As far as night life, there's only one major. The Masters sets the curve while the rest collect gentleman C's (Ryder Cup included, all due respect). The reasons range from pragmatic to spiritual—corporate-entertainment budgets are freshest in spring, azalea blossoms release a pheromonal dust that makes golf people put on their finest pastels and howl—but most obvious is the value of a fixed location. Just as the traditions inside the gates have formed naturally over decades, so, too, has what happens outside them every April. Though a New York or Paris will overwhelm a golf tournament with competing events, and a second-tier city that hosts a major even every decade is in some respects always starting anew, Augusta's alter-ego has an established identity and rhythm. Regulars know where to go, and when.
Draw a 20-mile radius around the National—how locals refer to the club, respect laced with fear—to envision this nocturnal playground. It's a network of functions in beautiful homes inside gated communities guarded by locals numb to the incessant buzz of Ubers and rental cars, a fairy land of heavy hors d'oeuvres and open bars. The heart is the commercial drag of Washington Road with its rides and attractions advertised in neon. Snoop Dogg, Lil Jon and Nelly have played the same dance hall, and another establishment has run a Masters-themed bikini contest. Wonderful times all, but public record. Our purpose here is to consider the scene that's a bit more exclusive. At these venues, you will not encounter young Atlantans working the world's oldest profession.
But first, Rule No. 1 for a night out here: Rely on GPS only if you have to. Roads will terminate prematurely at unmanned gates, close-to-duplicate addresses exist in nearby South Carolina, and local police can at any time crush your flow with one-way traffic re-route. Stick to the back roads, and keep it between the pines.
Short of getting invited to remain at the tournament site after dusk, the next-best ticket is to know someone throwing a party at Sage Valley Golf Club, which is 16 miles northeast in Graniteville, S.C. From the green blazers for members in clubhouse dining, to the flawless fairways, to the many well-serviced cottages—in the fog of night, you might think you're at the National.
Each year during the Masters, various entities (Golf Digest included) rent cottages at Sage Valley to entertain valued clients. Opportunities for night putting with a digestif abound, but the most fun to be had is on the three-hole Dormie Course, which is made playable with nine permanent and powerful lights. This is no pitch-and-putt, but real golf—the hole lengths are 162, 413 and 361 yards—with conditions maintained to the same standard as the championship course.
The vibe of the Dormie Course is evolving, as is the layout, soon to be expanded to nine holes. Originally conceived as a quick loop to settle bets in the daytime, after dark it has been a more official arena. In 2017, the first available tee time for booking was 9:30 p.m., and standing attention on the first tee were uniformed caddies and staffed cocktail and cigar concessions. In 2018, one company reserved all three holes—to the chagrin of its industry rivals, who also had rented cottages. No matter how you find your way on, there might be no richer feeling than picking up one's tee, as well as one's cabernet and Cuban, after smoking a tee shot to deep center field. Visual impairment is relative, but breaks are slightly harder to read and pitch marks tougher to spot. Hence, why a caddie for just three holes makes sense.
Champions Retreat in Evans, Ga., is another private golf club deep on Southern hospitality, but during Masters Week, its gates are open to the public. Even if you're not associated with any companies or individuals renting housing, you can phone ahead to reserve your spot for dinner or a pass to the central festivities. Pick your pleasures, but you can't go wrong with refilling your barbecue plate, refilling your gimlet glass twice more, and then lying flat on your back with a teed ball in your mouth and trying not to flinch as social-media starlet Kenzie O'Connell swats a drive into the lights. Fear, lust, adrenaline, power . . . if it's all too much for you, settle down by the bonfire, grab a softer beverage, and go work on your half-wedges. Just to hit balls off a grass range of this caliber at night is a party.
Almost everyone you meet has a great golf story and an interesting take on the tournament. Almost everyone.
Champions Retreat, as you might know, is hosting the first two rounds of the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur, which will finish at the National the Sunday before the 2019 Masters. When ANGC chairman Fred Ridley made the announcement on Wednesday of the 2018 Masters, I was with fairly high-ranking Champions Retreat personnel watching Paige Spiranac entertain guests on their range. They were excited to partner with the National to host such an event but hadn't heard about it until that day, either.
What makes Masters Week special is the feeling of being at the epicenter of the game at the dawn of a new season. From agents to ardent fans, almost everyone you meet has a great golf story and an interesting take on the tournament. Almost everyone. Though many passionate golfers dream their whole lives of attending just one Masters, the vagaries of corporate entertaining mean some less-deserving folk slip through. At a private party where former Ryder Cup captain Dave Stockton was offering complimentary short-game lessons on a synthetic 40-yard hole, and the appearances of Hale Irwin and Claude Harmon III had been similarly secured, one oblivious guest was introduced to all.
“What do you do?” the gentleman asked Irwin, the three-time U.S. Open winner.
“I'm a golfer,” Irwin said.
“Me, too!” And then, taking not quite enough time to swallow a crab cake, to Harmon III: “And how about you?”
“I'm a golf teacher.”
“Cool! My kid takes lessons. Do you teach juniors?”
“Who do you teach?”
“I've got a few students in the tournament this week.”
Dinner reservations can be a fight during Masters Week, and so management firms have traditionally rented houses so their players have the option to drop in for an easy meal. Somewhere along the way, these open-door hangouts morphed into full-blown client entertainment. The IMG house is a party every night, although players still stop by, usually on the earlier side.
One place where you're guaranteed to see players, even late, is the Wheels Up party. Originally it was conceived as an event for clients of the private-aviation company to bring high-net-worth friends who might also become clients, but over the past five years, it has become a not-so-well-kept secret. The tent-erectors, the stage-builders, the goody-bag suppliers—you can see them setting up days in advance if you pass by a certain gated community's golf course, whose parking lot is fully utilized on the big night.
Musician Kelley James, who mixes off-the-cuff freestyling directed at audience members along with rock covers and originals, has performed at every one. He has had Rickie Fowler and Charley Hoffman on stage, as well as NFL wide receiver Golden Tate. But James' favorite memory is from last year, when he handed a guitar to GT Nicklaus—grandson of Jack Nicklaus—who was still riding a wave from his walk-off ace in a caddie bib at the Par-3 Contest the day before.
“Man, I don't remember what song we played, but Jack Nicklaus sharing the video clip might've been the high point of my life, because deep down, I'm a golf nerd,” James says. “Augusta National is so reverent, but it's a situation where once people leave the gates, they just want to let loose. It's obviously going to be a majority male audience, but that doesn't matter because everybody wants to have an absolute blast.”
Or, as Gary Spitalnik, co-founder and executive vice president of Wheels Up, tells people about the week in general: “It's Coachella for CEOs.”
Whatever it is, the place isn't Augusta. Come back any other week of the year to see that.