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Augusta's oldest green-jacketed member might be sport's most iconic natural landmark

Augusta's oldest green-jacketed member might be sport's most iconic natural landmark
Golf patrons line the first fairway at the big oak tree behind the clubhouse during the practice round for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday. (Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In a sense, it’s the oldest and grandest green-jacketed member of Augusta National Golf Club.

It’s the massive oak tree between the clubhouse and the first tee, and it might be the most iconic natural landmark in sports. There’s the Green Monster at Fenway Park, Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame, the peristyle at the Los Angeles Coliseum… but all of those are man-made.

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The oak at Augusta is in a class of its own, creating a shady town square at the Masters, and by-invitation viewing spot for some of the most powerful, influential, and famous people in the sports world and beyond.

“The business deals that are to be done here, people that we’ve met when designing golf courses around the world, we meet here,” said Gary Player, a three-time Masters champion. “Any business deals, international, right here. International friends, you meet here.”

Players, caddies, coaches, agents, and credentialed media stand or mill about under the tree. So do celebrities from other sports, such as baseball’s Alex Rodriguez, who was there Saturday, along with 6-foot-10 tennis star John Isner, who went to college at nearby Georgia. Annika Sorenstam, winner of more professional golf tournaments than any woman in history, watched from there too. Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald watched rounds from that vantage this week.

“One of the big takeaways for me is how everyone who is there seems so appreciative of the experience,” Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said by text Saturday, recalling his past Masters visits. “No matter how many times you’ve been, you get a true sense of gratitude for getting a chance to be part of something so unique and so special.”

Garrett said he has used the tree as a meeting place, telling friends: “Grab a couple pimento cheese sandwiches and I’ll meet you there.”

One of the many traditions that makes the Masters unique is the golfers and their caddies have the course to themselves; the media doesn’t get inside-the-ropes access. But a press badge does allow reporters under the tree, and lots of interviews take place there. Club members, who wear their green jackets during the tournament, have access to that area too, as do their guests. Meanwhile, ticket-holders stand along the black chain that separates the area so they can people-watch between tee shots.

The limbs of the tree, some thick as barrels and nearly touching the ground, are supported by a network of cables so camouflaged they’re virtually invisible. The fear of some people is the oak will fall victim to an ice storm, as the club’s famous Eisenhower tree did in 2014.

The live oak is roughly 150 steps up the hill from the main scoreboard, just off the first fairway.

“Before I came here the first time, I had heard all about this landmark tree,” said Mark O’Meara, who won the Masters in 1998. “If you say ‘under the oak tree,’ people know what you’re talking about.”

Earlier this week, while Augusta member Roger Goodell was speaking with a reporter under the tree, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walked over and introduced himself to the NFL commissioner. The shady spot is a favorite of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also an Augusta member.

There are some hard-to-impress people under the tree, but every so often, something happens that commands the attention of everyone. That was the case Saturday when Tiger Woods, preceded by a cluster of uniformed security guards and his caddie, strode purposefully out of the clubhouse to the putting green, his brief stopover before the first tee.

The four-time Masters champion, now in position to collect his first victory in a major championship since 2008, had a look of unwavering focus as he never broke stride through the parted crowd. There’s a different electricity to those moments. The processional of a prizefighter.

Once, when Woods powered to the first tee on a Sunday when he won the tournament, he was so fixated that he blew past his mother under the tree without as much as making eye contact.

“When you’re playing, you’re kind of in your own little zone,” O’Meara explained. “That’s the way Tiger is. You can’t really stop him [to say hello] at that point. It’s kind of an unwritten rule that you do that, a little bit unprofessional for me to do. If he wanted to stop and say something, then fine. But I’m not going to bother him in that situation.”

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O’Meara, who played in 34 Masters, said it wasn’t until recent years when he started to take a breath, look around him, and truly enjoy the unique aspects of Augusta, among them the scenes under the tree.

A fellow champion agreed.

“I call this holy grrooond,” Player said. “In Scotland they call it grrooond, not ground — so this is holy grrooond.”

And this week, the epicenter of the golf world.

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