AUGUSTA, Ga. — Monday was to have been the first public practice round of Masters week, scheduled long before a virus intervened. For the first time since World War II, though, there would not be a major golf tournament here bookmarking the Georgian spring.
“It just kind of feels like we’re out of place,” said Billy DeLoach, astride his golf cart working security at the course neighboring Augusta National, the Augusta Country Club. Having also worked nearly two dozen Masters and having attended the tournament dating to 1960, he had every right to be a little disoriented.
The lords of the Masters announced that very day they were intent upon playing the tournament in November — first practice round Nov. 9, first actual round Nov. 12 to be exact.
“Good, good, good,” said Luanne Hildebrandt, among the fourth generation to run Hildebrandt’s deli in downtown Augusta and who is now facing a battle for economic survival that her ancestors from the Depression era could easily understand.
Around her, the big chain hotels hard by Augusta’s riverfront were locked up, closed, at a time of year they normally would be commanding upwards of four-figures a night during the height of the Masters. Antique merchants had no one to sell to and no reason to turn on the lights. Those businesses appealing to a very different segment of Masters clientele — like the Discotheque Lounge on Broad Street, featuring “show girls” on its tattered marquee — certainly weren’t going to thrive on the concept of social distancing.
Asked how her own take-out business was going now that the restaurant was out of bounds, Hildebrandt said, “Sloooooow. It’s really sad. I sure hope this is over soon.” November, and a Masters Mulligan, seemed so far away on this strangest Masters April that anyone could remember.
It was such a glorious day, too, the blue sky practically glowing at sunrise, the temperature mild and the humidity kind. What a grand introduction to Masters Week it would have been for those “patrons” — as they call the customers here. They’d wear their hard-won practice-round tickets like fine jewelry and file so happily into golf’s Disney World. There would have been too many eager smiles to count, even in the long line at the gift shop where fortunes are spent to spread the Augusta National/Masters logo around the world.
But a speed-limit drive down Washington Road — the unsightly boulevard of unbroken commerce that runs into Augusta National like a strip mall on the road to Eden — foretold of a Masters Monday, silent and joyless, unlike any other.
Masters practice rounds are supposed to create a bigger crowd and thicker traffic than even the competition rounds later in the week. But where were the idling cars and the unyielding highway patrolmen? Where were the instant entrepreneurs that always line the road buying and selling tickets for that week? Where were the pop-up merchants selling Macanudos to a fan base that believes fresh air requires a smoky tobacco note.
Oh, heavens, look at this: The Augusta Hooters, at the very heart of the rollicking Washington Road Masters scene and where populist pro John Daly would park a souvenir trailer and conduct his one-man carnival, has been gutted by the need to stay away from one another. It’s curbside delivery only. And as a waitress delivers lunch to a waiting car, hard to miss two additions to the signature wardrobe: A mask and gloves. It is not a look bound to catch on in healthier times.
The Masters reportedly bears a $100 million punch in this region, a good deal of that spent on lodging and beer and Masters merch. So, just throw that loss onto the smoldering pile of the coronavirus economic casualties.
Augusta National itself Monday was locked up as tight as the Crown Jewels. The club has been closed for some time now, even to its elite membership. But though the main locked gate leading to the fabled Magnolia Lane entrance of Augusta National appeared unmanned, there was no lack of vigilance even in these fallow times.
Just because there is no Masters, that doesn’t mean there are no rules. You can never forget that this is a place that welcomes the public one week of the year and only under its stern terms.
A curious sportswriter and photographer crossed the four lanes of Washington Road — to have done that with the Masters in full swing would have been inviting dismemberment — to get a better view of the road leading to the clubhouse. Within two minutes a security guard appeared to shoo away the intruders as they blocked no one and breached nothing.
Yes, the sidewalk across the street, is fair ground for all, the guard said.
But take care, even across the street from the club whose footprint in Augusta is constantly expanding, watch your step. One foot off the sidewalk is no man’s land.
“The grass is ours,” the guard warned.
The coronavirus lockdown along with the postponement of the Masters has made for a quite different rhythm of life this April in Augusta.
This is the time of year when the locals are supposed to flee and the folks from Atlanta and around the world overpay them to spend the week. So, Don Bryant, who had his riverfront condo rented for more than $3,000 for this Masters instead was walking the trail above the Savannah River on Monday, just he and his belief. “I’m a man of faith,” he said. “This whole thing hasn’t upset me.”
This is the time of year when the locals don’t play golf because they either can’t afford the inflated greens fees or they have bugged out of town. Yet, now, at the public Forest Hills Golf Club, Kent Adcox, a banker in town, was getting ready to tee off Monday morning with a couple of buddies. He was supposed to be at Disney with the family this week. But he was making do nicely.
“We usually can’t play this week, everybody jacks up the price so much,” said his playing partner Brooks Medlin. Thirty-five dollars with a cart (everyone rides a cart now) sounded too reasonable to pass up.
The private Augusta Country Club, where Masters week tee times normally are highly treasured, will be closed this week.
This was a Monday when the huge free parking lots that Augusta National carved out of the neighborhoods it bought up and razed were all vast vacant fields. So now as 85-year-old Elizabeth Thacker took a shovel to a blocked sprinkler head in her island of yard near Gate 6, there was no commotion, no noise other than the birds in the trees to serenade her labor.
“Yeah, it’s strange. But what are we going to do about it?” she said with long-practiced pragmatism.
She and her husband built that house in 1959 and remained holdouts as the golf club bought out her neighbors and turned her surroundings into a parking lot fully used just one week of the year. A wall of trees and hedges defines her sanctuary.
There is a long-time understanding in place here. “They don’t bother me, and I don’t both them,” Elizabeth said. But now that her husband, Herman, has died (last October), a passerby couldn’t help wonder if it might be time to sell and end the holdout.
Not at all, Elizabeth said. She plans to be here in November, whether the tournament is back on then or not.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)