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|Augusta National's 10th hole plummets radically downgrade amid a sea of frothing azaleas and splashes of pines straw and white sand. (Courtesy of ufl.edu)|
AUGUSTA, Ga. - As I follow the Field of Dreams-styled weave of high-dollar foreign cars and posh SUVs down Washington Street on my way to the Masters, the businesses that neighbor the venerable course stand shuttered for a different kind of sabbath: Masters Sunday. One, a muffler shop, proudly, even defiantly (considering Augusta National's do-as-I-say clout) proclaims, "Open Masters Week."
It's not even tempting: No one in their right mind's about to turn off the Yellow Brick Road for a second-thought coffee, or cheapie oil change, let alone take a chance on one of the conspicuously few blokes roadside scalping Sunday badges.
One thing's for sure - the Masters, God bless it, is nothing like the U.S. Open or PGA Championship, which long ago succumbed to the out-in-the-open commercial frenzy of any big-time sporting event - with their endless lines at the turnstiles and never-ending bus shuttles or pay-through-the-nose, close-in parking.
Everything about the Masters is subtle and tasteful and hospitable by comparison, even old fashioned. On the course, you'll swap who's-birdied-which news by word of mouth without suffering the new-fangled, rent-'em-for-a-day-so-you-can-follow-play, hand-held TVs and radios favored by the USGA these days. And you won't have to jostle hundreds of overzealous reporters and photographers to get a view of the action coming down the home stretch - even the Masters "paparazzi" are well behaved.
Heck, the Masters is so doggone refined, you can't even break into a British Open-styled run, as I discovered scampering across the crosswalk on number 15 to catch up with Phil and Tiger after the latter's fist-pumping birdie on the par three 16. At the Masters, you'll feel like a saucer-eyed kid again, complete with stern but friendly rebukes offered by old-guard marshals.
Augusta National on Sunday resembles any small, tradition-loving, sports-hungry Southern town geared up, or checked-out, for a big-ticket weekend. A good share of the well-heeled locals skip town, rent out their abodes, or resell their like-gold tickets at a healthy profit. And since even middle-of-the-road chain hotels in Augusta during Masters week run you in the $250-$300 ballpark, the tourney amounts to a commuter affair for most spectators. Bombing along I-20 from Atlanta or Columbia on Sunday morning means seeing car after car with Florida, Georgia, Alabama, or South Carolina plates and middle-aged golfing buddies in front seats sharing coffee and yawns en glorious route.
In truth, Augusta National is and always will be the heart and soul of Augusta travel. As the sports cliché goes, you've got to "want it bad" to traipse all the way over to the eastern edge of Georgia, unserved as it is by a major international airport save for Atlanta, some two hours distant. Still, in Augusta National's defense, most of the world's great shrines are in difficult-to-find places. Their relative remoteness only adds to the spiritual demands of the journey, separating the truly penitent from the occasionally holy.
Northeastern Georgia, midway up the Peach, and "pert near" the Carolina border, is land tailor made for a golf course - with its rolling, pine-topped hills, warm spring days, and cool nights with just the right amount of precip to keep the azaleas, rhododendrons, and magnolias blooming their pink-purple-white storm.
While the layout itself is bordered on several sides by unassuming-but-pricey ranch homes on Berckman's Rd. and Heath Dr. and on the north by the bustling Washington St. smear of get-it-quick, drive-up businesses paralleling I-20, the golfing-prime real estate the course occupies quickly drops jaws. From the sun-dappled, hilltop putting green in front of the white-brick, plantation-style clubhouse, the course sprawls to the south, as hole number 10 plummets radically downgrade amid a sea of frothing azaleas and splashes of pines straw and white sand, while holes 7, 8, 9, 14, 17, and 18 climb gently to the shade of the clubhouse.
What you might not know is that, somehow (and per the style later imitated by no less than Jack Nicklaus) Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie somehow managed to make the majority of the rest of the holes dramatic downhillers with stirring sightlines, including the beautiful and unheralded par threes on the front nine. And while Augusta, with its usually firm greens, favors a high ball hitter like Tiger, Phil, or Jack in his prime, it doesn't, as one might expect, favor a fade, as nearly half the holes (2, 5, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14) bend to the left. At more than 7,400 tournament-yards, the course lends itself, surprisingly, to a Kenny Perry-esque "rolling" draw.
Unless you're lucky enough to be the guest of a member, Augusta National's exclusivity makes it anything but a conventional tourist destination. The vast majority of the lucky few who do set foot on the Club's hallowed grounds do so as Masters "patrons," and even then the coveted badges tend to remain in families or, as is increasingly common, get sold at a 100 or 200 percent mark-up by Internet middle men.
Still, the world of online commerce, with all its faults, has made the Masters truly accessible to the golfing middle class for the first time. While the sticker price printed on the slick Sunday badge reads $200, you will, with good timing and a little luck, be able to find 11th-hour tickets at or near $400 online, not including seller's commission and last-minute fees for the requisite badge pick-up. (Online vendors wouldn't dream of sending these laminate slips of plastic gold out via snail mail. Would you?)
So, while the Masters crowd is conspicuously well-off, a day at the Masters, including flight, badge, and rental car, can run you right around $750. Add to that a few bucks for Augusta's fairly priced concessions (sandwiches and sodas for a mere $1.50, domestic beer for less than $3) and an I'll-treat-myself cap with the Masters logo, and you're potentially out the gates having suffered less than $800 dollars in damage.
While that's a lot of greenbacks for a sneak peak at the green hills of Augusta and the green jacket, it's a fraction of the cost of attending America's other high-dollar sporting events. And it's a small price to pay for stepping inside one of the world's most photogenic and exclusive athletic arenas. As any Masters patron will tell you, you can't put a price on feeling your golfing oats after a long hard winter, or, more appropriately, on stopping to smell the azaleas.
April 13, 2009
Former newspaper sports writer and editor Zachary Michael Jack is the editor of many essay collections on the environment and outdoor life. He specializes in writing about golf. Zachary is the author of "The Links of Evalon" and edited "Inside the Ropes: Sportswriters Get Their Game On."
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