Augusta’s garden gnomes have become every patron’s must-have

<span>The Masters Gnome can be bought for $49.50 and has become a real money spinner for Augusta.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images</span>
The Masters Gnome can be bought for $49.50 and has become a real money spinner for Augusta.Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The first thing you see when you make it through the gates at Augusta National is the grass, which, for the first time in your life, really is greener on the other side. Then it’s the rainbow of azaleas and above them the trees, dogwoods, magnolias and firethorns, snaking down around the driveway.

It will be around about now, as you are making your way along towards the course, that you will begin to notice all the people cutting back against the flow of the crowd. Soon enough, you will be wondering exactly where everyone is going. And then the answer will bang you in the shin.

Because the largest gallery at Augusta National is not around the 1st tee, Amen Corner or the 18th green, but the golf shop, and the tournament’s No 1 draw isn’t Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm or Scottie Scheffler, or Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, but a limited edition 13.5in bearded garden gnome in a big white box with the Masters logo on it.

Related: The Masters: day three at Augusta – live

It costs $49.50 (£39.70) and is uglier than Jim Furyk’s swing, but almost everybody wants one. All the people marching triumphantly away from the 1st tee already have theirs and are taking themselves off to parking to stash them safely away before coming back so, who knows, they can maybe watch a little golf.

It used to be that people queued at the gates so they could race to place their chairs in the prime viewing spots around the greens. These days, no joke, they do it so they can be first in line for the shop. Soon enough the queue, which turns and twists and doubles back on itself like Ernie Els making that six-putt on the 1st green in 2016, stretches all the way past the driving range.

It can take around two hours to get through it, which means, if you’re lucky, you might just be out in time to catch the back nine. Almost everyone agrees it’s out of hand. “I blame the gnomes,” one security guard said, sotto voce.

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The club sells them faster than they can fill the shelves. It is the only item in the shop with a strict limit of one per customer and still the day’s stock is all gone inside the first hour of opening. By the end of the day, plenty of them will be on eBay, or other resale sites, where prices run well over $500. Many of the rest, you guess, end up in the bin after being ‘accidentally’ knocked off the mantelpiece by whichever poor spouse had their partner bring one back to the house in the mistaken belief it was a gift that might help them win permission to come back here again next year.

There is something quite odd going on here. Augusta National is one of the few places left where nobody is allowed a phone. Which, in this day and age, presents the patrons with a serious problem. How is anyone supposed to be able to enjoy the Masters unless everyone knows they are? And if you can’t post a photo on social media what are you supposed to do, use the phone booths? The gnomes, then, are the next best thing. They’re the patrons’ way of saying “I was there”. They have become the Masters’ must-have, its own Instagram moment.

Augusta National has become a bucket-list ticket. It increasingly feels like a place people come just to say they have been. Time was, and not so long ago, that a large percentage of the badges belonged to local families, who passed them down the right to buy from one generation to the next.

Back then coming to the Masters wasn’t anything to brag about, because everyone around here did. But over the past decade, the Masters has brought in more and more corporate guests. They had already built one hospitality complex, Berckmans Place, have just opened a second, Map and Flag, over the road, and say that’s only “phase one” of the development.

It is also, although the club would never admit it, their major money-spinner. The Masters takes a loss on corporate sponsorship, food and drink, and even on regular tickets, but it makes plenty of it back on merchandise. Forbes has calculated that the shop brings in $70m a week. Which works out at an average spend of about $250 per head.

It’s a neat trick. Everyone is so astonished by the cost of the pimento cheese sandwich that no one thinks twice about splashing all that cash on a couple of T-shirts and a garden ornament.

Augusta National used to think of itself as a private club that just happens to run a major tournament. These days, it increasingly feels like a major tournament that happens to run a retail empire, too.