have to do, because that is just the way “the game” is played. 

But Augusta National Golf Club has a new twist on this expression, that is “hate the Player, don’t hate the game.” 

The Player, in this case, is Gary Player’s son, Wayne Player. And the new expression became relevant last Thursday, during the honorary start of the Masters. At the historic and emotional scene, Masters chairman Fred Ridley recognized Lee Elder and his barrier-breaking moment in 1975. Elder and Ridley were joined on the first teeing ground by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who prepared to launch the celebrated shots.  

The group also was joined by Wayne Player, the 58-year-old honorary caddie for his honorary-starting dad. Not quite sure why the honorary starters need caddies, in that they don’t walk after their honorary shots to hit another. Seems an honorary forecaddie might be more useful. 

Nonetheless, in Wayne’s World, you take advantage of such opportunities and play a game. You pull out a sleeve of balls, manufacturer’s label showing prominently, and you photo-bomb the crap out of the whole thing. But at the Masters, that’s not the way the game is played. 

At the Masters, there is no such thing as brand placement or shameless promotion. At Augusta, there is only one brand. At the Masters, marketing starts with an “M,” ends with “s,” not a “g,” and there is room for nothing else. The game Wayne Player played on the first tee at Augusta National was hockey with a hand grenade. It was like climbing out the bedroom window after being grounded only to find your father holding the ladder, like bringing a Hatfield to a McCoy family gathering.

That dog won’t hunt at Augusta. Disrespect doesn’t fly, not a for second. Augusta doesn’t play politics, doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t play around. In 2002, when Martha Burk and her National Council of Women’s Organizations began making noise about the club and its lack of female membership, they talked about targeting corporations that were commercially sponsoring the Masters, companies like Coca-Cola, IBM and Citigroup.

But the Masters is like “The Wiz.” And if you watch Seinfeld, you know “nobody beats the Wiz.”

Augusta doesn’t cave to the pressure, it caves pressure. It didn’t just protect targets, it removes them from harm’s way. In the instance of Burk, Hootie Johnson, then chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, took all those corporate buddies out of play and conducted the championship commercial-free in 2003 and 2004. Who does that? 

Starts with an “M,” ends with an “s.”  

As a result of his gamesmanship, Wayne Player might as well be studying dentistry on the Island of Misfit Masters Participants. Reportedly, and almost assuredly, he has been banned by Augusta National. Seems likely the only way he ever steps foot inside the hedges on Washington Avenue is if the green coats have honorary exiles on hand for the honorary start, in which case Gary McCord will be the on-course reporter.

The club will never formally announce as much. It will be done without fanfare, quietly, like Tessio in The Godfather. “Tom, can you get me off the hook, for old times' sake?” 

Sorry Wayne, can't do it.

Is it authoritative? Yes, sometimes even petty. But in this present culture of cancellation and corporate spine-bending, the forbidding texture is refreshing. You don’t see tipping at the Masters, You don’t see cell phones or cameras (once the tournament starts). You don’t see entourages or animals — hasn’t been a deer sighted on the grounds in 65 years. You don’t see “fans” or “spectators,” you see “patrons,” and you best not hear an announcer say otherwise. 

Patrons are not allowed to wear caps backwards, not allowed to run, not allowed to bring folding chairs with armrests — that's right, no rest for the arms at Augusta. There is no official attendance and no set field size. There is no yelling of “Mashed Potatoes,” “Baba Booey” or “Dilly Dilly,” in fact you would be wise to not think it.

There is no “rough at Augusta,” there is “second cut.” You see caddies in white overalls and green caps. They wear a number on the front, a player’s name on the back, and that’s it. They don’t hold a box of golf balls with the manufacturer’s name prominently displayed anywhere near a TV camera. 

You have to give him credit, Wayne Player got his money’s worth. He succeeded in displaying the name of the ball his 85-year-old father was about to ceremonially slap, and the ball has gotten tons more mentions in all the stories that have highlighted the controversy since. 

By the way, it’s no doubt a lovely ball, features a urethane cover with launch and compression readings not unlike the check Wayne Player bounced for a house rental at the 2018 Masters. 

Be sure to remember it, and be sure to remember Wayne Player, because you’re not likely to see the likes of him again at Augusta National. 

And frankly, those of who believe there is honor to be preserved in honorary things are perfectly OK with that. If you’re not, hey, hate the Player, don’t hate the game.

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