I don’t know if my annual trip to Augusta would be considered a pilgrimage or a reunion because it feels like a little bit of both. Even the drive through eastern Georgia each spring is nostalgic. Going through towns, like Statesboro, Sardis and Waynesboro, depending on the route we take, seeing how they’ve changed over the past year and gauging the type of spring they’ve had on how far along the azalea’s and dogwoods are in bloom. The landscape can be breathtaking, and even though it’s only a short drive from home, Jacksonville’s seaside, beach town feel in comparison makes it seem a million miles away.
Augusta is a town identified by the medical college but world famous as the home of the Masters. Augusta National is located on Washington Road, a street something like Beach Boulevard near University. Inside the gates might be one of the most beautiful, pastoral settings in the world, but outside is a collection of fast food restaurants, ticket buyers (the sellers are very, very discreet), and street vendors selling everything from black velvet art to unofficial Masters gear. While the Masters has always been a big event, it’s grown in the last ten years to something huge, enveloping the entire town.
The people here are great, polite even when they’re telling you to get lost. They’ve raised the bar on tailgating too. When was the last time you saw people spread out their blanket and cooler and lawn chairs while waiting on line for a seat in a restaurant?
Of golf’s four major championships, the Masters is the only one played on the same golf course every year, so the course itself, Augusta National, is the star. They’ve had to change it over the years to keep up with technology and the ability of the players. Jack Nicklaus’ domination here in the ’60’s had the members make a few changes to the course and Tiger Woods’ assault on the Masters record book gave rise to a re-vamping and lengthening of seven of the 18 holes. These changes were widely publicized and celebrated. Nothing like the quiet changes of the past where you’d walk out of the door of the pro shop headed to the first tee straight ahead, only to have to make a left and march 40 yards up hill to find the new tee box.
The weather will play a role in how the scoring goes this week, but the course changes will make it more difficult. Unlike the other majors where they’ve taken the driver out of the players’ hands, the extra 300 yards they’ve added at Augusta will force players to hit driver and hit it precisely. It probably takes another fifteen guys out of the mix of possible winners, but the long bomber that wins here, will also have played his irons very well and putted better than anybody else. That’s why it’s hard to overlook Tiger, Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els as the favorites, and difficult to see players like O’Meara or Olazabal contending again. They’re great technicians, great scramblers. But just not long enough. But Augusta is full of surprises and surprise winners. That’s part of what they call the “charm.” I told you they were polite.