KindredApril 6, 2010

National Treasure

Does Augusta National want William Hatcher's house for more than a parking lot?

Augusta National has swallowed up most of the property surrounding William Hatcher's house. The land serves as a parking lot for now.

Augusta National has swallowed up most of the property surrounding William Hatcher's house. The land serves as a parking lot for now.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- What Augusta National Golf Club wants, it gets. It's God, with money. So it was surprising to see the little house smack in the middle of the club's vast new parking lot.

The house was surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands of cars.

There was a stand of trees here and there.

Gravel paths led through the landscape.

I saw one lonely house.

William Hatcher figured something was up six or seven years ago when a real estate agent called and engaged him in what he called the strangest conversation of his life. About like this ...

"Mr. Hatcher, we have a client who would love to buy a house in your neighborhood. Are you interested in selling?"

"No. I've never thought of it."

"My client is really interested."

"But I'm not."

"My client is really, really interested and would pay a premium for your property."

"But I don't want to sell." "Well, then, my client would buy an option."

"I don't think so."

"My client would buy a life's estate from you."

So, about here, William Hatcher says, he began thinking. A nice place, his house. Three bedrooms, 2 ½ baths, an office. But not the Taj Mahal. A life's estate meant the buyer would be satisfied to be named in Hatcher's will. He told his wife, "I just got a call from somebody who must think they're going to live forever."

Soon enough, it became clear that Augusta National was the buyer. By now more than 100 acres of the subdivision across the street from the club's original property have been bought up by the gods in green jackets. Roads have been closed. Houses have disappeared, the land beneath them graded and grassed.

A stranger to Augusta entering the new parking lot today -- maybe the only parking in the civilized world that charges nothing, as in zero, free -- would not know there had ever been a house on the land. All traces of domesticity are gone -- except for a black mailbox numbered 2704 that stands above a gray brick ranch style house nestled on a third of an acre no more than a drive and wedge from Augusta National's second tee.

William Hatcher's is not one of those defy-the-bulldozer stories. He says he has had nothing but amiable conversations with Augusta National officials. He even owns another home in Augusta, just down the road, and has rented out the Hillside house to a ticket broker from Las Vegas. (More on this entrepreneur in a moment.)

We're talking business here. Hatcher, 63, a building contractor and modest real estate developer, bought the house in 1973 on his return from Vietnam, where he served in the Army's 84th Engineer Battalion. He suggested a sale price to Augusta National, "they low-balled us" on a counter-offer, then came back more seriously "but the train had left the station," Hatcher said.

He has created a website advertising the house for sale, AugustaGolfProperty.com. As for an asking price: "I don't have a price. I'd sell it for the going price."

He says public records show that Augusta National has bought 113 acres around his place (with the houses) at a cost of $45,230,225. That's about $400,000 per transaction.

So, OK, like every other big-time sports event, Augusta needed more parking spaces.

But 100 acres of them? For $45 million?

And then you let people park for free?

Something's up.

"My spies tell me the club may build nine new holes here," Hatcher said. Which makes sense, actually, because the land is a series of rolling hills that could easily be translated into a golf course. Or Augusta National might move the par-3 course to that land and build more member/corporate cabins on the current par-3 layout. Or when the need comes for a course at 10,000 yards, the club could close the road between the current course and the parking lot and simply let it grow.

"Bottom line, Augusta National can do anything it wants to do," Hatcher said. "It's been nothing but good for this town forever, and I can see nothing changing that."

The ticket broker renting Hatcher's house is John Pirample, 47, of Las Vegas, who, on hearing my name and affiliation, said, "Got any badges for me?"

He loves the Masters. "Most classiest sports event of all."

Especially loves the prices he gets.

"Tiger coming back kicked up prices 30 percent."

So, what's the going price for a series badge?

"Two thousand, three, four thousand. Look, the Masters is on everybody's bucket list. World Cup soccer is No. 1, the Masters is 2, then the Super Bowl and World Series."

The only problem with living in the middle of Augusta's new parking lot, he said, was those lights that come on at 4 in the morning.

"Great big lights, up high, shining in the bedroom. It's like the Martians have landed. You should ask Miss Kittie about the lights."

Turns out that Kittie Baker's house is about 200 yards from Hatcher's, further west in the parking lot, along with six or seven others that haven't been sold to Augusta National.

"I could do without the lights and the generators and all the noise," Mrs. Baker said. But she has no plans to leave the house. "It was my mother's until she died last summer at 102. Augusta National had spoken with her some years before. She told them she wanted to live in the house until she died. They were very respectful of her wishes."

Mrs. Baker, who now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., said she has been a Masters badge holder since she was 16. "I might just come back here every April and sit right here. They take such good care of everything, it's more like a park than a parking lot."

More like a golf course even.

Yes, William Hatcher says, maybe new nine holes.

"I'm telling people they can 'own a house on the 6th hole of the new West Course at Augusta National.'"

He was laughing at that one.

"Now, please," he said, "be sure to say 'he was laughing' when he said that."