Tiger Woods's return to golf this week is the sports story of the year, or at least the third or fourth most compelling sports story so far this month that didn't involve Butler or Jason Heyward. His comeback would be news anywhere, but it's particularly fascinating that it's happening at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, the one place in sports where one can close one's eyes and pretend it's 1904. If you're not a golf fan and tuning in this weekend just to see the freak show, remember, you're not watching golf in its normal form: You're watching Augusta.
It's strange in Augusta. Here are a front nine examples of why.
1. It's impossible to get in. No one knows exactly how many members Augusta National has, because they're essentially Skull & Bones about it, but most estimates run around 300. You can't apply to be a member, either: You must be selected. Members included Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and T. Boone Pickens. In 2002, USA Today attempted to list as many members as it could find. It's safe to say that list hasn't changed much since then.
2. Because of this, every member is very old. The average member's age back in 2002 was 72 years old.
3. They don't even let golfers in. Right now, there are only two professional golfers currently members of Augusta National: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
4. They're still not letting ladies in. The kerfuffle in 2002 about the club's insistence that women not be allowed in, an issue pushed hard by Howell Raines and the Times, caused quite a ruckus back then. (Our favorite quote, from member Boone Knox: "We have nothing against women. I love them all. I've got some myself. But we're a private club, and I'm all for it staying that way.") The controversy became so heated that the Masters actually ran without commercial sponsorship in 2003 and 2004. Six years later, there still are no female members, and there are no plans to add any.
5. A glorious racial history that spans twenty years. The first black man admitted to Augusta National was Ron Townsend, president of Gannett Television Group. He was the result of a months-long search; the club president said he was just trying to find "the right guy to invite." A month earlier, Tiger Woods beat several tour pros in a charity event, at the age of 14.
6. The Green Jacket thing. Why do they give the green jacket to the champion every year? Because club founder Clifford Roberts, in 1930, thought men's outfits were getting too "flashy."
7. Amen Corner isn't a real thing. The most famous segment of the course, parts of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth holes, was named by a Sports Illustrated writer who wanted to make a name for himself by giving golf a moniker, "like the hot corner in baseball." He took a line from a jazz record he liked, "Shoutin' at the Amen Corner."
8. They decide the poor bastard who has to play with Tiger. At most tournaments, the pairings in the first two runs are done at random. Not at Augusta. Here, some unfortunate soul will be specifically selected to play with Tiger. Expect this person to have an unhappy look on their face all week.
9. They would just as soon you leave them alone. Augusta National hates publicity, but they love the big checks the Masters brings them every year. So they split the difference: ESPN can broadcast the first two rounds of the tournament, but only sporadically, and only how they allow it. Only golfing press is allowed; this week, Larry King and Diane Sawyer were both denied credentials. Tiger Woods has always played his best at Augusta, a course he's uniquely designed to dominate, but this is why Augusta is his safe place this week.