AUGUSTA, Ga. - Every hacker in the world wants to get to this town. And that's even true this year when Augusta feels a little bit like Wacko World. Still, just the city name invites the best of golf dreams - Magnolia Lane, brilliant azaleas, and a stunningly struck iron into the 12th green. But when you finally make the pilgrimage, that dream can turn into an insidious little nightmare:
"I would do anything, anything, to play just one round, just one, on these hallowed fairways."
You stare at the entrance gates during Masters week and think criminal thoughts:
"I could bop Jeff Sluman over the head - he's a little enough guy, I can take him, swipe his tour card and take off for the first tee."
Thing is, no matter how much genuine hospitality you can find in this very Southern town sitting hard against the South Carolina border, your golf dream is not likely to come true and you'll most likely always be "persona non grata" at Augusta National. You might as well wear lip-gloss and a skirt.
But no worry, once you've used up that precious ticket to that little championship they got going down here, and had your fill of Martha, Jesse and that lone Klan member doing their best placard-waving and protest-chanting, then it's time to smack it around at your own special Masters at a place where they'll let just about anyone play - even you.
First, you should know that the birthplace of James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, the adopted residence of Ty Cobb, baseball's most annoying and unlikable Hall of Famer, and the proud hometown of Charles Howell III, the youngster with the good game and the bad wardrobe, is not necessarily considered a golf destination - at least not in the recreational sense. That is to say, Augusta is not Myrtle Beach. But the Augusta area has some very playable, even desirable, golf courses. And, hey, all of them are only a few miles from the house that Bobby built.
If you're toting your sticks to Augusta, be aware of a few realities. During Masters week the cost of a hotel, and a round of golf can be quite expensive. A comfortable bed can sometimes reach $300 a night, even at the discount motels, and green fees can be as much as $20 over the usual price. You know the drill: big demand - bigger prices. But, if you travel to Augusta any other time of the year, it's a bargain. Green fees are rarely more than $40 and many times even less.
The River Golf Club - North Augusta, S.C.: If you take the short trip across Augusta's 13th Street Bridge over the Savannah River to North Augusta, South Carolina, you'll find The River Golf Club. And, although a very playable layout, it is not for those who shake and sweat in the presence of water. The River does not have the typical topography of most other courses in the region. You'll find wetlands, open fairways with few trees, and it's all pretty flat. What you'll remember most are the tremendously accepting greens and generally solid conditions - solid enough to have hosted some Hooters Tour events.
Cedar Creek - Aiken, S.C. Aiken is only 30-minutes from Augusta, shorter than most of our commutes to work. But once you're at Cedar Creek Golf Club, you are far, far away from the office. This is an Arthur Hills beauty carved out of sand hills and through the pines and it is a joy to play. It's fair, straightforward but still dares you to take the occasional risk and for goodness sake, go for it. Cedar Creek opened 10-years ago and has settled in nicely, becoming one of the best golf courses in the southeast.
Northwoods Golf Club - Columbia, S.C.: Columbia? Isn't that about an hour away? Yes, but if you're down for Masters week, you'll find the most available and most affordable accommodations in Columbia. Plus, tee times can be a little easier to snag. A tee time you will covet is one at Northwoods. This is a design from P.B. Dye, the son of Pete, and you can be sure the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Deep bunkers, fairway mounding, blind shots and big greens are all part of the drill. Many of the locals consider this place the best layout in the greater Augusta area.
Jones Creek Golf Club - Evans, Ga.: This Rees Jones design still doesn't know whether it wants to be a private or a public course. It calls itself semi-private and does take tee times from the masses. And, it's plenty worth it. Jones Creek has been named the top golf course in Georgia and was honored as one of the best new courses in the country by several publications when it opened in 1986. It's long, hilly, stunningly scenic and just 10 miles outside of downtown Augusta.
Mount Vintage - North Augusta, S.C.: This is a relatively new course on the block. It opened in 2000 and was praised from the start. Designer Tom Jackson made sure to allow the land to shape the holes in and around four lakes, three streams and alongside massive trees. But he was very careful to make it playable with forgiving fairways and great views from most anywhere on the course. Tackling Mount Vintage from the brutal back tees however can wear you out. The rating is 73.9 and the slope stretches to 138. Ouch!
Augusta Golf Course - Augusta, Ga.: With the affectionate nickname "The Patch", there is no doubt this course, just 4 miles from Augusta National, is far from what you might consider an "upscale" club. But, it may be the most talked about and emotionally significant golf course in and around Augusta. People complain about the spotty conditions, the some times slow play, and its old and rough-hewn character, but nearly everyone who has grown-up and lived in Augusta has played "The Patch" and has some fond memories about the experience. It's a true hometown course, that ought to be somewhere on your list of places to play in Augusta, just to say you did it.
Forest Hills Golf Club - Augusta, Ga.: This is a gem. No, it's not a modern, slick golf club, but it's one of the best layouts in the area. Forest Hills is a genuine Donald Ross from the 1920's. And although it's been tweaked and tugged over the decades and has lost some of the original Ross signatures, it maintains that classic, traditional feel with old, stately trees and small greens, but still relatively open fairways. It's also just five miles from Augusta National.
Oak Hills - Columbia, S.C.: If you stay in Columbia, Oak Hills Golf Course fits in very nicely. It's just 20 minutes from the Columbia airport and doesn't get as crowded as some of the other area courses. Locals tell us Oak Hills had some conditioning problems in the past, mainly with the greens, but that's all behind it and many now claim the carpet at Oak Hills is the best it's ever been. Plus, the setting is true Carolina countryside - thousands of big oaks, dogwoods, and pines.
San Antonio is always bragging about its Riverwalk, but Augusta has a pretty darn good one. It's along the Savannah River behind Reynolds Street in the downtown. There are plenty of walking paths and you're sure to see one of the town's many festivals going on along this stretch of scenic Augusta.
Also in the downtown is Augusta Golf and Gardens. This is the home of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and 17 acres of gorgeous flower displays. Don't miss the statue depicting a 46-year old Jack Nicklaus on his way to his sixth Green Jacket.
There are other Green Jackets beside the ones found at Augusta National. The town's minor-league baseball team is appropriately named the Green Jackets and they play at Olmstead Stadium - one of the best minor-league baseball parks in the country.
You may not be able to chow down on one of those signature Augusta National pimento-cheese sandwiches, but if you're in Augusta, you've got to eat like an Augustan and that means slipping into Southern cuisine. Our best choice is Edmund's, the locals' favorite for BBQ. You didn't think you could leave Augusta without spilling a little sauce on that white golf shirt, did you?
One of the favorites of hometown boy, Charles Howell III is Wife Saver. This is down home Southern cooking including the best fried chicken in Augusta. You can also get home style mashed potatoes and a mac-n-cheese meal that is absolutely huge.
For some more Southern style eatin' head for Fatsville Chow on Laney Boulevard. We hear the four vegetable lunch plate is a belly-filler.
Finding lodging around Augusta during the weeks surrounding the Masters can be challenging, and sometimes the best bet is to rent a house. The Masters Housing Bureau is set up to help you with that, even for last-minute travelers. (800)-244-4709.
April 7, 2003