Four-Wheeling to Augusta

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AUGUSTA, Ga.' Every year around this time, I get surprised looks from my colleagues when I tell them Ill be connecting through Statesboro, not Atlanta.
 
Unlike many reporters, I dont fly to the Masters. I drive. Statesboro, Ga. is where I pick up U.S. Route 25 north for the final 120 miles or so into Augusta.
 
Why drive the seven hours from Orlando instead of fly? Well, by the time you get to the airport, fly the 90 minutes to Atlanta, navigate that maze of an airport, rent a car, swing up 285 and shoot over on I-20, the airborne route doesnt put you that many minutes ahead.
 
Its nicer to be mobile and independent in Augusta. And in my car, I choose the music, stop when I want, and hardly ever have to put up with the oxygen masks coming out of the ceiling.
 
Seriously, though. There are other reasons.
 
This is the season for rituals of renewal. This tournament, golfs central spring ritual, spins off other cherished seasonal traditions.
 
As much as the demands of paying attention to the road allow, my Masters ritual begins with seven hours of thinking things over, interrupted by a few stretch-your-legs stops and one for a bowl of soup.
 
Sunday night, I was blessed with a clear, starry night, and as I watched Orions belt sink into the west, I let my mind wander.
 
My generation, staring down its forties, cant recall a time when there wasnt a Masters. Its hard to imagine spring without it. There are people who have been to every Masters since 1934, and they have a hard time imagining the Masters without Bob Jones, its co-founder, even though they have had to face that since 1972.
 
Jones, once the most popular athlete of his day, developed a disease called syringomyelia. Essentially, it carved out long holes in his spinal cord. The power and grace of his youth slowly gave way to immobility, pain and disfigurement.
 
This would be hard for anyone to bear. But Alistair Cooke, the English journalist who covered and came to love the Masters, wrote that Jones politely refused any grieving sympathy. On one occasion, Jones thanked a friend for his concern, spoke of playing lifes ball as it lies, and smiled quietly at his friend while saying, Now, let us never talk of this again.
 
And when his disfigurement became very advanced, Jones stopped attending the Masters, although it must have pained him greatly to be absent. He had the decency, Cooke wrote, to no longer let us see him when he could not bear to be seen.
 
Was such gentility and strength of character an anomaly in Joness day? We like to think not, but memory, someone once said, is more about what we want than about the truth.
 
Still, every spring, I think about Jones on my drive north. Thoughts about power and grace and strength and adversity and character ' all arising from memories of a golfer.
 
That should mean something.
 
***
 
In Brooklet, Ga., stopping for gas at 11 p.m., I am about an hour away. The only sound is the receding roar of two souped-up Chevy engines, whose owners have just peeled out on the way back down 25. Things are going better than 1998, when I came up from the South Carolina coast and clobbered a poor doe that bolted in front of my car on a deserted country road.
 
After the long descent into the Savannah River valley, I arrive in the town that will be the center of golf, of sports, for the next week. Lights shine on Washington Road, but it is midnight, and most everything is closed. (Except the Krispy Kreme. Hot Donuts Now. I am too tired. I pass by.)
 
I check into a hotel of the economy variety, which shall remain nameless. Fifty-one weeks per year, it costs dirt. This week, it is nearly $160 per night. And there is no phone in my room. I run across the street to the Waffle House and call my wife. I come back to the room. I fall down on the bed. Im here.
 
***
 
Monday morning, and I am really here. Traffic is at a standstill on Washington Road where it passes under I-20 and begins the climb to the National. There is plenty of time to observe.
 
Item 1: The I Need Tickets signs, cardboard placards with hastily Sharpied letters heralding the weeklong economy of desperation. Need?' Thats a stretch. Were not talking survival here. Life will go on if you dont get in. Yes, its special, but lets remember, its just a golf tournament. Personally, it seems to me the national desire to get into the National this week is in direct relation to the Exclusivity Factor. The more they say you cant have it, the more you want it. And at Augusta, you cant have it. Toughest ticket in sports is an understatement.
 
Item 2: Club Cars. The golf cart company, based in nearby Martinez, makes sure its carts are parked in front of as many local businesses as possible. Dry cleaners, barbecue places, banks, grocery stores ' they all show off Club Car wares. The one in front of Hooters is orange.
 
E-Z-GO, the worlds other major cart manufacturer, has its headquarters in Augusta. But it favors big billboards for its Masters week promotions.
 
Item 3: Whats with all these sushi bars? I just counted three in the space of a mile. Ill bet Clifford Roberts never expected that.
 
There are a number of real estate signs in front of Washington Road businesses that were crowded last year. The Oldenberg Grill, a brew pub kind of place, is up for rent. So is a Rio Bravo up the street.
 
To blow by some traffic, do this: As you crest the long hill of Washington Road, turn left at National Hills Baptist Church, onto River Ridge Drive. Go all the way down to Dan Street and turn right. Then turn right onto Azalea Drive and find a place to park. If you dont feel like climbing the hill, you can pay one of the enterprising folks who let people park on their lawns for $15 or $20.
 
Welcome home! says the old gentleman out front at 1010 Azalea as he directs me to back my rented SUV into his flower beds. Fifteen dollars later, I am set for the day. Twenty cars, $15 each, seven days.you do the math. Thats a lot of azaleas.
 
***
 
And finally, into the gates.
 
When I first walked into Augusta National in 1996, I was underwhelmed. I was cranky from the travel. I looked around and said to myself, Nice. But whats the big deal? I suppose after all those years of hearing the place ranked a notch above Paradise, my expectations floated high.
 
Im pleased to say the place has grown on me.
 
There should be a special shade called Augusta Green. The grass here has a hue all its own, and of course they do such a marvelous job here of maintaining the grounds. To watch the pines rise tall and elegant from this garden of golf Eden is comforting to the soul.
 
Go to any PGA Tour event and youll find a golf-savvy crowd. But the patrons at the Masters take it up a notch. Its enlightening to overhear conversations. Did Player win in 1978? Yeah, and two other times. Watch; Lehman will hit away from this pin. Does Duvals swing seem shorter?
 
Youd expect a passionate group here. Until you get inside the gates, its an effort to get to the Masters. The traffic tries the patience, even back to the exit ramps off I-20. Parking is at a premium. One must wait ones turn more times in a day than usual.
 
But once inside the gates, where cell phones are banned and golf is the center of the world, smiles abound and problems seem to recede, at least for a few hours.
 
All because of golf.
 
Something to think about on the drive home.
 
Full Coverage of the 2001 Masters