Masters 2019: Device divorce brings conversation, community and progress at Augusta National
The way forward for the sport of golf might actually be a small step back to the past
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If you are a human being in 2019, there is a close to 100 percent chance you have interacted with a device that has a screen today. In fact, you are almost certainly looking at a device or screen right now, unless for some fanatical (and possibly maniacal) reason you had somebody print this out for you on the back of a dead tree. Your interaction with a device or screen -- whenever it may have been -- likely left you cold. You likely went to it looking for something it does not (and cannot) offer. You likely left it more frustrated and unfulfilled than you were before.
This is not always the case, and even when it is, it's not even always discernible. But device idolization brought about by cultural norms -- that may or may not have been intended by their creators -- has become a wide-sweeping problem that, much like other broad societal issues, is a fact, whether we want it to be or not.
It often feels like there is no escape. The great irony of technology is that its promises of enhancing the independence and self-reliance we think we crave are turned upside down the moment we realize that we are slaves to our phones and our tablets and that our kids are, too. This feeling is a black hole in our hearts because, though we want to regain control of our eyes and our lives, everything we do and everything we plan to do is now tied to a glowing screen.
"We didn't sign up for the digital lives we now lead," writes Cal Newport in his new (and excellent) book, Digital Minimalism. "They were instead, to a large extent, crafted in boardrooms to serve the interests of a select group of technology investors."
There is anxiety induced by participating in staring at these screens all day, and then there is also anxiety in realizing that we may never do anything different. To buck your head at these realities is to simply kick the can down the road to a time when they will have to be dealt with only after the habits are more entrenched.
"If I force you to quit Facebook, you're not likely to suffer serious withdrawal symptoms or sneak out in the night to an internet cafe to get a fix," Newport adds. "On the other hand, these addictions can still be quite harmful to your well-being. You might not sneak out to access Facebook, but if the app is only one tap away on the phone in your pocket, a moderate behavioral addiction will make it really hard to resist checking your account again and again throughout the day."
Thankfully, for one week a year in the golf world, there is a reprieve. Folks have certainly discussed the "no cell phone" policy at Augusta National and the Masters before, but I'm not sure we've ever considered it as it currently stands -- splayed against the angsty technological background (rooted in scientific research on what devices are doing to our brains) that is being unearthed one New York Times article at a time.
It might not be much -- these seven days -- but it's certainly a soul-cleansing time for those in attendance. A full day -- for some, eight hours, for others up to 12 -- without a phone to check, without a screen at which to stare.
It is life upside down in 2019, and it's kind of beautiful.
Don't believe me? Just listen to some of the patrons in attendance for practice rounds and the tournament this week. The feeling is nearly universal among folks who are on the property this week. The only downside noted by anyone with whom I spoke is an inability to take photos.
"It's a good idea," said Ed Gooyers, a 62-year-old resident of Vancouver, British Columbia. "It gives you a break from your world." His son responded in kind. "You can soak in the course without distraction," said Chad, age 33.
Lee Arsenault, a 33-year-old elevator technician from Montreal, Quebec, agreed. "It's inconvenient for sure, but I don't mind not having it. I have a lot more conversation [than I otherwise would]. It's a good change," he said.
Linda Hart, a retired teacher from Ontario, concurred. "It's nice to have a day and not have any other distractions," she said. "It's nice to come in here and not everybody is on their phones. Walking through those gates is like walking through another world."
Even folks who aren't watching the golf are steadfast in agreement.
"I love it," said Sarah Bass, a 20-year-old student and Augusta resident who's working in the merchandise tent this week. "It forces you to engage in conversation and teaches you how to live life more in the moment."
For the myriad rules at Augusta National Golf Club that you may feel inclined to question, its staunch stance on phone usage remains a brilliant bit of wisdom. There is no going back once you go forward, and Augusta knows that. Despite some push back, the club has not wavered.
The reigning champion of this mammoth tournament addressed that in his first full press conference since last year's triumph.
"I think, for me, it's a place that you feel like you can get away," said 2018 champion Patrick Reed. "Nowadays, everything's so much in the fast lane. Everything is so much in electronics, and to be able to come out and get back to what golf is, it's the fans coming out and experiencing such a perfect golf course, being able to actually watch golf. Not sit there and try to take photos or video people as they are hitting golf shots. So they actually get to experience it."
It is a joke within golf circles that there is more grainy footage of Tiger Woods on cell phones than any human being who has ever lived. That may or may not be true, but the fact that it's a conversation at all is no surprise to anyone who has ever attended the Farmers Insurance Open, Honda Classic or Arnold Palmer Invitational. I guess Tiger in 2436x1125 resolution is better than Tiger in no resolution at all.
Somebody who's had a front row seat to that several times over the last few years is world No. 3 Rory McIlroy. He played a practice round with world No. 2 Dustin Johnson on Monday, and the demarcation of this week from all the other weeks was distinct.
"Playing a practice round yesterday, I said to [caddie] Harry [Diamond] out there, 'How good is it that people aren't looking at their phones?'" remarked McIlroy. "Yes, there are people with cameras, but they don't constantly have their face in the device. It's refreshing.
"There's something to be said for that, and I think people can learn from that. There's actually a book I'm reading at the minute called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and that goes into all that and how device are, there are obviously so many wonderful things about them, but only if used in the right way. I think it's cool to see that and see that Augusta has upheld that tradition. I think it's a great thing."
It is a great thing that for one week we step away from what we think is real life to participate in what is actually, by definition, real life. The trade-off off for removing our slavish behavior to our beeping rectangular leashes is of course more of what we actually crave: each other, nature, community and conversation.
I'm not here to lionize the Masters, but the intended (unintended?) benefit of this policy cannot be understated. Let's again turn to Newport in Digital Minimalism.
"... as you trade more of this [screen] time for conversation, the richness of these analog interactions will far outweigh what you're leaving behind. In her book, Sherry Turkle summarizes research that found just five days at a camp with no phones or internet was enough to induce major increases in the campers' well-being and sense of connection.
"It won't take many walks with a friend, or pleasantly meandering phone calls, before you begin to wonder why you previously felt it was so important to turn away from the person sitting right in front of you to leave a comment on your cousin's friend's Instagram feed."
Augusta National and the Masters is not a camp, but it offers the same noted benefits. It's a place that's incredibly loud but never noisy. It's a place that is often thunderous but never shrill. This is not a cry for yesteryear (because the good ol' days were not in fact better) but a plea for a continued week of insulation from a digital world that can wait until the last putt on Sunday.
To end all of this, we turn to a photo which lit me up. It is of Augusta National patron Josh Douglass and his daughter.
Douglass fired it off to Kevin Van Valkenburg and I after Van Valkenburg sent a thread into the stratosphere about how beautiful Augusta is made by a phone-less ecosystem. It lit me up is because any reminder that I'll never get that photo (or any photo) with my daughter lights me up.
That Douglass got to watch the first Augusta National Women's Amateur with his daughter, that they experienced moments and conversations specifically created for their own hearts and minds and not created for the cycle of sharing and affirmation that social media has become, is simple and wonderful to me.
We have bastardized social media and misused our devices. We want them to deliver something, and they deliver hardly anything of actual significance. Our worlds have become all red hearts and blue thumbs, and to be fair, some of that has been life-changing for my career.
But I promise I would trade all of it -- all of the digital connectivity, all of the super low levels of notoriety I've gained because of the invention of screens and devices -- for one 12-hour day with my daughter talking about golf and cheese sandwiches and which Augusta National holes and golfers are her favorites.
Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said it perfectly when asked on Wednesday, noting that the club has no plans for any of this to change.
"I think our patrons appreciate our cell phone policy," said Ridley. "I know that we have now become an outlier, if not the only outlier in golf, as well, at allowing cell phones. I think it's part of the ambience of the Masters.
"I read Rory's interview [Tuesday], and he made some very insightful comments about that. He said it was really nice to be out there on the golf course and not seeing everyone looking down at their hand with their cell phone. I don't believe that's a policy that anyone should expect is going to change in the near future, if ever. I can't speak for future chairmen, but speaking for myself, I think we got that right."
Humans are not dumb. We evolve and grow and wriggle our way out of addictive, self-destructive behavior. It is part of the process of continuing to be human. We've done it before, and we'll do it again. Sometimes, though, we just need a little nudge in the right direction.
The Masters provides at least a version of that. And I can't help but think that Augusta National, for all the technological strides it has made over the years, is an anchor for one of the most fundamental of all the human conditions. Congregating upon a specific locale to feast and commune and trade stories with other human beings is a ritual that's as timeless as the walls surrounding this magical place. Augusta takes a step back as a way forward. It's a difficult concept, one we could all stand to put into practice.
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