AUGUSTA NATIONAL turns into one of the world’s great sporting shrines every April. We all know about the quality of the golf, but the experience for the visitor is out of this world.
It is easy to spot the first-time visitors to Augusta National. They are the ones whose eyes, cartoon-style, are popping out on stalks and whose mouths are dangling near the floor. It works every time. However much anyone else builds the place up, whatever your own expectations might be as a result of watching countless Masters on television, actually being there is far from an anti-climax.
For the full, speech-inhibiting effect, all you have to do is walk down the hill by the 10th hole – the flat TV pictures do not prepare you for the sharp changes in elevation – and then on to the 11th. About halfway down the fairway, suddenly you realise that stretched out in front of you is none other than Amen Corner: the 11th green, where Nick Faldo won his two play-offs, in the foreground and Rae’s Creek and the 12th green with the bank of azaleas.
Everywhere you turn there is a recognisable feature which prompts memories of dramas past. At least on the back nine. Discovering the front nine, rarely seen on television, is a joy in itself. If anything, it can alI be a touch overwhelming if not intimidating.
It is hard not to believe that the beauty is not artificially enhanced – the water in some of the ponds is indeed dyed blue. But nothing can detract from the magnificence of the vista of the “cathedral of pines” to be enjoyed from back up beside the clubhouse, either by standing under the grand old oak tree, where anyone who is anyone in golf passes sooner or later, or by sitting on the verandah sipping a pink lemonade.
Bobby Jones, who created Augusta National back in the early 1930s, described the experience of seeing that view for the first time as “unforgettable”. He knew instantly that this nursery garden was where he wanted to build his monument to the game.
“This ground has been lying here all these years,” he said, “waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it.”
Before Jones, with the architectural help of the inimitable Dr Alister Mackenzie and the financial support of a few friendly fellow businessmen, set about building his club after retiring from competitive play in 1930, the land was a nursery that had been created by a Belgian baron called Berckmans. Prior to that it was an indigo plantation, and the clubhouse, originally built in 1854, is considered the first cement-built structure in the South.
Jones and Clifford Roberts, the long-time chairman of the club, knew about the land since it bordered the Augusta Country Club. With a couple of other fine courses in the city, Augusta had the reputation as a winter resort long before the likes of Hilton Head and Kiawah Island came along.
The winter climate is perfect for a leisurely, comfortable game of golf, and even now the Augusta National closes for the summer when it gets seriously hot. These days, except for Masters Week, everyone flies over Augusta on the way to Florida.
The city is 150 miles east of Atlanta on the Savannah River, which marks the
Georgia-South Carolina border. Named after Princess Augusta, the mother of George
III, it was founded in 1735 and was initially an inland port and then a mill town.
Downtown has changed little for decades and the shops suffer during
Masters Week as so many residents leave town.
None the less, the bars and restaurants do a roaring trade, notably attracting clients from the Army Signal School at nearby Fort Gordon. Down by the river there has been redevelopment and the city stages rowing regattas twice a year. But in Masters Week, the place to be is up on Washington Road. Exit the gates of Augusta National and it is a different world. While even Coca-Cola have to sell their product in green cups on the course, here it is neonsignville. Here you can find every established burger outlet and steakhouse chain in America, but don’t expect to get a table before 10pm.
Then there are the motels, with rooms charged at over $350 a night (plus tax), a price hike of around 1,000 per cent on their rates for the other 51 weeks of the year.
Most of the players and corporate visitors hire a house for the week rather than seek hotel or motel accommodation. This largely explains why all the residents who don’t have tickets – and the patrons’ lists closed decades ago – flee the town and use the fees they receive for letting their properties to pay for their holidays. Nightlife consists of parties put on by various organisa tions, companies or influential individuals, while the players chill out with friends in the temporary homes.
Chipping contests around the house are very popular, according to the former American Ryder Cup golfer Ken Green. “You pick out holes all over the house and the yard. It could be a mailbox, a car tyre, or even the boot of a car. The year we rented two houses we were able to play back and forth between them, even using the Jacuzzi or the pool as a hole.
We even sneaked into the neighbours’ yard one time for a few holes, but the following day they had put up a sign saying ‘Out of Bounds’. That was a nice way of telling us to leave them and their property alone.”
The most sought-after invitations are to those events up at the National’s clubhouse. Monday is for the international players. This used to be a sit-down dinner, but the number of overseas players and administrators has grown to such an extent over the last few years that it is now a cocktail party.
On Tuesday night, it is the Champions’ Dinner. This year Phil Mickelson will be host for the dinner having joined one of sporting’s most exclusive club.
‘I am a little concerned with the champion’s dinner. The wine cellar they have is extremely good and I have to pay for dinner,’ said the American with a laugh.
The amateurs, some of whom stay in the dormitory-style rooms in the Crows’ Nest in the clubhouse, have their own reception on Wednesday and, for a reason lost in the mists of time, not to mention the wine glasses, the British Press are offered cocktails in the Trophy Room on Saturday night. Not a single person present on this particular occasion is without hope (not expectation, note) that he or she might end up being invited to play the course by one of the green-jacketed members.
But, of course, the prize invitation comes on the Sunday night when the new champion is dined and wined in the clubhouse whilst wearing his newly acquired piece of (Green Jacketed) evening wear. Now that is exclusive.