A fortnight ago, I had the privilege of completing the “career grand slam” of golf attendance when I traveled across the pond and spent three days at The Open at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. Sunday’s final round was, of course, one for the ages, as Jordan Spieth captured his third different major championship.
As most of my friends know, I’ve made an annual tradition of attending The Masters in Augusta, Georgia every April since 2010. It’s always been the highlight of the year for me. This January, while watching one of the early-season golf events, out of curiosity I went to the the site for The Open and found that you could buy a ticket for any day of the championship for a mere 55 British pounds. For perspective, a single-day badge at the Masters (on the resale market) usually costs well over one thousand dollars. I’ve spent five grand on a four-day badge on more than one occasion so I was a bit taken aback at the ease of getting tickets to The Open.
Anyway, I started researching flights and hotels and realized that I could make a 10-day European vacation out of it, with my girlfriend Nicole, for about the same cost as four days at Augusta. Literally, the two of us went to The Open for three days, took two trains to Paris and then finished with three days in London for less cost than a trip to The Masters by myself.
I’ve had many of my friends ask me to compare The Masters to The Open so I thought I’d make a brief blog out of it. The experience at each major championship is one you’ll never forget but they’re really different.
Start with the cost and access for tickets. The Masters is on par with the Super Bowl as one of the toughest tickets in sports. The vast majority of tickets (called “badges”) are in the possession of families that have been attending for decades. The waiting list for “season tickets” was closed decades ago. Every year, the Masters committee holds a lottery for the opportunity to purchase two tickets for just one day at the event. I enlisted a few close friends and family to help win the lottery and actually, my mother won two tickets for the Saturday round this year. “Winning” means that you pay face value, I can’t remember what it was exactly but think face value was about 80 bucks for one day. But it’s hard to win that lottery; we all were shutout for the 2018 event.
At The Open, they were still selling tickets during the tournament itselt. That doesn’t mean The Open isn’t immensely popular, it’s just not quite on par with The Masters. Also, the Masters’ organizers deliberately limit the number of patrons who can attend the event so it’s not overwhelmed with people. At The Open, there is no such concern about the crowds. They were happy to announce that 235,000 people attended this year’s event, an all-time record for an event not held at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf.
You will never, ever, ever be told how many people attended the Masters in any year but, I can tell you from having now attended both, there were probably 50% more people at The Open each day than I’ve ever seen at Augusta. This has an impact on what you can see. At the final round of The Open, Nicole and I were on the 13th hole during Spieth’s famous bogey. We then walked towards the 14th tee and, because of my height of 6’6″, I was able to see his tee shot and follow his ball to within a foot of the pin. These two holes (along with his eagle on 15, which we didn’t see), were the three that gave young Jordan the championship.
Anyway, because of the proximity and huge crowd sizes everywhere, we went straight from the 14th to the 18th green and, even an hour in advance, could barely see a thing although it was worth it just to be there in the throng of spectators at the conclusion of the tournament. At Augusta, if you went from the 14th to the 18th (skipping the three holes in between), you’d be able to fairly easily wedge your way into a place where you could see the walk up 18 and the end of the championship.
Generally speaking, the simplest way I can compare The Masters to the The Open is to compare them to the greatest two golfers of the 2nd half of the 20th century, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In many ways, The Open is the tournament for the every man and Palmer, despite a nickname fit for a monarch (The King), embodied the every man. Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, had a regal aura about him when he played. As the tournament’s only six-time champion, Jack more than anyone embodied The Masters, a tournament largely inaccessible to the every man because of the difficulty and expense of procuring a badge.
You can see the essence of what makes The Open and The Masters different by these photos of the 2nd hole at Royal Birkdale and the 13th at Augusta National.
The ten different courses in England or Scotland that are currently used for The Open (known as the “rota”) and they’re all raw, grafted by nature. They’re all links courses, located by the sea. There are no trees but there’s plenty of long grass (call it the “hay”). There are blotches of brown on the more tightly manicured areas despite no shortage of rain in the United Kingdom. The sand in the bunkers is fairly dark, the color of, well, sand.
At Augusta, every blade of grass appears to have been attended to individually. You have never seen perfectly mown fairway grass until you’ve seen Augusta’s. During tournament week, Azaleas are (usually) in bloom. 60-foot tall pine trees bend every so gently in the wind. The sand, made out of expensive quartz, is pure white. In short, when you roam the course at Augusta, you feel like you are in an outdoor golfing museum. Three-time champion Gary Player once mused that if there was a golf course in heaven it would be Augusta National.
For the champions of each major golf championship, there’s a cherished and iconic item. Although the Masters champion does receive a beautiful trophy, it’s the Green Jacket that every golfer wants to wear. At The Open, the Claret Jug trophy provides the seminal imagery for its newly crowned “champion golfer of the year.”
Although The Open has been held since 1860 (the first Masters didn’t take place until 1934), it is The Open that has, at least for those attending the event in person, embraced modern technology while The Masters exists in a time bubble. Let me say here that it’s one of my favorite things about The Masters is the time warp. You could go back in time thirty years and it wouldn’t look much different. No cell phones are allowed, even during practice rounds. Cameras are prohibited during the tournament. When you buy a beer, it’s four bucks; a sandwich is $2.50. There is no corporate signage whatsoever except what the players wear on the shirts and hats. If you buy a soda, it’s a “regular cola” or a “diet cola.” All of this is unique to The Masters. As far as I know, it’s the only tournament left in the world that prohibits carrying a cell phone onto the course.
Another part of The Masters’ time bubble is the lack of electronic scoreboards. All of the leader boards are hand operated. I will admit that this is a tradition that could use a little update. At the Open, although they have a traditional hand-operated board on the 18th, every other hole has an electronic scoreboard so you know exactly what’s going on with the other players on the course. During this year’s Open, Nicole and I were on the 13th hole when Spieth was having his excellent adventure. We knew what was going on because of other members of the gallery who were listening on the radio on the mobile app and because there was a video board a few hundred yards away from which I could see (with the aid of binoculars) Spieth conferring with officials and looking to drop his ball amidst the TV trucks.
When Spieth hit his third shot (after a penalty for an unplayable lie) and we saw his ball land short of the green, we knew the stakes, that he was trying to get up and down for bogey. In a similar circumstance at The Masters, we really wouldn’t have known what was going on until after the hole when the scoreboard was updated.
In terms of the overall organization of the two events, both are very well run but The Masters is the gold standard that is really impossible for any other golf tournament to meet. The organizers of The Masters have the advantage of holding the championship every year so upgrades to the patron facilities are enjoyed every 12 months.
At Augusta, there are trash receptacles everywhere (in green bags, to blend in with the course). At The Open, I carried around an empty bottle of water for seemingly 20-30 minutes before I found a trash can. At Augusta, you literally have seven to eight employees keeping each of the mens’ rooms running efficiently. The stalls are always clean, wiped down after every patron does their business. At the Open, we were surprised that they had large mobile porto’s, but they weren’t always clean.
There is one crucial element of The Masters experience that makes it especially unique and its something no other major golf tournament can match. Because The Masters is played at the same venue every year, when you visit the course for the first time, there’s an instant familiarity with the layout of the holes, especially those on the back nine. When you’re viewing the course in person for the first time (or the ninth, for me), images seen from past tournaments over the decades flood the brain.
With The Open (as it is with our U.S. Open and PGA Championship), the tournament is hosted by a different course every year. As a golf fan, I needed to discover Royal Birkdale for the first time while on the premises. Yes, I recalled Padraig Harrington’s second straight Claret Jug in 2008 (with 53-year-old Greg Norman surprisingly in contention) but I had to look it up to remind myself that Mark O’Meara’s Open win in 1998 and Tom Watson’s fifth Open title occurred on this fantastic course in Southport. Jordan Spieth’s title run two weeks ago represented just the 10th time The Open has ever been held at Royal Birkdale.
By comparison, Augusta, Georgia has hosted The Masters 81 times. I’ve attended personally eight of The Masters championships at Augusta National and there have been 73 others tournaments dating back to 1934 held on the same golf course. I’ve watched about 30 of those on television. After eight events attended in the last eight years, it never, ever, ever gets old.
Ultimately, the experience two weeks ago at The Open was priceless, a bucket list item fulfilled. Going forward, if I had to choose between The Masters and The Open, I would always choose The Masters. That’s not to take anything away from The Open experience. It’s hard to match perfection.
However, if you’re a golf fan living in the U.S. and contemplating a once-in-a-lifetime visit to either The Open or The Masters, going to The Open will cost significantly less money, even including the airfare to the U.K. Unless you have an “insider angle” or win the ticket lottery (which only gets you one day), The Masters can be prohibitively expensive. For me, it’s worth every penny every year and I’m so fortunate to have been able to add The Open this year.
Thanks for reading.