From behind the trees, a golf ball flew toward the green on hole No. 11 during the first round of last week's Masters at Augusta National. It stopped just short, leaving mystery player X a difficult up-and-down try.
"Who was that?" a patron asked. "Maybe Scott Piercy?"
"No, it was a lefty," his friend answered. "Isn't Mike Weir in this group?"
"Yeah, I think he's won here before too. Or maybe that was the U.S. Open. Maybe Piercy's a lefty too."
Yes, Mike Weir is a lefty. He won the Masters in 2003, and although he is ranked No. 1,895 in the world, he was playing this year on a champion's exemption. The 46-year-old Canadian can play The Masters for the rest of his life if he so chooses. That's a rule. And no, Scott Piercy is not a lefty. These are all easy Wikipedia fact-checks.
I overheard this conversation Thursday at Amen Corner while attending my first Masters. I came with a fan ticket, not a media credential and immediately picked out a spot between No. 11 and No. 12 as my first viewing station. The conversations I heard were wild.
Let me backtrack a moment. Cell phones are strictly prohibited for patrons at The Masters. I'm serious. Trust me, I didn't think it was a real thing either. I thought, sure, you can't take them out of your pocket, but you can probably have them on you. After all, in 2017, cell phones are a primary form of safety and communication, always providing a means to connect with loved ones in case of emergency.
But the cell phone ban at Augusta is real. Patrons go through metal detectors that seem more directed at cell phones than weapons. Security officers and marshals patrol the grounds with their eyes fixated at pocket level. Augusta veterans will tell you they've seen fans have phones confiscated and some have been expelled for illegal cell phone use. One media friend told me a journalist had his credential revoked for multiple years after using his cell phone a few feet from the club's exit.
In principle, this makes sense. Phones can potentially make noise. Augusta National is perhaps the most well-groomed and picturesque golf course in the world. It's like Oz without the Wicked Witch of the West. Accidental Siri noises, pop-up Twitter ads and FaceTime rings can only ruin this oasis.
Unless, of course, cell phones make the fan experience better.
A few minutes after Weir's group finished, I struck up a conversation with a fellow patron and explained I am a sportswriter. "Well, then maybe you can help answer a question for us," he said. "Is Dustin Johnson playing or not?"
"I can't help you there," I said with a laugh. "As of last night, he said he'd give it a go. His name is still on the board."
Trapped at Amen Corner around 11 a.m., that's all we knew. I ran into some luck though. Invited to a cabin for lunch, I had access to a TV. It was there, a little after 2 p.m., thanks to the Golf Channel, I found out Dustin Johnson walked off the first tee.
My first though: "Oh crap, this sucks for everyone out on the course right now. They're not going to realize what's going on until they wait on a hole and find out the world No. 1 isn't there."
Of course, back at their hotels, patrons' phones were blowing up with notifications about Johnson's withdrawal. With phone in hand on the course, this would have been easily accessible information. Fans could scroll Twitter to find out every detail of Johnson's exit. Meanwhile, they could also realize Thomas Pieters birdied five of the first 10 holes and was looking like Tiger Woods in 1997 before reaching Amen Corner. Fred Couples was healthy and competitive with his start Thursday. Defending champion Danny Willett started with a double bogey and a bogey, and his tournament was virtually done before it started.
There is an aspect of being able to watch golf, or any sport, smarter with a phone. One could make this whole case about safety and simple communication (if you split up with a friend at Augusta and you didn't set a definitive meeting place, you literally have no form of connecting with them again on the grounds), but for The Masters in particular, phones are needed to make the fans more educated and aware.
Around 1 p.m. Thursday, I was stationed on the green at No. 10. The heavyweight trio of Jordan Spieth, Martin Kaymer and Matt Fitzpatrick was next to hit their approach shots, according to my paper schedule. Until the on-hole scoreboard changed, I had limited clues as to how Spieth was playing. All I knew was that he was not playing well enough to get on the manual leaderboard. He could have taken a quadruple-bogey on a hole (he would later do that on No. 15 and I didn't find out until I was back in a TV room) or made a hole-in-one.
The numbers changed, and Spieth was even. He hit up to the green and fans cheered, knowing they were cheering for a former champ and former world No. 1, although few people had any sense about how Spieth had gotten to even par. He could have had a nine-par round going or four birdies and four bogeys. Whatever emotion Spieth was feeling, the crowd couldn't relate.
Augusta National has an older vibe. The venue has hosted the nation's most famous golf tournament since 1934. Officials will tell you it's never had a problem, and phones have never been allowed. A media friend told me he thinks the players especially love The Masters because they don't have to worry about pictures and sounds being taken at every turn.
But sports are about fans and always will be. Augusta National is beautiful and The Masters is bucket-list material. But that actual experience of watching the sport is weak. Fans don't know the ongoing narrative of what is happening in front of their eyes. They don't know how emotional to get when they don't know how emotional a player is. We live in a world of in-arena apps and instant social-media sharing. The Masters keeps the in-venue experience back in say, 1995. Want to get younger fans engaged with golf? Give them a phone at Augusta.
In terms of the noise, it's important to make one quick note about the PGA Tour: You are allowed to bring your phone to pretty much every other tournament. It is only The Masters which has such strict guidelines. Somehow, at every other tournament, including the majors, play goes on despite fans being armed with cell phones.
If The Masters has an international relative, it is The Open Championship, which, oh by the way, is 156 years old and played on some of the oldest courses in golf history. Yet, if you go to the "Planning your day" section for the July 2017 tournament at Royal Birkdale, you will find this:
The tournament is literally telling you to download the app to watch live video while you are on the course. It also has WiFi on the premises. For a tournament deemed similar to The Masters in stature, it takes the polar opposite approach toward technology.
The idea is to keep people engaged. With no phone access, one can go to a golf tournament, sit on one hole for most of the day and see maybe a couple of shots from each player. But one misses almost everything else going on.
And yes, we do live in a me-me world, where people want to show others they are at The Masters. But they also want to share the setting. I've used words like "picturesque" and "beautiful" to describe Augusta National. I wish I could show you the aesthetics of the course, but I obviously cannot. However, one guy can.
Somehow, this legend, with a cell phone, stationed himself behind Sergio Garcia on the 18th hole when the eventual champion missed his first putt to win a green jacket.
How are these people shocked at Sergio choking? pic.twitter.com/wXFebEKcJI
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 9, 2017
Cell phones have brought a new dynamic to sports highlights. There is a reason SportsCenter devotes time nowadays to sharing amateur video highlights. It adds character. Check out this video of Garcia's winning putt, apparently taken by Tron Carter, co-founder of the No Laying Up podcast, who (maybe) had a press credential and access to his phone.
— Tron Carter (@TronCarterNLU) April 9, 2017
It's an unbelievable shot that he was lucky enough to get, having his phone and having the Augusta security staff fixated on the putt of the tournament. It's the shot that all these fans tried to get when Dirk Nowitzki hit the 30,000-point mark.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 8, 2017
The smartphone is about more than texting and calling. It is about moving at a modern rate, in terms of research and social sharing. The Masters has held its ground for decades, but it is at a point of diminishing returns. Cell phones make fans smarter. They make TV better, when fans comprehend the weight of what they are watching. They make sports move at a modern, tech-savvy rate. Fans on the 18th hole Sunday, who would have needed to establish their position hours in advance, probably did not find out about Garcia's eagle on 15 and narrowly missed birdie on 16 until watching their highlights hours after the playoff hole. If they had those headsets The Open Championship uses, the buzz on 18 would have been even more exciting.
Maybe we need a compromise. Apple, Samsung and other cell phone providers, listen up. We have "airplane mode," but what we really need is "golf mode." This should be a simple mode, which makes sure no accidental sound can come out of the phone to satisfy Augusta National. This gives fans the ability to research, capture, share and communicate without making any noise. Everyone wins.
Better yet, call it "Masters mode." That sounds better anyway.
Get the phones to Augusta. This isn't ruining the "tradition unlike any other." It's making the tradition more accessible to the world.
And making golf at the nation's most prestigious venue a whole lot more engaging.