Less than 800 sq. km across, the city of Augusta, Georgia, has one of the longest runways in the US, capable of accommodating even a Boeing 777, the world’s largest twin jet. Come April, though, and it’s private jets that circle over the city, rudder to cockpit.
Long before Tiger Woods confirmed his golf comeback late in March, his loyalists were certain that the scandal-hit genius would play at Augusta. “Ever since his win here in 1997, Tiger has raised the stakes in visitor turnout at and global enthusiasm for the Masters. He will definitely play this year too,” Frank Christian, photographic historian of the Augusta National Golf Club (ANGC) and author of Augusta National & the Masters, told me way back in February.
Masters league: (clockwise from top) The Augusta National Golf Club; Sacred Heart Church; and (from left) Greg Norman, Jeev Milkha Singh, Adam Scott and Tim Clark. Photos: D.K. Bhaskar
What made him so sure? Christian explained the myth behind Augusta patiently: “It is the only tournament among the four in the championship circuit—the others being The Open in Britain, the US Open and the PGA, also in the US—which is held on the same course, it is never rotated. Also, it’s strictly an invitational tournament, where amateurs are also invited to participate.”
The tennis equivalent would be Wimbledon and, for football, the FA Cup Final at Wembley. Yet, unlike other top sporting events, there is never a single banner or billboard advertising the Masters to be seen anywhere, either on or off the course. So exclusive are the grounds that for 51 weeks of the year, admission is restricted to those with a series badge, frequently handed down from one generation to the next with the same regard as heirloom jewellery or iconic art.
“It’s not only the players. The history and the famed southern hospitality combine to make Masters week very special,” says Bruz Boardman, long-time Augusta resident. With members including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, among other luminaries—though ANGC still controversially avoids women—Masters week comes with its own networking cachet. No wonder then, that despite the recession, practice-round tickets—available only in limited numbers on advance application—are precious commodities at $250 (around Rs11,200) for the first three days of the week. For the actual playing days (Thursday through Sunday), only club members, employees, community leaders and volunteers are eligible for entry badges: Though each badge, covering all four days, costs just $100, they resell for anywhere up to $15,000. Memorabilia sold during the week is said to be valued at around $50 million—but be warned, the pimento cheese spread recipe remains priceless.
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The first championship of the year is particularly well timed with the onset of spring, just as the azaleas burst forth in all their colourful fury and the graceful dogwoods, crab apples and magnolias dotting the Alister MacKenzie-designed course bend under the weight of their blooms. The surgeon-turned-golf course architect’s “pleasure philosophies” still hold good here: He had decreed that there would be no bunker that did not make a hole more enjoyable—today there are just 43 bunkers for the spectacular 18-hole course, each named after a flower or a shrub—and required that all design modifications be made by an architect who could put himself in the shoes of the best golfer of the day as well as rank amateurs. To this day, landscapers are believed to trim the last grass along the edge of the lakes with a pair of small scissors.
Golf purists say that even the highest-definition television set can’t capture the splendour of the Augusta National. But for the players, the overwhelming beauty is secondary to the challenges that towering pines, broad fairways, dramatic elevation changes, and extremely fast greens—a fallout of the decision to replace Bermuda grass with bentgrass in 1981—throw up. “It rewards the good shots and punishes the bad ones, and tests the best golfing action,” says Jeff Reuter, golf manager at the nearby Jones Creek Golf Club.
Nowhere more so than at the three holes in the back-nine strung together by the coils of Rae’s Creek famously called the Amen Corner (the 11th, 12th and 13th holes), after the 1930s jazz number Shoutin’ in that Amen Corner. Every prayer is too little for this, the most teasing and tormenting par 4, par 3 and par 5 in the game of golf. “This is where many champions are made and destroyed, (the place that has seen) the defining moments of the Masters,” Jack Nicklaus, six-times Masters champion, once told my friend Christian.
Be that as it may, the Masters certainly do define Augusta, often in curious ways. For much of the year, the expansive golf course lurks inconspicuously behind the creepers on the barbed wire fence bordering Washington Road, access being limited to the privileged. Just ahead of the tournament, when the gates are open to anyone with entry passes, locals spruce up their homes and pack their bags. “My husband and I bought ourselves a vacation in Paris by renting our house for Masters week,” grins Mary Ann Grant, who lives a few blocks away from the main gate of the golf course. In the gated community of West Lake, a few kilometres away, a week’s rent for a four-bedroom house is upwards of $20,000.
Unimaginable back in 1736, when British colonizer James Oglethorpe founded the city as Georgia’s second town. Over the years, it grew into a bustling trade centre, dealing chiefly in cotton. Interestingly, the site of the present golf course was once a 365-acre indigo plantation: The blue dye was much in demand for denim, already growing popular among the working classes.
As inextricable to the city’s history is Augusta’s association with James Brown (1933-2006), who captured the region’s rhythm in his blues and soul music and feverish dancing. Away from the hallowed fairways, close to the Savannah River, his statue stands tall, looking Oglethorpe’s statue right in the eye. “It was here that he polished shoes and danced on the streets for change, and it was here (that) he rose to capture the world like no one before and after,” says Amy Christian, who toured with him for 13 years.
Brown died in 2006, but his funk style of music—widely regarded to be a foundation for hip hop—sold millions of records and infused a new energy in the African-American population that dominates this part of the US. In Augusta, his is the only name that rivals the Masters.
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