Appearing This Year At The Masters: Azaleas, Green Jackets And Inflation
April 7, 2022
From today's NYT:
Famously low concession prices increased a bit, injecting a small dose of the real world at Augusta National Golf Club.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The lush confines of Augusta National Golf Club, a sanctuary of sport, power and privilege, are showing a harsh economic truth: Inflation can be as invasive as kudzu weeds.
There may be no athletic event in the United States that has been more defiantly immune to the outside forces of economics, politics and modernity than the Masters Tournament. But two aggravations of the present — inflation and supply-chain pressures — are encroaching at concession stands that have long sold sandwiches and sweets to the well-heeled for rock-bottom prices.
Measured merely in dollars and cents, the changes are hardly seismic, especially for spectators who routinely pay thousands for tickets on the secondary market. Ham and cheese on rye, for example, has gone from $2.50 last year to $3 now, while the price of a chicken biscuit has increased by 50 cents, to $2. Augusta National is a place, though, where shifts on much of anything are so scarce that they attract attention.
Now, in addition to being the first major showcase of the golf season, the Masters is an example of how inflation, running at nearly 8 percent nationwide through February, is trickling into corners of American life that traditionally tilt toward the economically obdurate.
“The change in the price of concessions at Augusta is a little like the dollar store being the dollar-and-a-quarter store,” said Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary (and a self-described “very enthusiastic and very bad golfer”) and among the first prominent figures to warn about this surge of inflation, which he characterized in an interview as “strong enough to break even longstanding traditions.”
Augusta National is not prone to raising prices. The pimento cheese sandwich, a white bread ritual whose price remained untouched heading into the tournament that will begin on Thursday, has been $1.50 since 2003.
But the menu, simple and typically static, and its prices are fixtures of the Masters and signature ways for Augusta National, which has faced decades of accusations of classism, racism and sexism, to convey hospitality, warmth and grace.
“We want the experience to not only be the best but to be affordable,” Billy Payne, who was Augusta National's chairman for 11 years, said during his tenure, which ended in 2017. “We take certain things very, very seriously — like the cost of a pimento cheese sandwich is just as important as how high the second cut is going to be.”
Some economists and sports marketing executives, though, believe that the club’s motive for keeping prices low is not as benevolent as Southern gentility. Instead, they think that the club, whose members include titans of finance and industry, may deliberately use cheap concessions to construct a feeling of an earlier, less capitalistic era in sports — and the aura that has made the Masters brand among the most revered and valuable in sports. John A. List, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who has attended the Masters, has said that Augusta National’s strategy amounts to wanting to “shock and awe you on the low side.”
Even after 2022’s assorted hikes, the prices are certainly still low. The most expensive item is a $6 chardonnay, and a lunch of an egg salad sandwich, a bag of potato chips (plain or barbecue) and a soft drink totals $5. Patrons, as the club refers to the fans who crowd along the fairways, have been more likely to notice a menu item that vanished — like the Georgia peach ice cream sandwich, formerly sold for $2 — because of the supply chain, than their expenditures of a few extra quarters.
“We have had some modest price increases,” Fred S. Ridley, Augusta National’s chairman, said on Wednesday, when he acknowledged that supply-chain troubles had also affected construction projects. “I think that most, if not everyone, would say there is great value in our concessions, so we are very comfortable with that.”
The finances of Augusta National, a private club, are opaque, with the club not even saying how many general admission passes it sells for up to $115 on competition days, when some estimates have pegged crowds at about 40,000. But it has shown a willingness over the years to weather the more ordinary trends of inflation. Had Augusta been keeping pace, and assuming the pimento cheese sandwich was priced appropriately in 2003, the sandwich would have been about $2.14 at around this time last year, before steeper inflation began.
Tied to inflation or not, Augusta was perhaps due for some price increases. Although the pimento cheese sandwich’s price, long memorialized in newspaper accounts of the tournament, held steady for this year, the club has not lately gone so long without nudging it higher. In 2003, when the price climbed to $1.50, the $1.25 standard had been in effect since just 1999. And when that price took hold, it was after only five years of $1 sandwiches. But the economic environment now, Summers suggested, gave Augusta “more need, more cover and more opportunity to raise prices than any year in the last 40.”
Federal data shows that the price of ham increased about 7 percent between February 2021 and February 2022. The cost of white bread climbed 6.5 percent, coffee went up 10.5 percent and “limited service meals and snacks” increased 8 percent. “Because every other price is being raised in the economy, it probably feels easier to justify raising prices,” said Summers, who has played at Augusta but said that the course record had been left “safe by at least 40 shots.”
Despite its pervasiveness across the country, inflation has not swamped the entirety of the Masters ecosystem, distinct as the only one of the four men’s golf majors to be played at the same course each year.
TicketIQ, which tracks resale data, reported that most competition days were fetching lower prices than in 2019, the last time Augusta National was open as usual for the tournament. For the competition round on Thursday, the cheapest ticket at one point this week was $2,018, according to the company. It was $332 more in 2019.
And STR, a travel research company, said that the average daily hotel room rate around the Augusta area had been about $390 for the week of the 2019 tournament. Although complete figures for this year are not yet available, many hotels in the region have offered rooms for around that level this week.
It is also not clear whether Augusta National has increased the value of its premier tournament’s purse, which has been $11.5 million in recent years, for 2022. The club is expected to announce its intentions on Saturday.
On Wednesday morning, though, another round of storms briefly forced players and spectators to depart the course. The grounds fully reopened right around lunch, just in time for a meal that was maybe a little more expensive than last time.