The Masters Ritual That’s in the Mail

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The invitations have come his way for half a century, and Ben Crenshaw, now 70 years old, has kept each and every one.

“The Board of Governors of the Augusta National Golf Club,” the handsome cards invariably begin, “cordially invites you to participate” in the year’s Masters Tournament.

“I’m elated every time,” Crenshaw, who won the Masters in 1984 and 1995, said in an interview. “Every player will tell you that. They get that formal invitation, and it’s there before you, and it’s, ‘Wow, I’m qualified to play in the event.’”

Few competitions in sports openly cultivate and savor mystique like the Masters, whose opening round will be played on Thursday. There are the green jackets for winners and Augusta National members, the Tuesday night dinners for past champions and the cheap pimento cheese sandwiches for fans, the manicured rectitude of a course splendid with azaleas and dogwoods and largely, proudly devoid of modern life’s conveniences and intrusions.

One of the tournament’s throwback rituals, though, begins months before the field faces Augusta National’s punishing greens, and it usually unfolds in private: the mailing and receipt of invitations to the men who have qualified for the Masters.

Augusta, quintessentially Southern, asks the golfers to R.S.V.P. to the invitations, which it has sent since the tournament’s start in 1934.

The 2019 R.S.V.P. sent by Tiger Woods, who won the Masters that year.

“Good style is always right at the time, good taste is always in taste,” said Gary Player, who won nine major tournaments, including three at Augusta National. “When you get that invitation, if you see it, it’s so exquisitely done with such class. Everything in business is negotiable except quality, and that embraces it to the hilt.”

Player, one of the honorary starters for this year’s tournament, added in an interview in January: “I still look at it and I come back to the same conclusion: I’m just overwhelmed at how they do things with class.”

The Masters has always been an invitational event, even before it was called the Masters, though its appeal and prestige have swelled since the tournament’s early days. The opportunity to play today is hardly a surprise — Augusta National publishes a roster of clear-cut ways to qualify, from being a previous Masters champion to finishing in the top four at the previous year’s P.G.A. Championship, though it has the authority to ask others to compete. But players aren’t always aware that the storied tournament comes with a physical invitation.

Patrick Reed, who earned one of Augusta National’s green jackets in 2018, recalled that he had been tipped off to keep an eye on the mail for his first invitation after he won the Wyndham Championship, but that it was still “unbelievable” when the envelope from the club near the Savannah River arrived ahead of the 2014 Masters. He kept that first invitation, as well as the one from the year after he won.

“Both of them are ones I’m going to save and cherish forever,” he said at a news conference in 2019, even though he did not know where his other invitations had wound up over the years. He added, “Just the chills when you’re opening it up, it’s just an awesome experience — even though it’s just a piece of paper that has your invitation on it.”

Neither Crenshaw nor Player could recall any other tournament with quite such a habit, or, at least, not one quite so polished. (“I don’t remember getting a letter from the R&A,” Player, who has long described the British Open as his favorite tournament, mused wryly of that event’s organizer.) Many in golf, including Crenshaw, ascribe the enduring formality to Bobby Jones, an Augusta National founder who died in 1971.

“To me, it reflects what Bob Jones always retained on nearly everything that’s at Augusta: It’s proper, it has a certain amount of grace to it, there’s a touch of humility,” Crenshaw said. “It’s beautifully done, and the font has never changed, and the seal is on it. It’s the way they do things.”

Gary Player sometimes sent warm holiday cards.

If the invitations are almost entirely unchanged across the generations, the responses are still evolving. Many of today’s players reply by email. But for decades, pen and paper were the way of Augusta National, and the club recently allowed The New York Times to review a selection of the written responses it holds in its archives — pages of golf history, to be sure, but also glimpses of players’ personalities and changing fortunes.

“It will be a pleasure to be there,” Herman Keiser wrote in cursive on “Herman Keiser Golf Pro” letterhead in February 1946, about two months before he won the Masters, his only major victory.

“It is with pleasure that I accept your invitation to play in the Masters Tournament,” Claude Harmon said in a Western Union telegram the next year. “It is always a treat. Thanks.”

Sam Snead used the letterhead of Miami’s Hotel Dallas Park — players over the years also corresponded from the Sands Hotel in Tucson, Ariz., and a Holiday Inn in San Ysidro, Calif. — to write in 1949 that he would “accept with pleasure,” while Lloyd Mangrum simply declared his intention to play in 1955 on the invitation itself and returned it to Augusta.

Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo opted for brief, if warm, letters.

Clockwise from top left: Nick Faldo in 1988; Arnold Palmer in 2003; Tiger Woods in 1995; Doug Ford in 1957.

Arnold Palmer’s wife often appeared to prepare his replies, Player sent one on a Christmas card and Crenshaw, in 1995, accepted as he wondered what José María Olazábal would choose for the menu at the Champions Dinner. That same year, someone wrote an acceptance and noted that it was from “Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods,” who had just turned 19. Then there is Woods’s distinctive signature on a piece of paper that could have been bought in a department store stationery aisle.

When Woods told Fred S. Ridley, Augusta National’s chairman, in 2019 that he would play the Masters, the letterhead, emblazoned with the logo and the name of one of his corporate ventures, reflected his new station in life. (Woods’s agent did not respond to inquiries about who wrote the 1995 letter.)

Some replies, like Palmer’s, felt formulaic, though he reflected in a 2003 letter that he anticipated “seeing my many friends at Augusta National during the week.” Others said they sought variety in how they crafted their responses, even as they were aware of what Augusta really wanted — simply an acceptance or regrets.

“I tried to change it up a little bit,” Crenshaw said, “but they are just needing a response.”

This year, in one way or another, 91 golfers accepted the invitation.

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