Special Report: The Club Next Door
Patrons of the 2017 Masters, beware: There might be a bit of tension at the border. By “border” we mean Augusta National’s southeast boundary, more or less opposite the 11th and 12th greens and the 13th tee, where the two golf courses straddling Rae’s Creek form a sort of golf paradise.
On one side of the water—the side you know from TV—heroes battle on a sublime green field, and dignity prevails, and uniformed security guards make damn sure it does. There’s no yelling, unless someone makes an eagle or a really good birdie, and there’s no running, and no cellphones. No beer after 4 p.m. Sandwiches are famously cheap but so flabby you better keep both hands on your egg salad on white or it will double up on you like a futon. The equally verdant but far-less-famous facility on the opposite bank is Augusta Country Club, and it’s of a piece with the National’s rolling terrain and barking dogwoods, but it ain’t the same. It couldn’t be. Its membership is local, and it’s a country club, with all that that implies. ACC encompasses a superb Donald Ross-designed, Brian Silva-remodeled golf course; tennis; a big L-shape swimming pool; a workout facility fit for an NFL team; a voluminous, luxurious clubhouse fit for wedding receptions; and, the new thing, a bocce court. The Country Club has 1,340 members; Augusta National’s 300 or so are scattered all over this great country. They fly private to Daniel Field when they want to play the Alister MacKenzie masterpiece on their side of the creek.
Free of the significant burden of staging a major tournament, the Country Club lets you run if you must, it’s OK if you’ve got to take or make a call, and if you want to shoot a picture of a pine cone or an azalea bush, go ahead. Not that they’re firebrands at ACC; far from it—doctors, lawyers and business owners predominate. The food is excellent: Try the signature dish, clam chowder, and wash it down with a Velvet Hammer, if you dare. Cut off beer sales? Are you kidding? Besides, you might prefer a Manhattan or a martini to suds in a cup from a concession stand. Of course you can take your glass outside. How else are you going to loosen up your rusted-over stroke? For on the fast and sloping practice green between ACC’s first tee and its massive wedding-cake clubhouse, late-afternoon putting matches are a rich thread in the Masters Week tapestry. The party within the party sounds something like this:
“Who needs another beer?” some genial Augusta gentleman always says.
“What you doing for dinner?” asks another.
“What three players won the first Masters they ever played?”
“Putt that. Some chicken on that bone.”
“Smith, Sarazen ... ”
“Oh, too bad! You’re 3 down.”
“So on 6, Bubba hits a flop shot from the front of the green to that back-right pin, and he almost holes... ”
“Let me use your badge tomorrow afternoon. My sister’s comin’ in. She wants to buy some shirts.”
“Tech’s gonna kick Georgia’s ass this year.”
“Who needs another beer?”
Kibbitzers seated in white Adirondack rockers on the patio call out “Choke!” or “Woo-hoo!” as appropriate. We putt, we miss, we make, and we yak. Mellow-yellow sunlight slants in decreasing angles through the mighty pines lining the first and 18th fairways, a light chill kisses the air, and happy hour slides into even happier hours. ... I’ve been witness to and a participant in this ritual for almost 20 years, since I first came to town to research a book unimaginatively titled The Masters, and it never gets old.
CROSSOVER MEMBERS... AND TENSION
Although the differences between the two clubs on Rae’s Creek are sharp, the relationship is as intertwined as the roots on adjacent oaks, and it’s complicated by the fact that every Augusta-based member of the National also belongs to the Country Club. There are about 30 of them. What with its cadre of volunteers, and its willingness to lend a mower or a blower or a jar of Grey Poupon, the people at Augusta National could run the Masters without Augusta Country Club, but they couldn’t do it as well.
Money mortars the bricks: Both clubs roll in it thanks to the toon-a-mint. Golf Digest estimates recent annual profits for the host club at about $30 million, and next door, various media entities rent prime space. Surge pricing allows the Country Club to charge $5.25 for a beer that’s $2.90 the other 51 weeks.
Courtesy of Google Earth
And when Masters magic compels patrons to attempt the game themselves? Look no further.
“We are the only course you can play in the Augusta area where you get to hit shots over Rae’s Creek and hear the roars from the Masters Tournament,” brags the ACC website. The tee sheet was almost full by the end of 2016. The fee is $2,000-$2,500 for a foursome, and don’t forget to tip your forecaddie.
And don’t forget to call ahead; patrons should not just waltz in to the old (est. 1899) club on Milledge Road like it’s Tbonz or Luigi’s. Quoting the website again: “The club permits reciprocal privileges to other private clubs upon formal written introduction.” There’s another way to get into the clubhouse, of course: know a member. How to do that? Go where they go. When you see an ACC logo on the sweater of a diner at Calvert’s or Sheehan’s or the French Market Grille, buy dinner for his entire table. That could work. Friendships have been formed on less. At minimum, it would increase the joy in an already joyous week.
And yet: There’s that tension on the banks of Rae’s Creek. At the January 2015 annual meeting at the Country Club, one of the dual members, red-faced and angry and sitting behind an empty glass, shouted, “Y’all are just a bunch of damn liars.” A big-dollar business deal between the clubs was in the offing, but it was not coming off. Frustration bloomed.
The territorial ambitions of Augusta National chairman William Porter (Billy) Payne are at the heart of the hard feelings. As you probably know, during the 11-year reign of Payne, the club has snapped up contiguous real estate, pursuant to expanding parking, increasing security, and for the erection of a new media center and tournament HQ. By the simple expedient of paying a lot, the mission has been accomplished—most of it.
There are one or two stubborn little holdouts and one big one: the Country Club. The National wants to buy its hole on the border, the uphill, par-4 ninth—for what reason, it will not say. Perhaps the National would move the tee back on the par-5 13th, or scrape out a very expensive road for maintenance vehicles, or create housing of some kind. Losing the hole would inconvenience the Country Club but probably wouldn’t harm it—there’s ample room for a new ninth, which would be another uphill par 4, bending right, with the green a reasonable distance from the 10th tee.
But as this is written, the two old friends can’t agree on a price. In October 2016, Augusta National paid $5.35 million for the nearby .73 acres beneath Jay’s Music & Sound Super Center, on a busy corner of Washington Road, which works out to about $7.25 million an acre, and in 2017, the club paid $6.9 million for a Pep Boys on Washington Road. They’re comps, in real-estate-speak, numbers on which to base future sales in the area. But the potential purchaser disagrees. ACC’s ninth hole has about six acres. Six times six, or six times seven ... that would be a lot even for Augusta National.
Numerous sources say that the last number on the table was $18 million.
Adds a source within ACC to Augusta National: “We can’t settle on a value for our hole, so let’s try it on your side: How much you want for the 12th green?”
Negotiations, as you can see, have been “emotional,” according to a witness.
“Emotional”? That doesn’t sound good. This isn’t going to put a pall on the fun at ACC, is it? Can this marriage be saved?
Of course it can, says Jerry Matheis, a wealth advisor for Wells Fargo, and a Country Club member since 1966. “Our board of directors and Billy Payne will come to an agreement at some point,” Matheis says. “No, I don't think this will damage our relationship. I hope not. We'll be next door to each other as long as we exist.”
THE BOBBY JONES CONNECTION The ties go way back. Masters and National co-founder Bobby Jones enjoyed Augusta and its Country Club on numerous visits in the ’20s, climaxing in early April 1930, when one of the best golfers ever played his best golf ever. Jones began his Grand Slam year with a second place in Savannah, then won the Southeastern Open in Augusta—against a very good field, most of them pros, including future Masters champs Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen—by 13 shots. The first two rounds of that victory march were at ACC. Although co-founder Cliff Roberts’ official club history holds that an Augusta friend named Thomas Barrett Jr. introduced the principals to the site for Bobby’s dream course, the idea persists that at some point, Jones looked across the creek while he walked up No. 9. If he turned to his right in April of ’30, he would have seen the eventual 11th and 13th fairways, very few pines, and scores of flowering trees and shrubs left behind by the defunct Fruitland Nurseries. It would have looked heavenly. Jones, Roberts and friends bought the 365-acre plot for $70,000 that fall.
The two clubs and the Masters blended over the years, up to a point. Matheis remembers the days when many invitees stayed in the homes of ACC members, and the members didn’t leave, and they all had a lovely time. At the parties at the country club, musician/golfer/showoffs named Snead, Hebert and Demaret would on occasion tell a couple of the paid performers to take 10. Then someone counted off one, two, three, and three-time Masters winner Sam Snead blew through a trumpet, his cheeks puffed out as if he were Dizzy Gillespie. Lionel Hebert (four top-10s in the ’50s and ’60s) majored in music at LSU and could play anything. And Jimmy Demaret, another three-green-jacket man, owned a pleasant tenor he loved to use. Between songs, Jimmy selected jokes and one-liners from his vast collection. Sides were split. Someone, we assume, hit a cymbal.
A charming vestige of the Snead-Demaret era involved Byron Nelson. From 1981 until he couldn’t, Nelson was one of the three creaky legends who got the tournament started on Thursday morning by swatting out a ceremonial tee ball, in the Masters equivalent of throwing out the first pitch. The kindly two-time Masters champ warmed up at ACC.
“Tuesday and Wednesday,” recalls Tommy Brannen, the Country Club’s head pro, “we’d take carts out to the back of the range. I’d tee the balls up for him because he had replacement hips, and it hurt him to bend over. And he and Peggy and Phil Harison [longtime Masters starter] and I would talk and talk.”
Brannen has seen other Masters players play on his side of the creek during tournament week. “Let’s see, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam ... remember, there’s no pro-am in the Masters, so we’re the best place to get together for social golf with sponsors or friends. And this is not a bad little golf course.”
Here's another example of hands across the creek water: for 40-odd years, Spalding hosted a Tuesday-evening dinner at ACC for every Masters player who hit a Dot. “Usually about 20 or 25 of us,” recalls former Spalding sales rep Wendell Couch, whose tenure with the company roughly coincided with the dinner. Couch, a legendary figure in Georgia golf, sold Spalding to both the clubs on Rae’s Creek.
“Greg Norman in his heyday, Payne Stewart, Johnny Miller. And those who had a prior commitment [that is, attendees of the Champions Dinner at Augusta National] would come over for dessert,” Couch says. “Bob Goalby did that, and Charlie Coody, and Craig Stadler. We’d sit in the boardroom or at two tables in the dining room. [Country Club GM] Henry Marburger did an awesome job for us. That was so much fun.”
What problems exist between the parties now have a much different feel. The stalled sale of the ninth hole is a symptom of a much larger negative trend, according to certain traditionalists at the Country Club.
“We can’t settle on a value for our hole, so let’s try it on your side: How much you want for the 12th green?” —A source within ACC to Augusta National
“They’ve just replaced the atmosphere, from local Augusta to corporate,” says an ACC member who has been attending the Masters for over 40 years. “They bought so much land for free parking, local people can’t make a few bucks by parking cars in their yards like they always have. Then they put up a bunch of nice bars and restaurants called Berckmans Place, over behind No. 5. It won’t surprise me if they build their own hotel, or a lot more cabins. It’s stay at their place, eat their food, spend all your money there. Do they really care about the community? I’d say the jury is out.”
Maybe chairman Payne is the Great Usurper, and maybe the National has changed the lay of the land too much and too fast. Dead men like Jones and Roberts, and live ones such as the ACC member quoted above, could never have pictured the club’s acquisition of so much real estate, or the creation of the fabulously expensive Berckmans Place, which is all-inclusive, by the way, like Baker’s Bay in the Bahamas. It includes the Berckmans Place “putting experience,” which features miniature replicas of three National greens, with full-size replica caddies in white coveralls who tell you that your putt breaks left. Will this affect the Country Club putting match?
As Jerry Matheis said regarding the ninth-hole kerfuffle, I hope not. Unless chairman Payne keeps buying holes until he’s got the entire golf course, Augusta Country Club should remain a great place to reunite with old friends, to borrow a badge for an hour, to trade hot sports opinions, and to take Spieth over Day for 10. And to drink, and to putt.