At Augusta National Golf Club, (some) things are a changin’

tony finau celebrates on satge

Tony Finau hypes up the crowd during the EA Sports Road to the Masters Invtational.

Courtesy of Augusta National

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s the Sunday before Masters week, and music is blaring in the Augusta National press building. There’s a stage set up at the front of the room with eight leather lounge chairs and four TVs facing the crowd. A series of potted magnolia trees line the back of the stage.

The crowd begins a countdown.

10! … 9! … 8! …

When it reaches zero, the room goes dark and the TV screens show a promotional video for the newest golf video game — EA Sports PGA Tour: Road to the Masters. The crowd — featuring children from the local Boys & Girls Club, First Tee members and Drive, Chip & Putt participants — explodes into pandemonium when the feature ends. Soon, eight competitors (Josh Allen, Tony Finau, Lexi Thompson, Eric Church, Roger Steele, Iona Stephen, TimTheTatMan and Garrett Hilbert) are introduced. The crowd reaches a fever pitch.

Kids cheer on the celebrities on Sunday night in the Augusta National press building. Courtesy of Augusta National

This isn’t the typical scene in the illustrious press building. On an average day during tournament week, hundreds of reporters occupy the room. Voices rarely raise above a whisper. Much like the rest of the property, these are hallowed grounds.

But it’s far from hushed on this day. To kick off the release of the new video game, the green jackets have opened the doors to their press building and are actively encouraging the madness.

The Augusta National of generations past would never endorse such a thing — but things are different these days. Augusta is cool. Augusta is hip. Augusta is opening up. The perception of the club as a stuffy, snobby establishment is slowly starting to change.

“The fact that Augusta is opening itself up to more new and progressive experiences around the game for the sake of making sure people are gravitating toward the game and sink their teeth into is great,” said Steele, who won the Road to Masters Invitational in tandem with Church. “The fact that they are opening up the space in these types of ways to be inclusive to the comprehensive golf ecosystem, it just lets you know that the game of golf is in a good spot and heading in the right direction.”

This video game competition isn’t the only signal of this shift. In advance of last year’s Masters, Augusta National invited the prominent Youtube group Dude Perfect to film at Amen Corner. On the same grounds walked by Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, the Dude Perfect quintet filmed an “All Sport Battle.”

And, while it may seem odd that Augusta would welcome — and encourage — such horsing around, Dude Perfect has a massive (and loyal) following of Gen Zers. Promoting a video filmed at Amen Corner not only captures the next generation’s eyeballs, it also helps shed its uppity reputation.

“This was a chance to draw eyeballs who might not have ever watched a golf video,” Chad Coleman, Dude Perfect’s Chief Brand Officer, said last year. “We wanted to do something that would showcase some of the things that matter at Augusta while also pushing the envelope enough to draw people in.”

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur is another great example. It was just 11 years ago that the club admitted its first female members. Now, it hosts a tournament of the top women’s amateurs every year. Then there’s the Drive, Chip & Putt national finals. Seven days before the pros fight for the green jacket, kids aged 7-15 compete in the same arena for titles of their own.

This isn’t your grandpa’s Augusta National. Except, in some ways, it is. The tradition, charm and mystique of the place hasn’t gone anywhere.

Access to the grounds is extremely limited, and phone use is forbidden. Food and drinks from concessions — even with a little inflation — won’t break the bank. And the sense of tranquility that has been on these grounds since the days of Clifford Roberts remains.

Innovation is important, but some things are better left untouched. Augusta National has found that balance.

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