They come from all over the world. Passionate patrons absorb spring in Augusta as they wander about one of the greatest venues in sports. They get an up-close glimpse of tour tempo, hear the sound of pure contact, combined with a little sun on the back of their necks and legs, and they’re overcome with the undeniable urge to tee it up.
It all explains the frequency of the tweet: "Where should we play while we’re in town for the Masters?"
Last week I spent a few days in Augusta sampling five golf options and four restaurants.
I’ll start with the golf, in order of preference.
1. Palmetto Golf Club (1892) Aiken, SC
Distance from Augusta National: 22.5 miles
Masters week Green fees: $195 per player includes golf, cart, range & lunch.
The 7th hole at Palmetto Golf Club.
There aren’t a lot of courses in the country with established dates in the 1800s. And adding to the prestige is the fact that Alister Mackenzie’s crew, after finishing up at Augusta National, came up to Aiken to help convert Palmetto from a sand course to a grass course. Both Tom Doak and Gil Hanse have been involved in some tweaks and restorations, but no one has touched the spike-riddled wooden benches in the locker room. And there’s nothing like a wall of names that includes the likes of Nelson and Hogan, who would spend two weeks at Palmetto prepping for the Masters. Hogan felt No. 3-thru-5 three are among the best three-hole stretches of par 4s in golf. For 51 weeks a year, Palmetto is private, but for the week of the tournament, they open their tee sheet to the public. Pay $195 per player and pro Brooks Blackburn and his staff will make you feel like a member for a day. The price includes golf, cart and lunch, but it's hard to quantify the value of access to Palmetto’s memorabilia room or the nostalgia and charm that drips from the dark wood in the old pro shop.
In eight days of opening their gates to the public, Palmetto membership will raise close to $200,000, which goes right back into the maintenance of the course and facility. There are other good private courses in the area that allow some outside play the week of the Masters. Sage Valley and Augusta Country Club are two courses that get a lot of attention and mentions. But their tee sheets are filled with friends of members or corporate outings. In that sense, Palmetto is much more accessible, affordable and might be the best course of the bunch.
Video: Ginella talks golf, restaurants in Augusta during the Masters
Click here for Part 2 of Ginella's top places to play while in Augusta for the Masters.
2. Forest Hills Golf Club (1926), Augusta, GA
Distance from Augusta National: 4.4 miles
Masters week green fees: $125-$140 ($60 Monday after Masters). Includes golf, cart, range & lunch.
The home course of Augusta State ("Save the A!") as well as the scrappy little Aquinas High School, I’m a big fan of Forest Hills. An old Donald Ross design, which was modified by Arnold Palmer, gets some criticisms for extreme greens, but I still like the routing and the setting. On any given day there’s a healthy mix of ages and genders, walkers and riders, coming the rolling fairways of Forest Hills. There’s a grass range and they serve a tasty 8-oz burger in the renovated clubhouse. On the weekend before the Masters, the men’s team at Augusta State hosts the 3M Augusta Invitational, which is made up of 15 of the best teams in the country. On the Monday of Masters week, every team and coach gets a ticket to watch practice rounds.
3. Aiken Golf Club (1912), Aiken, SC
Distance from Augusta National: 23.5 miles
Masters week green fees: $95 per player includes cart, tee prize.
Near Augusta, Aiken Golf Club dates back over a century.
With links to the Tufts family, who owned Pinehurst, this is another course with an abundance of charm and nostalgia. Laying claim to being the first course with a set of “ladies tees,” you’ll be following in the footsteps of Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg. And locals say the current owner, Jim McNair, has brought the game’s Scottish roots back to the prideful club that more than welcomes the influx of retail golfers the week of the Masters. The course is tight, short and fun. And after the round, I suggest a cold beer, a “blue burger” and a view of the first tee and 18th green.
4. The River Golf Club (1998), North Augusta
Distance from Augusta National: 6.6 miles
Masters week green fees: $1000 per foursome. Includes cart, range, breakfast & lunch.
In North Augusta, The River Golf Club is an area favorite during Masters week.
Tom Fazio has done a lot of work in and around town, including building Sage Valley and almost all of the renovations to Augusta National, but his brother Jim built The River Golf Club, which is one of the most convenient and popular options the week of the Masters. It’s also one of the most expensive. At $1,000 per foursome, it’s still tough to get a tee time at the River Club, which has the look of a coastal course and is flat enough to be a good walk. They also have three golf cottages (sleeps eight per cottage), which makes it a potential staging ground for a buddies trip to Augusta any time other than the week of the Masters, which is when green fees are usually $55 during the week and $65 on weekends.
5. Jones Creek (1986), Jones Creek, GA
Distance from Augusta National: 6.5 miles
Masters week green fees: $500-$900 per foursome. Includes cart, range, breakfast & lunch.
Rees Jones designed Augusta-area Jones Creek Golf Club.
Jones Creek is an upscale community within 10 miles of Augusta National. Built around a golf course designed by Rees Jones, a lot of the houses in the neighborhood are rented out for the week of the Masters, making Jones Creek a popular course for golf before or after a day of watching the too-na-ment. The routing is tight and can play long, so I encourage first-timers to move up a set of tees if they want to have fun.
Also worth noting is Jones Creek’s expensive learning center. There are four Class A professionals available for lessons, club fittings and club repair.
Restaurants in Augusta during the Masters
The week of the Masters, the only things more crowded than the tee sheets, Washington Road and trunks full of merchandise are Augusta's restaurants. Almost none of them take reservations, so expect considerable waits for a table.
A lot of locals like Luigi’s, and so does Ben Crenshaw, who brings in a big group every year. From the hospitality of the Ballas family to the vintage jukebox, you’ll feel like you’ve crashed a reunion. I recommend the Greek chicken with an extra order of sauce.
The Frog Hollow Tavern is the best fine dining in Augusta and is one of the few restaurants that take reservations during Masters week. Unfortunately if you get one, it might not be until next year.
There are two French Market Grilles near Augusta National. One is near Jones Creek and the other is closer to Forest Hills, which is the one I prefer. Owner Chuck Baldwin just celebrated his 30th anniversary of serving some spicy Cajun cuisine and my new favorite desert: peanut butter pie.
Patricia Sheehan Beck is the granddaughter of Jerome Franklin, who was member No. 3 at Augusta National. Franklin was a close friend of co-founder Clifford Roberts, and now his granddaughter and her husband, John Beck, own Sheehan’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, which has a creole bias. Just a few miles from the course, and with 200 outside seats, it’s especially popular when the weather cooperates.
Sheehan's Irish Pub has ties to two of Augusta National's early members, Jerome Franklin (left) and Clifford Roberts (right).
Average temperatures this week should be in the upper-70s with almost no chance of rain. And now you know where to play while you're in town for the Masters.