Saturday, March 24, 2012

worth reading The Grandest Illusion

I never thought about the lawn-care industry as having a start date, but apparently it has one: the second week of April 1967. That weekend, for the first time, the Masters was broadcast live and in color, sparking America’s mad quest for the impeccable front lawn.

No doubt, Augusta National in April is lovely, and it has inspired all too many golf writers to wax overly poetic about its flawlessness. But what CBS and ESPN don’t really care to admit is that the tournament venue is in many respects merely an illusion, one that’s greener, more sumptuous, and more picture-perfect than any golf course could ever be for 52 weeks a year. Its magnificence epitomizes both golf’s glory and its ruin.

Paul Tukey, who favors “natural” agronomic practices, recently put Augusta National in perspective. Here’s part of an essay he recently published in eNews Park Forest:

For the professionals who care for grass, either on golf courses or in home yards, the “Augusta Syndrome” is a love-hate relationship between financial opportunity and unrealistic expectations of their patrons and customers. For the manufacturers like Scotts Miracle Gro, Bayer, and others, America’s obsession with Masters green has been a pure gold excuse to print their own money.

“The Masters golf tournament is a nightmare for us every year,” said Mike Bailey, the superintendent of the Whitlock Country Club in Hudson, Quebec, the first town in North America that ever banned lawn and garden pesticides on all property -- except golf courses and farms. “We’re sitting up here in Canada in April, when the grass hasn’t even broken dormancy most years, and yet our members show up the week after the Masters and expect our course to look like a golf course 2,000 miles to the south.” . . .

Ron Dodson, the president of Audubon International that has certified golf courses for their environmental stewardship, famously denounced Augusta National Country Club as a “television studio on which a golf tournament is played in the spring.” The club reportedly dyes ponds blue or black to hide algae bloom, spray-paints grass to make it look more green in years when the newly planted ryegrass isn’t flourishing, and even refrigerates or warms the azaleas so that they’ll be in perfect bloom for the second weekend in April. Rumors have it that this year Hollywood set designers have been brought in to Augusta to hide damage caused by the lawn chemical weed killer Imprelis that was found last year to kill trees as a side effect.

The pressure to make Augusta National look perfect for a week each year is immense -- and certainly still at the core of our nation’s obsession with lawn-care aesthetics. You want to take a look at what the world’s most famous golf course really looks like when the cameras are off? It’s easy. Go to and type in “Augusta National Country Club.” Click on the satellite button and then begin to zoom in. What you’ll find is grass that probably looks a lot like your grass. You’ll see bare patches and faded greens. You’ll find empty rubber-lined holes in the earth where those made-for-TV ponds were filled when the cameras were on. It’s a rather scorched-earth appearance that most people wouldn’t imagine when they think of the Masters. . . .

The real issue is expectations and marketing. Golf can be played amongst a few weeds and brown patches, but customers who have been overtly and subliminally motivated by ad dollars don’t want to hear it. . . .

And yet, in three weeks the Masters tournament will recharge those expectations among consumers. In a couple of weeks, Opening Day of the baseball season will showcase all those “Scotts is Used Here” banners in Major League ballparks. Baseball fans will charge into the landscape supply centers and buy a bagged product that offers the intrinsic promise of Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium at home lawns across North America.

It’s a multibillion-dollar industry based on a big pile of bunk.

So this year when you watch the Masters, understand one thing: It’s no more realistic for your lawn to look like Augusta National Country Club does for a week in April than it is for your golf game to be on par with Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, or Tiger Woods.