Masters 2023: How Augusta National changes while seeming to stay the same

'Change is the price of survival': Nicklaus, Player, Watson begin tournament at an ever-changing Augusta National

AUGUSTA, Ga. — With all due respect to the old line about the back nine on Sunday, the Masters truly begins about a half-hour after sunrise on Thursday morning. At a time of day when fog still shrouds Augusta National, when there’s no one but the greenskeepers and the dew out on the course, patrons gather around the first tee to get one more glimpse of history up close.

In a few hours, the sun will be high in the sky, casting the shadow of the great clubhouse oak all around this area, and the well-manicured space between the clubhouse and the tee will be a cheerful backyard party, full of plastic cups and sun dresses and joyful backslaps. Right now, though, it’s as quiet as a church at communion, the patrons murmuring in anticipation.

And then, with a wave of applause that flows from the clubhouse to the tee, they’re here: three-time Masters winner Gary Player, still waving to the patrons like an emperor receiving his expected praise; six-time winner Jack Nicklaus, still bemused by all the fuss 60 years almost to the day after his first win here; and two-time winner Tom Watson, the new guy, still looking a bit awestruck.

The clubhouse, the course, the players … it all seems like a moment frozen in time, the way the Masters always does. But look closer. The ceremonial tee shot is ever-changing, just like the rest of Augusta National. Since Arnold Palmer restarted the ceremonial starter tradition in 2007, no single grouping of legends has lasted longer than five years. Nicklaus (2010), Player (2012) and Watson (2022) have joined the ceremony; Palmer and Lee Elder have passed away. The memories remain, but the faces move on.

Then there’s the technology. A drone hums softly overhead, keeping a respectful distance. Where once you had to cup your ear to hear the introductions of the legends, a speaker beside the tee box now broadcasts chairman Fred Ridley’s introduction of the trio in bright clear tones. The whole scene is airing on the Masters app, the streaming industry’s unlikely gold standard for reliability and clarity. Those azaleas pop in hi-def, my friend.

Augusta National changes the way Hemingway used to say people go bankrupt: gradually, and then suddenly. But since Augusta National stands at the furthest financial point from bankruptcy, the recent changes here are monumental and literally earth-shattering. Those fortunate enough to visit Augusta National every year might not notice the vast extent of the changes, but take a few years off, and you’re coming back to a place that may bear only a superficial resemblance to the Augusta National you remember.

The construction of a palatial new media center, the complete reworking of the par-3 course, the lengthening of an iconic hole, the development of an entire synchronized crowd-management infrastructure to move patrons through the souvenir shop — all these massive changes blend seamlessly into the Augusta National experience, and they all compound on one another. It’s like adding instrument after instrument to a symphony orchestra: the music swells and becomes more grandiose, yes, but at what point does it become deafening?

Gary Player (in black), Jack Nicklaus (in red) and Tom Watson (front) begin the 2023 Masters. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
Gary Player (in black), Jack Nicklaus (in red) and Tom Watson (front) begin the 2023 Masters. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

“Change is the price of survival,” Player said a few minutes after stroking his tee shot, and it’s the most truthful line said at Augusta in decades. Augusta National doesn’t just survive, it thrives, because of its constant desire, its constant need, to change.

A deeply researched Golf Digest article that landed just before Masters week charts out projected and prospective developments at Augusta National that, if implemented, will make the recent round of changes look like quick makeup touch-ups. A full-scale on-property hotel, an entire second course, a dedicated off-ramp from Interstate 20 to bring patrons right onto the property … all this and more could be part of the 21st-century Augusta National. It will be an unparalleled experience, without a doubt, but will it still be the tournament so many have loved up to now?

In one important way, it’s an irrelevant question. Every day at Augusta National is somebody’s — usually many thousands of somebody’s — first visit, and for each one of those, Augusta National is an experience unlike any other. The first-timers don’t care if everything’s a touch sleeker, more sanitized, more choreographed and stage-managed than in years past. They’re here to soak up the atmosphere, and that’s something Augusta National produces in inexhaustible quantities. You’ve got to work hard to have a bad day at the Masters, and nothing in the club’s current or immediate future plans will change that.

A couple hours after Player, Nicklaus and Watson begin the tournament, Tiger Woods steps up to the first tee to start his own tournament. The gathering now among the first tee is vibrant. Industry titans and social-media superstars mix in the spreading shadow of the oak. The sun overhead is warming up everyone faster than unlabeled domestic beers, colas and sports drinks can cool them down.

With five green jackets and a surgically repaired lower half, Woods is much closer to being a ceremonial starter than he is to the 21-year-old kid who torched this course a quarter-century ago. But he still draws the numbers, the applause, the YEAAHHHHs when he tees off. (No “Mashed Potatoes!” or “Get in the hole!”, though. Some Augusta traditions never change, chief among them, “Don’t shout like a jackass.”)

Woods' first tee shot travels 289 yards, right into the center of the narrow fairway, and he begins the long, painful walk over 7,545 yards — a substantial increase over the 6,925 yards he walked when winning this tournament back in 1997, by the way. One day, Woods might be among the old legends playing a single ceremonial shot, but today, he has much more work to do.

All around him, the solemn quiet and the historical weight of the ceremonial tee shots has vanished like the early-morning fog. The Masters festivities are well underway, and everyone is blissfully happy.