The Masters: Cheap Eats -- If You Can Get Through the Gate

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The Masters, the first of golf's major tournaments, is upon us again. Beginning Thursday, it will mark the open of the playing season for many hackers around the U.S. as well as the time when semi-serious fans start paying attention to the PGA Tour.

With it comes so much tradition. There's Amen Corner, Magnolia Lane, Rae's Creek, stories of Bobby Jones, announcers speaking in hushed voices and images of Greg Norman's near misses. Curiously, there's also very cheap food.

It's true. Here's proof that the price is right when it comes to snack time in Augusta, Ga. This is part of a photograph taken by Ashley Mayo of Golf Digest at this year's event:

Click the image to see the full picture she posted to her Twitter account.

View photo

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Partial 2013 Masters Menu

Partial 2013 Masters Menu

While your chances of ever getting to attend The Masters are extremely slim owing to its ticket policies, and your odds of being invited to join the roughly 300-deep Augusta National membership ranks aren't even worth contemplating, should you happen to be on the grounds during the tournament, this much is certain: You can treat yourself to food for about the price of lunch at a drugstore counter, assuming those still exist. Seriously, $2.50 for a turkey and cheese, $1.50 for a Coke.

Prices do look like they've gone up in a couple of areas since last year -- coffee, imported beer -- but there's not much evidence of inflation. Go back to 2011, and again, you might need a little extra coin, though this year isn't going to break the bank.

Golf fans revere The Masters and the course on which it's played, an 18-hole cathedral amid the Georgia pines that has seen winners of the coveted green jacket ranging from Jack Nicklaus to Larry Mize. Golf critics see it as all that's wrong with the sport, an elitist club that has unapologetically dragged its feet on racial and sexual equality. There's some truth in that, but the focus here is on something much plainer -- the menu.

Anyone who's been to a sporting event in the past 25 years is aware that concession prices are just another round of punishment after the ticket cost itself has already put you in the poor house. Not so at Augusta (though the ticket part, at least in the secondary market, still holds. The regular price for the "very limited" number of this year's daily tickets was $75).

[Related: Masters Tickets Are the Most Expensive in Sports]

Knowing that the tournament could charge an astronomical amount for food, and that attendees would pay it, might make this seem illogical, especially at such a majestic location where snobbery may be expected. It isn't. Augusta National and its members don't require an extra $9 from you for a pimento cheese sandwich, because they're already rich and powerful.

A few names here will make this clearer. Like many things around the fairways, greens and azaleas in Augusta, who exactly those people are isn't openly discussed with great frequency. The "private" part of this private club is taken extremely seriously. That said, members have been named in the past. For instance, a USA Today article in 2002 said that among the members at the time were Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) head Warren Buffett, former GE (GE) chief Jack Welch and golf great Arnold Palmer. And if they want you to join, they'll call -- lobbying to get in appears to do no good. This is Augusta National, not Congress.

[Related: How Arnold Palmer Orders His Own Drink]

Last year, the club took the unusual step of announcing two new members: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rainwater Inc. financier Darla Moore. As noted, it's not in Augusta's nature to talk freely about who's in and who's out during a given year. This, though, was a bigger deal than usual, as Rice and Moore were the first women ever to be asked to size up for a jacket. Their joining came 10 years after Martha Burk led a charge against the tournament because the National didn't have any female members.

But returning to the food, it can't be overstated how those prices are really only necessary to maintain some semblance of order at a place where following rules is expected. The operators of The Masters could give the drinks and sandwiches away and not suffer significantly. They simply don't "need" the money.

Consider that a decade ago, when Burk was demanding changes to the membership roster, then-Chairman Hootie Johnson told Masters advertisers to hit the road so they didn't have to deal with the fallout. Play went on that spring, and there's little doubt the men of the club were far more concerned about the heightened scrutiny of their policies and procedures than they were about the lost ad dollars.

Remember, Augusta is about prestige -- even the cost to join and remain as a member reportedly isn't as high as some far less famous courses. Annual dues of "a few thousand" dollars are steep for us regular folks, but not for a CEO. Still, it's ultimately not a question of affording things.

The bottom line: You don't become a member at Augusta National to make money off the Georgia Peach Ice Cream Sandwich that Joe Smith's buying for his wife. This is status. So the cheap food probably isn't going anywhere, any more than are the annual reminiscences of The Squire's shot heard 'round the world.

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