Masters Brings Golf and Business Elite Below the ‘Big Oak’ at Augusta National


It’s a quiet, sophisticated suggestion that no business matters shall get in the way or ruin the natural sanctity of these hallowed grounds, whose lush hills, azaleas and dogwoods are as legendary as the golfers who have won the tournament’s prized green jacket. 

Yet beneath the veneer of southern gentility, Augusta, Georgia, is the site of what may be the most powerful annual business summit in the world. If Davos is the globe’s economic crucible and Sun Valley is where moguls strike billion-dollar deals, then Augusta National is where the business elite gather to share a common bond — a love for golf.

“It’s a who’s who of celebrities and power here,” said Guy Lewis, as he showed off his Houston Astros World Series ring to a friend. (He’s the team’s cosmetic dentist.) “There are all sorts of people here, but there is no pretense and no commercialism. It’s more of a pure event.”

At nearby Daniel Field airport this week, sleek private and corporate jets have been arriving, one after another, before the day’s round of golf begins. 

“It’s been crazy,” said Julia Daniel, who works inside the small passenger terminal.  “We’re busy when the executives fly in in the morning and when they leave in the evening.”

Inside Augusta National’s gates, just outside the clubhouse and overlooking the first tee area, is the Big Oak. It’s a massive tree that was planted several decades before the club’s co-founder, the legendary Bobby Jones, stood under its canopy in 1931 and imagined turning what was then a commercial nursery into what would become Augusta National.

Many of the club members mingle around the Big Oak, where they greet VIP guests and celebrities, all of whom have special access allowing them to stand under the tree. 

“This is where I get away from work,” said Brian Roberts, chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., and an Augusta member.

All members of the club — a list that includes Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Ginni Rometty — must wear their green jackets when they’re on the grounds during the tournament, so for executives accustomed to being shielded from the public, there’s no hiding in plain sight. David Grain, a private equity entrepreneur and one of only about a dozen Black members at Augusta, stood out in the crowd in his green jacket, as he spoke with Chris Womack, the CEO of energy provider Southern Co. 

Also in her green jacket, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walked under the big tree accompanied by a small entourage of guests. And one of the greatest female golfers ever, Annika Sorenstam passed by while heading toward the first tee. Nearby, former National Football League wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald chatted with patrons, while Mark Steinberg, the agent for Tiger Woods, spoke with Tim Finchem, the former PGA Tour commissioner.

The Masters tournament has just three corporate sponsors — IBM Corp., AT&T Inc. and Mercedes-Benz Group AG. But unless you’re one of the guests invited into the corporate sponsor hospitality buildings, a mere patron walking around Augusta National would never know that those companies had anything to do with the tournament. 

But inside those buildings, guests are treated to exclusive libations, swag and experiences. On Friday night, AT&T CEO John Stankey is scheduled to host guests at a fireside chat with 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth, according to an Augusta member who helped arrange the event. Stankey is one of Augusta’s newest members.

Ever since 1934, when bankers, lawyers and industrialists converged on Augusta for the first Masters, the tournament has been a draw for corporate bigwigs. But William P. Payne, who served as club chairman from 2006 until 2017, wanted to enhance the corporate experience during the tournament. 

Among the changes that Payne introduced was Berckmans Place, an area located on the southern edge of the course, near the famous “Amen Corner.” It’s one exclusive club inside of another, with dining and shopping, surrounded outside by replicas of Augusta’s greens, where guests can compete. 

To gain access to Berckmans Place, named after the horticulturist who owned the nursery on which the course was built, an invitation from a guest is required. Also, a $12,000 weekly badge. 

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Published: 12 Apr 2024, 11:30 PM IST

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