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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:

  1. Irony Beat: Masters Diary
  2. Places & Culture
  3. Spot Check: Ocean Spray's irreverence
  4. Weekly Digest


For all the wrath Martha Burk wished to commission upon the Masters tournament, even she couldn't have imagined the deluge that doomed the tournament on Thursday. The heavens had been pouring down all week, as though with disapproval, forbidding practice rounds and fouling the pristine green landscapes with sludge. Thursday morning, Masters officials announced first round play was cancelled for the day—the first time since 1939 that rain had washed out the opening round.

"Mother Nature must want a woman member, too." wrote USA Today, which wondered if "nothing will be simple this April at Augusta."

Ever since Martha Burk read in the paper last summer that Augusta National Golf Club doesn't allow female members and wrote a letter to the club's dramatically defiant chairman, Hootie Johnson, nothing has been simple at Augusta. Not even a full-page ad in the New York Times by Smith & Wollensky steakhouse, inviting Burk and Johnson to a peacemaking evening of "steak, chops, lobster, and all the fine win you can drink," could settle the issue. So the stormy weather seemed to fit.

"Has it been a weird week?" asked player Rocco Mediate. "It's been a weird 10 months."

After a first day of play on Friday that was both weird and unfinished, the leader's name was "weird" unfinished, as Mike Weir sought to become the first minority of another sort to win the Masters; no Canadian or left-handed player had ever won the championship. He topped the leaderboard as the tournament broadcast began.

Saturday, 3:20 p.m. ET: CBS, which for years has famously been under fusty Augusta's orders to call spectators "patrons" rather than "fans," would sooner broadcast three straight hours of the trees lining the course than say anything about the current controversy during its telecast. So it's strange to see a pre-tournament special canonizing "Bobby, Tiger and Jack" (Jones, Woods, and Nicklaus) that calls Tiger "a pied piper for the disenfranchised: kids and minorities."

If the "minority" is women, though, Woods seems to want no part of it. "I think there should be women members," he said a few months ago, "but it's not up to me." This washing-of-hands of the controversy seems to make his previously desired status as a barrier-breaking pioneer seem disingenuous. As I wrote here, you can't rise to the position Woods holds in the world of golf and then pretend that uncomfortable issues are out of your control. Woods could have a huge impact if he threatened to lead a boycott of the tournament. He doesn't have to, but that's exactly why it would be noble—as well as consistent—of him to do it. Besides, had Woods come on the scene before 1990, when Augusta invited its first black member, would he have shrugged that off too?

3:35: After an opening segment of highlights from the first two rounds, CBS officially opens its telecast with a shot of the emerald fairway sprinkled with azaleas. A tinkling piano plays the soothing CBS Masters tune, and a reverent Jim Nantz talks of the "glorious blue sky dominating over Augusta," which has "returned to its most vibrant spring-like conditions." As always, but perhaps never so poignantly as this year, CBS' tone sets up the golf tournament as a holy sanctuary, an idyllic escape from the worries of everyday life.

3:50: After Nantz sets the stage in front of the cozy fireplace of Butler Cabin—uttering the newly ironic tagline, "a tradition unlike any other"—CBS runs a taped welcome from Augusta vice chairman Joe Ford, who reports being pleased to bring us this broadcast for the first time in high definition digital broadcasting—and, oh yeah, "free of commercial interruption." This is because the Burk brouhaha prompted Augusta to pre-emptively cancel its TV sponsorships to save them the grief. How "pleased" Ford actually is that Augusta will lose their money is left for the viewer to speculate, but Ford does get in a dig at Burk: "This year more than ever, we are pleased to make this broadcast available" on armed forces television. Earlier, in what many columnists said was Burk's first major public relations blunder, she had said that proceeding with the tournament would be an insult to the female soldiers serving in Iraq.

4:09: There is one commercial after all—a public service spot for First Tee, which teaches kids to play golf and, evidently, to recite its rules as earnestly as Sunday schoolers—and even that can't help but remind viewers of the current Masters mess. Golf, the ad insists, can "teach kids important values that will have an impact on their communities and the rest of their lives." It teaches you to "learn from your mistakes." When the ad cuts to one young golfing girl, it is left unsaid that the "rest of her life" may not soon involve a membership at the finest venue in the game she is learning to love—not until Johnson "learns from his mistakes"—and thus the game's promotion of "good values" is a tad ambiguous.

4:55: Tiger Woods has been providing enough drama on the course to draw attention away from the drama off it. His quest to make history by winning his third straight Masters was nearly abbreviated earlier today, when he made a tenuous par on the final hole of the second round to make the cut. Now he drains a 20-footer on 6 to pull to even par for the first time in the tournament. Tiger strides from his stance as the ball is about to drop and pumps his fist in his famous pose, as though singing into a microphone. With three holes to play today, he's gathering himself just in time for a run at history.

Sunday, 3:46 p.m. "The CBS family is so proud to be here," says Jim Nantz by way of introducing his fellow announcers. Nantz doesn't mention it, but so far his "team" is nearly as numerous as the few protesters who showed up to join Martha Burk a half mile away and found themselves outnumbered by police cars. The most intense exchange was between a Ku Klux Klan leader and a Sports Illustrated columnist, and still it was hard not to be distracted by the Elvis impersonator, say various reporters.

4:25: Meanwhile, leader Jeff Maggert gets something off his chest, too. Unfortunately for him, it's his golf ball, which ricochets off the bank of the bunker at 3 and bounces off his chest. That costs him a penalty stroke and knocks him from the lead. Tiger Woods is also going backwards on the leaderboard, and the championship has never seemed so wide open.

6:47: Weir, who has stayed steady in second place, sinks a five-foot par putt on 18 to force a playoff with Len Mattiace, who, playing in his first Masters as a professional, came from nowhere on the back nine to take the lead.

7:08: After Mattiace loses his ball in the woods to the left of the first playoff hole, Weir makes bogey to win the hole and the tournament. It's an anticlimactic way to finish what figures to go down as a forgettable year at Augusta.  

7:20: Just when the golf had made most forget about the membership controversy, Hootie Johnson comes on the screen to introduce the green jacket ceremony and express gratitude to viewers for their "loyal support." Burk has said before that she'll be taking her crusade to PGA Tour sponsors, though she also told the New Yorker in February: "Augusta National has now become emblematic of sex discrimination. I've already won."

Previous Irony Beat: Super Bowl Diary


From the New York Times:

LAGOS, Nigeria, April 10—In the hottest month of the year, just days from the bare-knuckle brawl known here as elections [see Digest below], Africa's most populous city, the commercial hub of the world's sixth-largest oil producer, faces a gasoline shortage. Even when the pumps run properly, this city of 13 million people seems on the verge of boiling over. But the long lines for gas bleeding into traffic lanes have achieved the unimaginable: the city's infamous "go slows," which routinely turn office commutes into two-hour diesel-choked ordeals, have grown even worse. It is the same all over the country, and the lines are as unpredictable as they are annoying. … That a shortage should happen here in a country with some of the world's most ample oil reserves speaks loudly about all that ails Nigeria. That the fuel crisis has not yet led to large-scale rioting speaks just as loudly about the durability of those who live here.
JARDÍN, Colombia—Slogging through heavy mud on a mountain trail, Paul Salaman, a British bird scientist, turned suddenly to recount the colleagues who had been kidnapped in Colombia. … But that does not stop him. Shortly after dawn on this day, with the sun shining and the birds chirping, he set off through the thick Andean forest outside this northern town with about a dozen other bird aficionados in search of the rare Yellow-eared Parrot. … Indeed, even as Colombia suffers through a worsening civil conflict, ornithologists are busier than ever studying birds and tracking threatened species in a country considered the world's most diverse for bird life.


If a salesperson were to barge into your living room at 8 at night and start to scold your family about what you should be wearing, doing, and thinking, you would have the idiotic intruder arrested. Yet a comparable act occurs regularly in our homes in the form of 30-second TV commercials—so regularly that we are numbed to their presence and their subtle role in shaping our values and worldview. This category of the weblog will put some of these slices of popular culture under the microscope, looking for the irony we tend to ignore.

The first guinea pig is Ocean Spray's spot for its new rectangular bottle. It's only 15 seconds long, but its irreverence is startling. The ad opens in silence, broken by the hum of a refrigerator, which we view through the back. We see a brunette woman peering through the shelves (according to TV commercials, 95% of people who set foot in the nation's kitchens are slender, cheerful brunette women in their 30s), fretfully displaying her bottle of Ocean Spray as she looks in vain for a place to stow it. After a few seconds, she peers to side of fridge, where, after our view changes, we see an opening in a shelf on the door that can accommodate a rectangular object but not a round one. Cut back to a shot of the bottle from the bottom at an angle. The words appear on the butt of the bottle: "Introducing Our New Square Bottle." At that moment, the silence is shattered by the Hallejuah Chorus. With the bottle nestled in its niche, the ad concludes with the text: "It fits perfectly in your fridge door."

Greeting this inanely modest innovation in bottled juice storage with a rendition of Handel's timeless classic surely must have the poor composer twirling beneath the earth. The canned choir has even taken on an exaggerated vibrato to underscore the irony of a classical piece accompanying such mundane relief. But we should not be surprised at the indignity of it all. A few years ago Dr. Pepper ran a tune I still can't get out of my head: "Dr. Pepper! You make the world taste better!" It was sung by a clapping gospel choir, and the throbbing energy of the spot and the fact that it addressed the product in the second person only underscored its worshipful tone. ("How do they summon such enthusiasm for a can of soda?" Jerry Seinfeld wondered about advertising a few years ago.) Throughout human history cultures have composed anthems of worship for gods and governments; now we sing stirring songs that give glory to brand name cranberry juice and soda.

• View the Ocean Spray commercial as a frame-by-frame storyboard or as a video clip (second item here).
Read Ocean Spray's press release announcing its rectangular bottle.


  • Four years into its latest democratic experiment, Nigeria's legislative elections were marred by violence and disorganization on Saturday, including several poll stations that were missing ballot boxes, says the Washington Post. With elections for president and governor set for this coming weekend, Oliver Owen of the London Guardian provides background.
  • Congress postponed the obsolescence of those sheets of 37-cent stamps you just bought, allowing the U.S. Postal Service to pay less in pensions in exchange for keeping stamp prices where they are. Junk mailers are glad to hear it—they send two thirds of the country's mail. But it's a bad way to bail out the postal service, which now won't be able to balance its books for the next few years, says Daniel Gross in Slate.
    Also: The tax code's so-called marriage penalty mostly serves to punish working women, writes Virginia Postrel in the Boston Globe.
  • Almost as quickly as the so-called "new economy" swept workers in digital technology to prosperity, computer-industry professionals have fallen precipitously. The story of one of the 21,000 such workers in New York City to have been laid off since 2000, an executive vice president now selling khakis at the Gap, illustrates the angst that can accompany white-collar workers out of work, says the New York Times Magazine.
    Also: Silicon Valley has shed 25,600 jobs in less than a year, and housing sales there are down by more than 30 percent, says USA Today.
  • The New Republic on the next step for U.S. foreign policy, Business Week and Fortune on the postwar economy, and more from Slate's "In Other Magazines."

Latest War links:
From the Washington Post:

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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