The Masters’ no-phone policy isn’t antiquated. On the contrary, it puts fans in the moment

April 21, 2017

A couple of days after the Masters, I saw, in New York City and by happenstance, a figure from golf’s boiler room, Andy Bilodeau, a fixture during the Masters on the course, under the great oak behind the clubhouse and, come nightfall, at the better Augusta parties. Don’t let that last bit give you the wrong impression. This is a man who looks at lunchtime like he completed an Olympic triathlon before breakfast. Bilodeau is an executive in Wasserman Media’s golf division. Give a Wasserman exec a smartphone and four-bar reception and by end of the day that person will have the Milwaukee Open being staged at TPC Bora Bora, with Bitmoji in as title sponsor. These are connected people, in every sense.

So I was struck by something Bilodeau said as we sat in warm spring air beside an open window in a midtown Manhattan restaurant: One of the things he likes best about the Masters is its strict no-phone policy, even if it temporarily freaks out clients he brings to the tournament for the first time.

What is it, I asked, that he likes about the policy?

“It gets you in the moment,” he said.

A bell went off. In the moment. How rare is that these days?

My wandering mind went to the State of the Masters press conference that Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, held on the eve of the tournament, his first one in the new press building. I should note that cell phones are allowed in this temple of communication but not in the press conferences, a policy enforced by a uniformed security person at the entrance to the auditorium in which they are held. Payne and a reporter had the following exchange.

Reporter: “A lot of golf tournaments have relaxed their rules on cell phones, which obviously you guys have not done. Why do you have that policy as things are changing around other tournaments, and do you see any chance that y’all might change that in a year’s time?”

Payne: “You’ll have to ask the next chairman. That’s not going to change while I’m chairman.”

Reporter: “Can you explain why you’re so adamant on that?”

Payne: “Not really. I just don’t think it’s appropriate. The noise is an irritation. The dialing, the conversation—it’s a distraction.”

That was on Masters Wednesday. Over the next four days, I did not see a single fan with a cell phone on the course. You’d have to be crazy to sneak one out there. Augusta National gives new meaning to the phrase one-and-done, and you can be sure the fool who had a cell phone out when Sergio Garcia was putting for the win on the 72nd hole has attended his last Masters. Twenty or so minutes later, when Garcia won in a one-hole twilight playoff, nobody recorded the moment on an iPhone anything.

Maybe you were watching the CBS broadcast, Jim Nantz presiding. Moments later, 60 Minutes, that reliable CBS warhorse, came on. The ticking seconds, on an analog stopwatch. One of the segments was about smartphone addiction. Here’s a summary of the piece from a CBS News website:

“That phone in your pocket is like a slot machine. Every time you check it, you’re pulling the lever to see if you get a reward. At least that’s how former Google product manager Tristan Harris sees it. This week on 60 Minutes, he tells correspondent Anderson Cooper that Silicon Valley programmers are engineering your phone and its apps to make you check them more and more.”

Harris is surely on to something. On his website, you can read his essay “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds” in Arabic, English, French, Mandarin and Portuguese. Responding to my email, Guy Campanile, the producer of the CBS segment, wrote, “I’m amazed by how sporting events have developed into a distraction from smartphone gazing. I get crazy when I see other parents at my son’s soccer matches looking at their phones rather than watching their kids play. We sure are missing a lot.”

Not at the Masters!

I called Bilodeau. It was Good Friday, and he was not in his office but visiting family in Pinehurst, N.C. No problem: Our Philadelphia-to-Pinehurst cell phone reception was good. We picked up where he left off.

“At the Masters, it’s all about the patron experience,” Bilodeau said. “Without the cell phone, you talk to the people around you. You’re in every moment. Time slows down. They still have those manual scoreboards. You’ll say to somebody, ‘Meet me at the scoreboard off the 1st fairway at two o’clock.’ You have a plan and you stick to it. You hear the groans and the roars and you have to interpret them for yourself.”

It’s an insight. To be a spectator at the Masters, you actually have to think. You have to be engaged.

I asked Bilodeau what it’s like for him, when he tells his clients they will have to leave their cell phones behind.

“At first, they don’t believe it,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I can’t live without my phone.’ The first 10 minutes they’re on the course, they’re feeling for their phones in their pockets. But after a while, they learn to breathe. I had a client say to me, `I don’t know what’s waiting for me on my phone, but it was a great day.’ The aftermath of a day like that is not a picture on your phone. It’s memory.

“The Masters,” Bilodeau noted, “is all about the past and the present.” Another insight. At the other majors, there is always a nod to next year’s venue. Not at Augusta National.

I can’t tell you why, but I’m taking, for the first time in my life, a good look at one of Bilodeau’s words. Present. I had never realized what a superb double entendre it is.