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Augusta stories: How local businesses and families are dealing with no Masters

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The normally congested mile between Interstate 20 and the sturdy gate to Augusta National Golf Club is eerily quiet. The ubiquitous traffic cones that somehow bring order to chaos are gone. So are the would-be patrons who normally line Washington Road on their way to a bucket-list experience. Even the small white sign hanging by the guardhouse has been removed, signaling the club is on hiatus.

The coronavirus pandemic has extracted every ounce of normalcy from everyday life, and missed moments – like this week’s Masters, which has been etched into the sport’s calendar since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States – only magnify the strangeness of our times. 

Though there was a glimmer of hope this week when Augusta National announced that this year’s Masters has been rescheduled for Nov. 12-15, it doesn’t make life any less surreal for those who have grown up in the shadow of the club’s towering pine trees and consider the tournament part of the fabric of their community. 

From lifelong Augusta residents to the shopkeepers who depend on the tournament’s economic boost, these are unprecedented times. Here are their stories, as written by GolfChannel.com senior writers Ryan Lavner and Rex Hoggard.


"Masters week is business, but it's almost a family reunion."

Partridge Inn
Partridge Inn
The Partridge Inn veranda (courtesy: Partridge Inn)

 

It’s the second week of April, prime time for the area hotel businesses, and yet within a few miles of the Augusta National entrance, there’s an available room at a popular hotel chain – for $66 a night.

There’s another hotel reporting 8-percent occupancy.

And there’s even an automated voice message at one local staple: We’re temporarily closed.

“Mother Nature always knows it’s Masters week, like you can wonder if the azaleas will ever bloom – and then, magically, it just knows, and there’s this amazing spring beauty,” Jeff Brower said. “That’s how it is this week, and, sadly, nobody is here to enjoy it.”

Brower is the general manager of the Partridge Inn, an Augusta institution ever since it opened in 1910. A member of the Historic Hotels of America, the iconic “PI” is quintessentially Augusta, as much a part of the city’s lore as pimento cheese, pollen and sundresses.

The Inn remains open this week, but with a statewide stay-at-home order in effect, it’s no longer the place to be seen. The lobby is quiet. The meeting rooms are empty. The bar and grill is closed except for to-go orders. Sure, guests are still checking in – travelers from all over the country, even some in town for an extended stay. “But it’s a very different feel and vibe,” Brower said. How different? “This time last year we were sold out, and this year we’re not. Given today’s current business environment, we’re still doing well.”

Since the Masters Tournament was postponed a few weeks ago, Brower said, he’s had plenty of long days and short nights. He and his staff are using the downtime wisely, getting the 110-year-old property ready for the future. They’re updating the entire facility, working through guest rooms and on air-conditioning systems they couldn’t previously access, at least not at their usual occupancy. Carpentry, painting, beautifying – you name it, they’re doing it.

“It’s actually been fun,” Brower said, “because we’ve never had the opportunity to work on the property like this.”

And besides, there’s the promise of better days ahead, for everyone, when the country can reopen and Augusta can welcome back hundreds of thousands of golf fans for a November Masters.

The news spread fast, as a quick search of Augusta-area hotels the week of Nov. 9 produces these results:

Sold out.

Sold out.

Sold out.

There’s an available room about 30 miles away, in Aiken, South Carolina, that’ll still cost you, after taxes and fees, nearly $3,300 for six nights.

Masters week is big business, no doubt, but the Partridge Inn is more interested in providing a unique experience. “We’re the furthest thing from cookie cutter,” Brower said. Instead, the “PI” prides itself on its charm and Southern hospitality, its service team that’s been in place for the past 15 years. Oftentimes, families or groups are assigned the same room year after year; upon checkout they’ll tell the front desk, Book me again for next year!, and put down a deposit. They’re drawn to the lively scene, the guests on the veranda eating shrimp and grits, sipping on Pappy Van Winkle, finishing off their meal with a cigar. Late into the night they’ll discuss that round’s action and predict what history will unfold tomorrow.

“Masters week is business,” Brower said, “but it’s almost a family reunion. There’s an incredible feeling in the area, with friends and family from multiple generations.”

After the official November Masters announcement, Brower has been buzzing and reconnecting with clients and guests. He knows the city will recover. He knows how stunning Augusta will look in the fall. He knows he can offer the same intimate service, regardless of the time of year.

“We’ll certainly do what we always do,” he said.

The front entrance is wide open.


“It’s like waiting on Christmas, but Santa was a no-show.”

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A view of the empty parking areas on Berckmans Road next to Augusta National.

 

From his living room, William Lanier can hear the famous roars from Augusta National’s second nine. We’re not talking about the cheers that Jack Nicklaus produced in 1986, or even those Tiger Woods inspired last year on his way to victory. 

“Today’s Tuesday, right? I would be hearing them cheer all day long if they were there,” Lanier said with a laugh earlier this week.

But “they” aren’t there. Not for another seven months. Instead, the roars have been replaced by an eerie silence that forces Lanier to look over his shoulder and toward the gates of Augusta National as he occupies his time with yard work. 

To be precise, Lanier’s house (where his grandfather grew up) sits 1.2 miles from the gatehouse that guards Magnolia Lane. It’s a familiar walk for the 52-year-old; he attended his first Masters in 1976 and has been in town for 46 tournaments, both as a patron and even during his high-school years as a volunteer.

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“Best job I ever had,” he said. “[Augusta National] had just started allowing players to bring their own caddies. It would have been 1983, and for three years we gave out range balls to players and caddies. I remember watching [Sam] Snead hit balls and he was in his 60s, and he took these divots that were the size of a credit card.”

During Lanier’s final year of high school, he was moved from the range to a CBS Sports recording truck where he monitored a bank of televisions and logged shots. It was 1986, and Lanier can still remember all 65 shots Nicklaus struck on that historic day. “The truck was so loud when Nicklaus made his eagle at 15,” he said. "It was really cool.”

Lanier has worked as a caddie at the Masters – first in 2008, for David Toms, a former teammate at LSU, and again in 2018 for Wesley Bryan. Lanier’s grandfather grew up camping on the banks of Rae’s Creek, and Lanier learned the game playing next door at Augusta Country Club. For his entire life the Masters was a fixed object on the calendar.

Like all locals, Lanier has grown accustomed to the traffic jams on Washington Road and crowded restaurants during Masters week. Today, they seem ghostly. He gazed down Magnolia Lane recently and wrestled with the competing emotions of anticipation and disappointment.

“You drive by and you can tell everything was on hold,” he said. “There was no buzz in the air. You could tell the tents weren’t set up on Washington Road. There was no 8-year-old-boy-anticipating-Christmas-morning feel about it.”

Lanier tried to satisfy his Masters fix by watching yet another re-air of the ’86 tournament, but the reality of tournament week has made it difficult to move on.

“I’ve been texting with my friends and this morning I threw out: How many pimento cheese sandwiches weren’t sold yesterday?” he laughed.

For those who live in Augusta, the Masters is a holiday to be celebrated. But this year? 

“It’s like waiting on Christmas,” he said, “but Santa was a no-show.”


"The course is in the best shape I’ve ever seen it for this week, too."

Forest Hills Golf Course
Forest Hills Golf Course
Forest Hills Golf Course (courtesy: Forest Hill GC)

 

As the general manager of Forest Hills Golf Course, Dan Elliott is staying plenty busy this week, but with two key differences: He’s hosting a different clientele, and the customers are there for a different reason.

Elliott isn’t seeing the typical Masters-week traffic – the out-of-town visitors looking for a quick 18 on a classic course to bask in the major experience glow.

No, these are locals, familiar faces trying to get some fresh air for a few hours before returning home.

Golf courses were deemed essential by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, and so, this morning, like nearly every morning, Elliott is running Forest Hills’ operations. Even without the Masters in town, the club isn’t slow. Far from it, in fact. They’re still booking 150 rounds a day, well above the club’s weekly average and similar to their peak ... only they’re not collecting the $200 greens fee (which includes a barbecue lunch spread). No, they’re charging their usual rates: $45 during the week, $55 on weekends. Left unsaid is the lost revenue.

“The course is in the best shape I’ve ever seen it for this week, too,” said Elliott, in his eighth year as GM. “The people coming down from the north would have really enjoyed it.”

To comply with CDC guidelines, Forest Hills is taking all of the usual precautions. The clubhouse is closed except for the golf shop. All food service has been cut off, replaced by carryout of prepared snacks and beverages. Furniture has been removed from the patio. Only one rider is allowed per cart; there are no ball washers, sand buckets or range balls; and foam pool noodles have been wrapped around the flagstick so the ball doesn’t drop to the bottom of the cup.

“Golf, in general, is different, and it’s taken on a whole new landscape,” he said. “We’re a pretty down-home club to hang out at, and that’s all changed.”

Elliott admittedly was torn about the club still being open, wondering whether he’s doing his part to stop the spread of the virus.

“I have a hard time wrapping my head about golf being an essential outdoor activity for exercise,” he said. “As an operator, I struggle with the ethical and morality issues, but then I’ll go into the grocery store and people are fighting over a piece of meat less than 6 feet away from each other.

“So my feeling is: We’re open. We’re here. And it’s their choice to come out. You make a choice every day you leave your house. Human nature doesn’t allow us to sit at home.”

He’s already been thinking about the November Masters, and what it might mean for his club. Different agronomical conditions. Cooler temperatures and possible frost delays. And, yes: Fewer tee times, because of the end of daylight saving time. Which means less revenue. Those are concerns for another time, though. A few minutes earlier Elliott was on the phone with someone who had booked his tee time for this week but wanted to reschedule for the second week of November. Elliott has already fielded a dozen or so of these calls, and that gives him hope. Eventually, he remembers, the visitors will come.


"I’d like to think it will be the same [in November], but I don’t know what the world is going to be like after all this."

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As an 8-year-old, John Engler remembers other patrons letting him push to the front of the rope line so he could get a glimpse of Jack Nicklaus. It was 1986. The Golden Bear was making history.

“To this day, the roars that went around those pines were incredible,” Engler recalled of Nicklaus’ final Masters victory.

And those aren’t even his earliest memories of the Masters. Engler is as Augusta as azaleas and sweet tea, and as best he can figure he’s missed just five of the 41 Masters Tournaments that have been played in his lifetime. 

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It’s an impressive streak, even for someone who was born and raised in Georgia’s second-largest city. Engler kept coming back to the Masters even though he went to college at Clemson, where he was part of the Tigers’ NCAA title team. He kept coming back to the Masters even when he began a pro career that included a year on the PGA Tour (2006) before injuries led to his retirement.

Engler has since moved on to a successful career in real estate, but like every other Augusta resident, he allows his focus to shift back to golf in April and a lifetime of memories at Augusta National.

That kind of reminiscing has been happening a lot the past few days.

“It’s like a ghost town,” he said this week. “It’s a 5-, 10-minute drive wherever you go now.”

A trip down Washington Road was the moment it fully resonated – that this year’s Masters would be unlike any other. The main thoroughfare from downtown Augusta to the sprawling suburbs is normally choked with traffic and patrons this week, but now it resembles a scene from an apocalypse movie. Even regular commuter traffic has been thinned by stay-at-home orders issued by the state.

“It’s shut down,” Engler said. “The gate [to Augusta National] is shut. This time of year it would be bumper-to-bumper. It’s surreal.”

Engler is a member at Augusta Country Club, which borders Augusta National’s second nine. On some days, he can see all the way through to Amen Corner while playing the country club, but the buzz that normally consumes the area is gone. “The last two weeks, when you do go to [Augusta Country Club] and you see the amount of work that’s being done, everybody getting ready for Masters week around town. Everyone was doing that until March 13th, and now it’s just lockdown,” he said. 

Like many residents, Engler is making the most of the calm. During normal years, he said, “There’s not a lot of golf played because the world is coming here to play golf.” But he figures the locals are playing more golf this week than ever before. Engler walked his first 18 holes since 2001 at the club, which remains open for members but has stopped the use of golf carts.

Mostly, though, Engler is looking ahead to November and the first Masters that won’t be played in April since 1945.

“I’d like to think it will be the same [in November], but I don’t know what the world is going to be like after all this,” he said.


"Our phones have been going crazy as soon as they announced [the new date in November]: ‘Are you taking tee times?’”

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The par-4 first hole at Palmetto Golf Club.

 

About 30 miles up Interstate 20, just across the Georgia-South Carolina border, sits Aiken, which would best be described as an updated version of Mayberry with a hipper restaurant scene. Just down the street from the county courthouse is a not-so-hidden gem: Palmetto Golf Club.

Normally during Masters week, Palmetto head pro Brooks Blackburn arrives just before sunrise and is still working well past sunset. The long hours are an annual necessity: Fans in town for the year’s first major are flocking to his club for a unique round of golf.

This goes well beyond proximity. Palmetto was designed by Alister MacKenzie, who also designed Augusta National, and the course crisscrosses the same piece of rolling turf as the home of the Masters. It’s Augusta National without the green grass, and as word has steadily spread, Palmetto has become a must-play stop for anyone who is bound for the Masters.

“It makes up a large majority of my [business] year,” Blackburn said this week. “It’s not really exciting.”

The private club normally has about 500 rounds a week during the spring. Around the Masters that figure balloons to 1,200 to 1,400. “I played golf the first week of April – that’s the first time I’ve played that week in 20 years,” he said. “I’d always been a little busy.”

The normal rush of tournament week – tee times starting at 7:30 a.m. and booked through 4:30 p.m. – has been replaced by a curious calm. The club stopped allowing the use of golf carts on March 18, but Blackburn has seen a steady march of members walking the course, including his two most high-profile members, PGA Tour players Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown.

Blackburn acknowledged the financial burden of a postponed Masters: “Man, I am telling you, it’s rough.” But he also sees hope that a rescheduled Masters in November will be an altogether different draw.

“I think it will be a novelty,” he said. “I wouldn’t think we’d ever see another one in the fall. Our phones have been going crazy as soon as they announced [the new date in November]: ‘Are you taking tee times?’”

Blackburn is holding off taking reservations for the November Masters until June, when he hopes there’s a little more certainty. For better or worse, he has plenty of time on his hands, and when it comes to a golf tournament in uncertain times, it’s best to proceed with caution.

“You want to be a leader,” he said. “You just have to look back and say we did what we thought was right.”


"You’d almost think they were going to set off a nuclear bomb and they warned you: Go shelter inside!"

Jason and Suzi Vital
Jason and Suzi Vital
Jason and Susan Vital's home in Augusta, Ga. (courtesy: Vital family)

 

Normally, on a warm spring night like this, Jason and Suzi Vital would be frantically finishing up last-minute cleaning and preparation for their Masters-week renters.

You know – us, the GolfChannel.com writers.

For the past three years, the Vitals’ four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath residence has been our cozy home base for the Masters. The price is affordable, the location is prime (less than four miles from the Augusta National media entrance), and, let’s be honest: No grown man can resist the allure of sleeping on a twin bed and sharing a bathroom with a co-worker.

Not this year, though, or at least not this week. The Vitals are still home, relaxing on the porch, their neighborhood quiet.

“This week, especially, we’d hear airplanes, cars, tons of traffic,” Suzi said. “This year, it’s the exact opposite. There’s absolutely nothing. You’d almost think they were going to set off a nuclear bomb and they warned you: Go shelter inside! That’s what it’s like, because there’s nobody anywhere.”

Jason and Suzi Vital
Jason and Suzi Vital

Though much of the Augusta community has shut down, the Vital family forges ahead. To be fair, they have little choice – as occupational therapists with 25-plus years of experience, their jobs are essential. Especially now.

Their days are more fraught now, with the coronavirus pandemic raging around them. Jason said this week there were roughly 15 active COVID-19 cases where he works at the Doctors Hospital Augusta. There’s a strict protocol in place for how he wears his gown, his masks, his goggles. The fifth floor is sealed off with temporary doors. “It’s a very strange feeling,” he said. But it’s important work.

The Vitals began renting out their 2,800-square-foot ranch for Masters week in 2013, after finishing their last round of renovations. Our cost for eight nights in early April: $7,500. And that’s a bargain considering many rental properties can fetch five or six figures for a week’s worth of accommodations. Folks depend on that income – for their mortgage or a family vacation, for a daughter’s wedding or private-school tuition.

The extra cash is nice, sure, but the Vitals have other motivations. Jason, 52, loves to purge, so the Masters rental represents an annual opportunity to get rid of junk and clutter. And besides, they usually have to work at least a few days that week anyway – in the health-care industry, not everyone can take off, of course. 

That’s why, for years, they packed their bags and commuted to work from Suzi’s mother’s house, in nearby Aiken. They gave us our space but also stayed close enough to take out the trash or stock the fridge or fold the towels and sheets. When Suzi’s mother passed away in January 2019, they vowed to try something new this year, crashing with a fellow empty-nester a few miles away. They’re hoping the invitation still stands this fall.

Though they’re usually glued to the TV coverage, neither Jason nor Suzi play golf. Suzi has attended the Masters only once, when she was in elementary school; Jason has never been, though 30 years ago he drove down Magnolia Lane in his hand-me-down Buick Skyhawk to pick up a couple of coolers for his youth church group. “I had just moved to Augusta and had no idea just how rare that is,” he said. He can laugh at the memory now. 

This was the first time we’d ever spoken by phone; normally, it’s just an email exchange, a key left under the mat. A few hours earlier Augusta National had announced the rescheduled dates for this year’s Masters, and at the end of our conversation, the awkward question needed to be asked.

We're looking for a place to stay.

The second week of November.

Are they available?

“If the kids were smaller and in school, we might have a little bit of trouble,” Suzi said. “But we’d be happy to have you. We can always make other plans. It’s not a big deal.”

The Masters, after all, comes but once a year.