The American road trip is a highly romanticized idea, one filled with windy, picturesque roads and mom-and-pop diners. The reality is that unless you have done a lot of pre-planning and have a ton of time to get from A to B, you’re probably sticking to interstate highways, stopping in rest stops with horrible coffee and eating uninspired fast food. My latest road trip, from my home in NYC down to Georgia featured plenty of all three. But in this case, it was more about the destination than the journey. As I barreled past Waffle House after Waffle House, I knew that the place I was headed still held onto its romantic ideals with a firm grip: Augusta National Golf Club for the Masters.
Now, I’ve been to plenty sporting events. I should be jaded to the point that going to the Masters shouldn’t matter that much. I have covered the Super Bowl and the Olympics. I have snowboarded with Shaun White. I have run onto the court at the United Center as the Chicago Bulls announcer (the same man who said “From North Carolina, at guard, 6-6, Michael Jordannnn”) called out my name. Not to mention that I’m not a big golfer, nor am I the biggest golf fan.
Yet, much like the nostalgia of the American road trip, the Masters and Augusta National have a psychic, almost poetic sway, over a swath of the population. Of course, some of the reasons for reverence toward Augusta seem almost antithetical to the democratic ideal of free open roads for everyone. The club has a labyrinth of rules and Illuminati-like exclusiveness. However, the road trip of yore and the Masters both embrace slowing down, immersing yourself in your environment and a rejection of relying on too much technology. The Masters is an event that has the power to make grown men wax poetic about azaleas and cause us all to lapse into talking in a reverential, hushed Jim Nantz voice. It’s an allure I had to experience for myself.
So I loaded myself into the ML63 AMG that Mercedes-Benz loaned me for my drive and embarked. And despite my desire to plow down the interstate, the trip still had moments. While driving through the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia I even passed a couple out for a Sunday drive in a mint green 1957 Chevy Bel Air, with the woman sitting in the middle of the bench seat, arm around her man.
What the drive really taught me was that driverless cars are coming and that the technology is already here. The ML63 AMG is really fast. It just launches. After seeing how quickly the thing could get up to triple digits and how normal that felt, I realized that if I got a speeding ticket on this trip, it wouldn’t be the 10-miles-over variety.
So out of a desire to protect my wallet and my license, I relied heavily on Mercedes’s Distronic Plus system, which is a fancy phrase for cruise control. But this isn’t the cruise control you’re used to. Thanks to cameras all around the car, it senses other cars in front of you and adjusts the speed accordingly. If you’ve got the car set at 70 mph and somebody cuts you off, the car automatically slows down. Then when you pass the offending car (that bastard!), it re-accelerates to the pre-set speed.
The system also manages steering. The cameras can see the lane dividers and will correct the car if it veers onto the shoulder or into another lane without signaling. To test it, I even went into one off-ramp with my hands off the wheel and it wound me around the turn at the perfect radius, way better than I would have done on my own.
While I missed the thrill of stepping on the accelerator, I have no doubt that this way was safer. It was also more relaxing. Instead of worrying about all kinds of micro-adjustments, I was content to sit back in the plush leather seat and let the ML63 do its thing until I arrived.
Entering Augusta National Golf Club for the first time, it’s hard not to be nervous. It’s the feeling you get when you’re in a place of reverence. You’ve seen Butler Cabin and Amen Corner your whole life. You’ve known the greatest to ever play the game have walked here in awe and you can feel that Augusta is hallowed ground. And like a church, it has rules. Lots of them. You feel like a kid in elementary school who doesn’t want to get in trouble.
Perhaps the most difficult rule to adjust to is no phones. Those devices that we rely on so heavily to do everything from telling time to checking email to taking pictures? Leave that at home. It’s a really weird sensation to be without your phone for so many hours, especially when you’re in such an Instagram-worthy venue and you know you’re leaving likes on the table. But after awhile, you get used to it and actually relish being off the grid.
That’s what the Masters does to you. Its strict adherence to tradition forces you to slow down. Running is even considered unacceptable conduct on the grounds. At times, those traditions can seem vastly outdated, but when you look at the modern sporting landscape you understand what the tournament is trying to preserve. At most sporting events, you are assaulted with stimuli of all variety, from jumbotrons to credit card sign-up booths. The Masters has none of that. Mercedes is one of only three Masters sponsors, but you don’t see their logo plastered everywhere. Instead they have a well-appointed but non-ostentatious cabin with a replica of the 18th green in front. Rather than having your attention distracted by all sorts of ancillary gimmicks, you are forced to focus on the game itself and the immaculate setting in which it takes place.
Even the food concessions on the course are unbranded. If you want a beer, you have three choices: regular beer, light beer, and imported beer. That’s it. There is no company that can claim to be the “official beer of the Masters.” Then there’s those pimento cheese sandwiches that everyone talks about. It’s a processed cheese spread between two slices of white bread that sounds gross, looks gross, and tastes absolutely delicious. It also costs $1.50. I’m proud to say I consumed at least half a dozen.
The modesty is refreshing. You see members in Augusta green jackets regularly as you walk around. While you certainly feel that you are a guest in their house and that you should behave properly, they are also extremely polite and helpful. One person I met told me that while he was waiting for a friend to arrive at a predetermined meeting spot (remember, there’s no phones to text “OMW, be there in 5”), a member came up and asked him if he needed any help. It was Condoleeza Rice.
On the course itself, the quiet is remarkable. Golf tournaments are never especially loud affairs (Phoenix, excluded) but the Masters takes it to another level. There are thousands of people milling around, and there isn’t even a buzz. No douchebags yell “Get in the hole!” when someone tees off. The tone of voice I use to speak to a colleague a couple of cubicles away could probably be heard three holes away at Augusta. You find yourself whispering for no good reason.
Then you see Arnold Palmer, still one of the coolest golfers ever, having lunch with friends in his green jacket near a portrait of Dwight Eisenhower that hangs in the clubhouse, and it makes sense. The reason you’re whispering is because the Masters can feel like a dream. And you don’t want to wake up.