AUGUSTA, Ga. — Chelsea Branscum spent several minutes Tuesday afternoon unknowingly surrounded by Augusta National’s smallest army. The young woman from nearby Evans, Ga., wore the attire of golf’s least-assuming accomplice: a yellow sundress and large, brown-rimmed sunglasses. The black bench upon which she sat was packed neatly with two large tote bags featuring the Masters’ iconic insignia. Two more totes were at her feet. She spoke from her perch overlooking a crowded thoroughfare between the practice range and the 1st hole, otherwise known as the promenade directly adjacent to the Masters’ famed merchandise shop.
“So actually two are my mom’s and two are mine,” she said. “Because we live in Augusta, we love to get the flags to put in our house, and of course tee shirts, too, because who doesn’t want a tee shirt?”
She spoke with an easy Southern warmth, somehow unaware of the legion of cold, dead eyes trained upon her every move.
They were everywhere, albeit sheathed in cardboard and plastic. Their white whiskers were rigid, even in the early afternoon breeze. Finally, my curiosity bubbled over. I had to ask.
What about those?
“Oh my gosh, the gnomes,” she said, unaware of my concern behind her excitement.
I’d walked onto Augusta National on Tuesday afternoon with an assignment, and I’d found myself in the middle of a war. Worse yet, this innocent, sweet woman appeared to be in cahoots with the enemy.
“The gnomes,” she repeated. “They are so popular.”
The gnomes — officially the “Masters Patron Gnome” — are the most sought-after item at the golf’s most sought-after event. Sure, the polos and hats are traditional staples, and the cashmere sweaters sell for a big number. But the gnomes? Goodness — through two days at the Masters, it’s hard to walk more than 10 feet in any direction without spotting a patron carrying his or her own limited-edition figure.
So beloved are these tiny casts of clay, they are the only product in the Masters’ cavernous merchandise center with a purchase limit. Spend $10,000 on polos or another $5,000 on hats — no problem! But place two of these large, pimento cheese sandwich-holding lawn ornaments in your shopping bag and you’ll be kindly redirected back to the shopping area.
“They’re limited to one per customer,” Branscum continued, a policy later confirmed by several Masters employees. “Yes, one transaction. It’s crazy.”
The gnomes are limited-edition and designed uniquely for the 2021 tournament. This year’s creation is patron-themed, replete with an Augusta National straw hat, a polo filled with Masters badges from years’ past, a half-eaten pimento cheese sandwich and of course, his very own folding chair. They retail for $49.50, though the gnome-obsessed can purchase his smaller, caddie outfit-adorned brother for $29.50 in unlimited quantities.
A quick perusal around the internet finds these irrepressible little men are now all over the world — and resell for a significantly higher price. Already, the 2021 iteration of the gnome is available for $160, or a 200 percent up-charge on the sticker price.
The gnome first surfaced years ago, but rose into prominence in November when the Masters released its first-ever holiday-themed edition.
“So I only saw them starting last November when they kind of bumped the Masters,” Branscum said. “They were a Christmas gnome, so we started getting one then, and then we got one this year.”
As for the advice she’d give a fellow patron entering the gnome-zone for the first time, Branscum says to keep your cool.
“Don’t get overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Look at everything. Just look around, you don’t have to buy everything, Just being able to be there and look around, you just get good vibes from it.”
Kevin Fetzner and his father Pat spent a healthy sum of their own at the merchandise store, and though they exited gnome-less, they offered an interesting insight into the anatomy of the clay figures.
“Oooohhh — the damage,” Pat said. “This whole experience is a bucket list, I can cross it off. I don’t think they gauge you or anything like that. It’s just that you know you’re only here once or twice, and you can go crazy.”