AUGUSTA, Ga. — When you walk through the gates of Augusta National, it really is a throwback to a different era.
Welcome to one of the few remaining places on the planet where cellphones are strictly prohibited.
And, rest assured, the folks in the green jackets are serious about everyone going dark.
More than a decade ago, Scott Feight got one of those coveted opportunities to purchase badges for a practice round. He brought along his father, who forgot he had a mobile phone in the bottom of his bag, having just returned from a two-week trip to Asia.
Security officers spotted it at the gate.
He and his father were still allowed to attend the practice round, albeit after checking the phone. A few months later, Feight got a note from the club saying his badge-buying privileges had been revoked.
“I’m cursed for life,” Feight quipped in a telephone interview from Atlanta, where he runs a nonprofit organization that decorates hospitals with artwork.
The ban on mobile devices is a shock to just about everyone who walks through the gates, especially in an era when people use them not just as a means of communicating with one another, but to take pictures and videos, stay connected to the internet, maintain their contacts and schedules, and even something as simple as checking the time.
“My fiancee asked me, ‘How are you going to tell time when you’re out there?’” said Kevin Caskey of Chesterfield, South Carolina, shortly after arriving Saturday for his first Masters.
“I had to dig out a watch,” he added, smiling as he looked down at his arm.
Paige Robinson, a patron from Birmingham, Alabama, said the prohibition on cellphones is “just like the rest of this place: organized chaos and nostalgia.”
She got a bit of a scare when, during a trip to the hectic gift shop, she got separated from her friends. Since none of them had a cellphone, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to track them down. Fortunately, she was able to find them.
Then again, there’s something to be said for being cut off from the rest of the world.
“It’s like a forced detachment,” Robinson said. “It’s almost liberating in a way.”
Augusta National is largely on its own when it comes to banning cellphones. Golf’s other three major championships now allow fans to carry their devices throughout the tournament. Ditto for the PGA Tour and other major tours.
The British Open, golf’s oldest major, now installs Wi-Fi routers at each hole to make it easier for its fans to stay connected. There are specified areas out on the course where people can send texts and make calls. Everyone is encouraged to download an app that allows them to keep up with the tournament on their devices with just a few taps.
Even through the tradition-rich Masters has opened up its membership to women and spent tens of millions of dollars to keep up with the times, there’s no sign that the cellphone ban will be lifted anytime soon.
When Billy Payne, Augusta National’s chairman, was queried about it before the start of the tournament, he replied sternly, “You’ll have to ask the next chairman. That’s not going to change while I’m chairman.”
Pressed on why the club continues to ban a device that has become so indispensable in people’s lives, Payne said, “I just don’t think it’s appropriate. The noise is an irritation to not only the players — the dialing, the conversation. It’s a distraction and that’s the way we’ve chosen to deal with it.”
The patrons at Augusta National aren’t totally cut off from the world.
At the main entrance, not far from the first fairway, there’s a row of 24 phones — actual land lines, if anyone remembers what those were — enabling fans to place free calls anywhere in the United States (international cards require a credit card).
That spot was bustling Saturday, but there were plenty of humorous moments as people squinted to read the instructions or struggled to remember the numbers they needed to call. After all, most people have those stored in their cellphones.
“Hmm, you’ve got to dial ‘1’ to get out,” one man said.
Robinson, who had just finished a call, said it was probably the first time in five years she’d been anywhere without her mobile phone.
“I travel internationally a lot,” she said. “Even then, you can usually find Wi-Fi and call free to anywhere in the world.”
Augusta, though, is a whole new world.
Or, actually, a world that once was.
Feight knows the bigwigs at Augusta National won’t be asking for his advice anytime soon. Heck, they won’t even allow him back on the grounds.
But, for what it’s worth, he thinks the Masters should get in step with the times.
“We’re so connected with technology. There are so many cool things you could have at your fingertips while the tournament is going on,” Feight said. “Why would you not let your spectators see what’s going on, as long as they’re not a distraction to the players?”