National, home of The Masters, is one of golf's most distinctive and evocative
venues: the towering pines, the velvety fairways, the blistering greens and the
searing drama mark the true start of the golfing season in the hearts and minds
of golf fans across the world.
Augusta has always been as exclusive as it is appealing. Tickets are literally
worth more than their weight in gold. The subscription lists of
those permitted to buy tickets were closed decades ago, and though tickets make it on to the market the touts charge thousands from eager punters desperate to enjoy once-in-a-lifetime
visits to tread the hallowed turf.
for actually playing the course? You might as well forget about it. Oh sure, there are ways to get on: get to know one
of the 300-odd members, perhaps (only really feasible for US presidents and the like), or somehow get yourself a spot as a tournament marshal
for the week (the volunteers get to play the course on the club's annual caddies'
day, but volunteers spots are even more oversubscribed than tickets). You could always try getting a job as a sports writer, since members of the media covering the tournament also have the right to enter
a lottery to play the course the day after the event finishes. Should you bag that dream job, and then subsequently be gifted the dream assignment, the odds of
being picked out of the hat are reputedly about one in eight.
For everyone else, however, the gates remain firmly locked.
though, Augusta has finally opened its doors for everyone to play - virtually, at least, because for the first time The Masters venue will be included in the Tiger Woods
golf video game.
Woods PGA Tour 12 will be launched by EA Sports in time for this year's
Masters, and includes a recreation of the course that has apparently been several
years in the making, and claims to be the most accurate virtual golf course ever made.
you know the course, you'll be able to point to a tree in the game and say,
wow, that tree has exactly that many branches, and that's the way it's curved,"
says Nick Wlodyka, the game's executive producer.
a bold statement - and worryingly dismissive of the basic laws of nature governing arboreal growth.
But Wlodyka is on safe ground being so bullish since there are probably no more than a few hundred
people in the world who could contradict him. And the pictures - such as the images of the virtual 16th (top) and 12th (above) greens - speak for themselves.
that EA Sports need to do any talking up: they know full well that sales will
go through the roof, simply because this is, at last, a chance to play Augusta.
It's a proposition that is so tempting that millions of golf fans will no doubt
line up to buy the game - even if they first need to buy a Playstation or Xbox on
which to play it. It's that big a deal.
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the past the guardians of Augusta have shied away from having the course
included in games. A Japanese-only game was released back in the early 1990s, but it was never released in Europe or America.
Keeping Augusta out of video games was a decision that, while frustrating to aficionados of computerised golf,
always seemed admirably in tune with the ethos of a tournament which has become
famous for shunning excessive commercialisation. You never see advertising
hoardings on the course, for example, while the lucky punters to make it
through the gates during the tournament are invariably able to buy a sandwich,
a beer and a bag of crisps and still get change from a fiver.
days seem to be on their way out, however. The Augusta of the Billy Payne generation
is becoming ever more savvy about previously unseemly notions such as maximising
hours having been steadily extended over recent years, and the once-always-unseen
front nine is becoming rapidly as familiar as the iconic back nine.
British viewers, the easing stance on commercialism had a harsh sting last year when the BBC lost their rights to show all four days of the
tournament. You now need to line the coffers of BSkyB if you want to watch the action from the
Thursday and Friday of the tournament).
And while all the profits go towards The Masters Foundation, the main point remains that profit seems increasingly to be an aim
of the organisers, rather than just a happy by-product of running a tournament.
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the decision to allow a computerised Augusta to exist is not just about money. Years
of TV drama might make you think that the course's challenge rests on water and
bunkers, but in fact Augusta's challenge rests mainly on the undulations of the
terrain. The greens are one part of that equation, but the huge hills which dominate
Augusta's landscape are just as much a feature of the course.
the challenges of something that video game golf has generally struggled with
(as the inevitably limp recreations of St Andrews' Old Course have
demonstrated), but the game's makers claim that the technology has finally reached a point where they can do the course justice. It is that technology which has reportedly helped convince the club that the time was right to sanction a video game Masters.
Mentality has yet to see how good or bad the virtual Augusta turns out to be. But, having once been lucky enough to be picked out of the hat to play the course as
a member of the media, we can't wait to see how it compares to the real thing.