Augusta is golf's national treasure

The American continent forms the third part of The National's series on sporting venues and Washington Road in Georgia leads the way.

The approach to it is tacky, but the course itself is a thing of beauty, steeped in history and tradition. And it has given us some of sport's most cherished memories. Mike Lopresti reports on a unique venue From the outside, you could never imagine the green treasure that lies beyond the gate. Washington Road in Augusta, Georgia is a typical suburban conglomeration of fast-food restaurants, motels and petrol stations. A noisy, teeming slice of today.

But then you turn into the main entrance of Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, and head slowly towards yesterday. First, the shady 300-metre drive down Magnolia Lane, with its 61 trees planted just before Georgia seceded from the Union. Then, the two-story white clubhouse and former indigo plantation. Beyond, the rolling land that began as a nursery. "And to think," Bobby Jones said, the first time he saw it in the 1930s, "this ground has been lying here all these years waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it."

Eight decades later, the Masters and Augusta National carry on, one golf shoe planted in the modern age, the other in the tradition of the old days. "A lot of magical things happen. It's simply the Masters," Angel Cabrera said after winning in 2009. "I've just come to love and cherish it," said Phil Mickelson who, after winning this year, hugged his cancer-stricken wife on No 18 in a tearful scene that went into the vault of great Augusta moments.

"I got the film," Gary Player said of the first time he won, "and I hired a man to go around the whole of South Africa to show all our people what it was like to win the Masters." What makes it special? Start with its function as an annual ritual. Same place, same time every year, serving as an usher into spring. The first flowers many Americans see each April are the azaleas hugging Amen Corner. Then there is the beauty. It is not easy to look this good. The course sits closed and empty during the steamy Georgia summer, allowing time for renewal.

Above all, there is tradition, scrupulously guarded, though sometimes at the cost of unseemly controversy. Open the membership to minorities? That took a while. To women? Still waiting. But there is undeniable charm in other displays of Augusta's steadfastness. Where else can you go to a major sports event, buy a sandwich and soft drink, and get change for a US$5 bill (Dh18.3)? The Super Bowl might jam television commercials into its broadcast, in the way a two-week vacationer stuffs clothes into a suit case. The Masters voluntarily limits commercial time. "It's just pure golf," Greg Norman once said, even as a man whose heart was broken by Augusta.

The waiting list to buy badges was started in 1972. The last names were added before closing the list in 2000. The wait can last decades. There will never be corporate tents littering the landscape. The new champion will always be helped into his green jacket by the previous winner. There will always be two locker rooms, one reserved for past champions. You can make millions and be ranked No 1 in the world, but you are not changing your shoes in the champions' locker room without a green jacket.

The champions will always be invited to come back. Player competed in 52 Masters. "I will look forward to this tournament every year for the rest of my life," Mickelson said the first time he won. The most famous shot remains one struck 75 years ago; Gene Sarazen's double eagle on No 15. Among the most famous downfalls, either Norman's 78 to blow a six-stroke lead on Sunday in 1996, or Roberto de Vicenzo's incorrect scorecard in 1968 that cost him a chance to win in a play-off.

When the Masters needed a face for the television age, there was Arnold Palmer, to win four times. His first was 1958, the same year the journalist Herbert Warren Wind, trying to describe the crucial travails of Nos 11, 12 and 13, came up with a name that stuck: Amen Corner. When Palmer faded, there was Jack Nicklaus, to win six times. "Augusta," he said, "always inspired me." It is the place where Tiger Woods won at the age of 21, and four years later, took his fourth straight major, the Tiger Slam.

Augusta has few water hazards. The danger is subtle. Its secrets are in its greens and approach shots. A man has to think his way to a Masters, with experience and wisdom his best allies. The only Masters rookie to win since 1935 was Fuzzy Zoeller, 31 years ago. When Woods wanted to launch his return from infamy this year, he knew just the place. The place where the love for golf would overwhelm any tabloid headline. Nothing dents Augusta, not even scandal. "I was saying 'Thank you' all day," Woods said of the reaction he received. Most golfers feel that way the moment they come down Magnolia Lane.

2. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: The only two-Olympiad stadium on the planet has seen headier days like the Super Bowl. 3. Wigley Field, Chicago: It has ivy on the outfield walls, contrary winds, a scoreboard where the numbers are still turned by hand and an intimate ambience that makes it beloved. 4. Estadio Azteca, Mexico City: It seats 105,000 "fanaticos" and was home to the 1970 and 1986 World Cup finals 5. Indianapolis Motor Speedway: For millions of people, the Indy 500 is the only car race in the world. 6. Churchill Downs, Louisville: The Kentucky Derby bills itself as the "most exciting two minutes in sports". 7. Fenway Park, Boston: The Red Sox stadium opened the same week in 1912 that the Titanic sank. 8. Lambeau Field, Green Bay: The NFL Packers' Arctic-chilled field is best served with ice.