Magnolia Lane at the Augusta National Golf Course is the first peek for many of the week-long PGA championship event. (©Robb Carr/Augusta Chronicle)
Springtime in the South means warming weather, greenery and azaleas in bloom, and the familiar Masters Tournament theme song playing on TV.
While The Masters is about golf, so much of the allure is about the experience, and there is nothing else like it. You don't have to be a fan of golf to appreciate the elite golf championship. Just the experience of being there makes the Masters Tournament and the Augusta National Golf Club worthy of any traveler's bucket list.
The Traditions Persist in Modern Times
If the Masters Tournament has a tagline, it centers around history and traditions. The Masters—always held the first full week of April—is all about tradition, and there are many: the white jumpsuits worn by the caddies, the thousands of azaleas on the course, the Champions Dinner, the limited-commercial television coverage and the hand-turned scoreboards.
"Because it is played on the same course year after year, people all over the world have become familiar with the course and the tournament's traditions," said John Boyette, The Augusta Chronicle sports editor. "Anyone who has been going for a few years probably has a routine or their own traditions, if you will, that they like to do at the Masters. Many people sit in the same location year after year, or they head straight for the merchandise or concession stands."
One of those traditions, the Par 3 Tournament happens annually on the Wednesday before the tournament and has become a beloved tradition. Families caddy for their fathers on a nine-hole course and it's one of the few times during the tournament the public is allowed to request autographs.
"I think the Par 3 is my favorite," said Dennis Perry, who volunteered as a gallery guard for 25 years before retiring in 2015. "Golfers get to loosen up a little bit. You see 4 and 5 year olds with coveralls carrying a bag for dad."
Another tradition is the honorary tee-off on Thursday morning. Until Palmer's death in 2016, it was traditionally done by the "Big Three": Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Historic Lunches at the Augusta National Golf Club
The food at the Masters has become legendary in its own right. The recipe for the Masters famous pimiento cheese sandwich is a closely guarded secret. The egg salad sandwich is the other cult-following sandwich for those who don't like pimiento cheese. For a sweet treat there's the popular Georgia Peach Ice Cream Sandwich, with a heaping hunk of peach ice cream sandwiched between two full-sized sugar cookies. But the most legendary thing about the food is the price: either sandwich will only cost you $1.50 and the dessert is $2.
"The thing people are shocked about the most are the concessions," said Perry. "If you take the family to a [baseball] game in Atlanta, a middle-class family can hardly afford it because of the price of concessions."
A producer at CBS Sports set out in 2015 to see how many people he could feed at the Masters for $100. The answer: a whopping 17 people. The most expensive thing on the menu is $5 for an imported beer. Domestic beer is a close second at $4, and a chicken or barbecue sandwich is $3. Everything else falls in the $1-$2 range.
Celeb Spotting On- and Off-Course
On and off the course, celebrities flock to Augusta to see this national PGA championship. Past patrons have included the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Lynn Swann, Bill Gates, Mark Wahlberg and others.
Perry said he's not much of a celebrity watcher, but he did get to talk with Fuzzy Zoeller's wife and Ricky Fowler's sister while holding the crowds at bay during play.
"I did get to shake Rush Limbaugh's hand," said Perry. "There have been many famous people come through the crosswalk. Emmitt Smith came through: I've never seen such a big man."
While big names are expected to be seen on the course, sometimes familiar faces make impromptu appearances off the course as well.
"[Jim Belushi] showed up at Soul Bar on a Wednesday night jazz set and jumped on stage and sang a few songs,” said Coco Rubio, co-owner of Soul Bar and Sky City. “We’ve hosted a few private parties at Sky City. Puma had a private party and Ricky Fowler was hanging out but we sent him home early so he could win the Masters."
Other favorite moments with celebrities around Augusta include the year that Phil Mickelson just wanted a doughnut while wearing the coveted green jacket he'd just won and Bubba Watson's post-victory Waffle House meal in 2014.
While not all celebs will make an appearance or sing a show, other local events that honor the Masters draw crowds to downtown Augusta and the surrounding area.
"Having the Major Rager has been fun downtown," said Rubio. "The young Masters crowd are definitely coming downtown in larger numbers than ever before. They want to party."
The Fashion: What's Hot, Not and Great for Golfing
A mix of old-school chic and wild prints are all over the course at the Masters. While many players opt for casual, high-tech gear some players and patrons alike strive to honor the roots of golf garb.
“Golf attire has been changing and evolving since its inception,” said Paul Mignosa, sales and marketing manager for Golf Fashion Weekly. “In the early 1900’s, players often wore long trousers, or knickers and full morning jackets with ties while golfing, matching the conservative attitudes of the times and the sophisticated reputation of the sport. Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros brought the exuberant colors, which became popular in sweaters, trousers, socks and polos. The colors prominently included bright pinks, blues, oranges and yellows. You start to see the introduction of 'technology' in fabrics; moisture wicking shirts and waterproof leathers, which have been evolving since.”
While the Brooks Brother classic go-to-hell style—made popular in the late 1950s by Northeasterns like JFK as a way to tell older, more color-muted generations to "go to hell"—is popular with up-and-coming players and fashion enthusiasts, Mignosa suggests tamping the urge to be splash on such a historic course.
“Today the ‘Go To Hell’ pants are back more than ever on the PGA Tour but not so much on golf courses around the world with amateur golfers,” said Mignosa. "I think you see more players at the Masters tone it down a little when it comes to loud prints or flashy outfits compared to other events due to the history and certain exclusivity the grounds at Augusta offer. As for the fans, I think the same goes. When you’re at the Augusta National, I don’t think wearing loud outfits is the right move but you will see it happening.”
Mignosa advised on solid wardrobe basics for attending the Masters as a player or spectator including well-fitting pants, a good belt and a good pair of shoes.
Azaleas in Bloom: The Horticultural Heritage of the National
The Augusta National was built on the grounds of what was Fruitland Nurseries during the late 1800s to early 1900s. Many of the plants and trees currently on the grounds were imported by the nursery during that time. The National nods to its history by naming the holes for various flowering trees and shrubs, but the azaleas are the star of the show. As Boyette wrote on March 2, 2017, there are more than 1,000 azaleas on the 13th hole alone. The grounds undergo a rigorous year-round maintenance schedule to ensure their beauty.
"No weeds can be found," said Perry. "You never see a squirrel."
There have been rumors that the Augusta National keeps the azaleas on ice to ensure they'll bloom in time for Masters. According to Boyette, though, it's not true. The Augusta National may seem all-powerful sometimes, but not even it can control Mother Nature.
The big oak tree on the golf course side of the clubhouse is just as iconic. It's about 160 years old, and a favorite patron meeting spot is under its giant, shady branches. According to the Masters media guide, there are "over 30 varieties of azaleas, several strains of dogwood and dozens of varieties of ornamental shrubs on the grounds." There's even a few palm trees—look for some near the No. 4 hole.
The Exclusive Allure of the Augusta Nationals Golf Club
The tournament is one of the biggest golf events in the U.S. and is watched world-wide. The honor of being on the course, though, is unparalleled.
"The Masters Tournament is an experience like no other,” said Mayor Hardy Davis. “There are few if any other major sporting events that provide a family atmosphere, the entire family gets outside, you can feed the entire family for $20 bucks, and see some of the biggest names in golf.”
Though everyone should have the Masters on their bucket list, don't book a plane ticket just yet: Tickets, also called badges, are hard to come by. They're not expensive in terms of PGA tickets—one-day practice round tickets are $65 and one-day tournament tickets are $100—but there are a strictly limited quantity and none are sold at the gate.
Daily badges must be applied for through the Masters website and are awarded by random selection. Series badges are awarded for life and are transferrable only to a surviving spouse. Those lucky enough to be awarded life-time tickets don't have tenure, though. The heavily-coveted badges can be lost for life if you break the rules set by the club.
"It's the hardest ticket to get in sports and there's a reason for it," Perry said.
Those who attend and those who cannot often want some token from the exclusive tournament, but the pro shop—with official Masters merchandise—is only open during Masters Week.
"At this golf tournament, there are hundreds of souvenirs put out," said Andy Duckett, an Atlanta architect and avid collector of Masters memorabilia. "What I try to do is go during early days of practice rounds. What fulfills me as far as being on the grounds is to go shop for a couple of hours, then eat a sandwich, sit under the trees and people watch."
Memorabilia doesn't have to cost a lot, he added. The Masters produces plenty of mementos that cost little to nothing. The plastic cups created each year in addition to the pairings sheets are free or cheap souvenirs to remember attendance with.
“The most memorable exchange I had was with an older man from Australia,” said Molly Melvin, a former cashier in the South Village Shop. “It was his first time coming to the Masters and had gotten his [badges] last minute. Out of all of the patrons I served that week he was the most excited and I had never thought of the Masters as more than just a golf tournament, but seeing someone that excited to be there made me realize what a big deal the Masters is to so many people.”
While the event and course are a favorite to new patrons, part of the allure is the family-friendly atmosphere.
"The Masters has a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons,” said Deke Copenhaver, local radio host and former mayor. “My father was a member of the club and I grew up as a kid working the tournament. To grow up to become Mayor of Augusta and to meet many of my childhood heroes through the years was something I never could have dreamed of. The event truly is one of a kind and we're blessed to host it here in Augusta every year. I believe the most special thing about the club is the amazing job they do of quietly giving back to our community.”
Some of the proceeds from the tournament fund local grants distributed by the Community Foundation for the CSRA. In 2016, the foundation awarded 48 grants totaling $611,285—primarily provided by that year's tournament—to support local non-profit agencies.
Augusta Puts Its Best Foot Forward
While hordes flood into Augusta, Georgia, for that first week of April, the area is an attraction year-round, with plenty of things to do and see, and—of course—restaurants for a hearty Southern meal. In an effort to make the Masters patrons feel welcome, Augusta rolls out the red carpet in many ways.
"Masters preparation is really a year-round endeavor with planning and beautification efforts increasing several months ahead of the tournament,” said Copenhaver. “Beautification efforts are ongoing throughout the year with a major focus on gateways into the city. You never get a second chance to make a first impression and the city always wants the visitor experience to be something they'll always remember."
While going to the course for a day—or several—over the length of the week can be fulfilling, there are special events for Masters patrons to get a feel for the flavor of the city.
"As we host golf patrons from around the world, I would encourage folks to begin the week with us at the annual Mayors Masters Reception which takes place on the Monday of the tournament week,” said Davis. “You can’t come to Augusta without checking out downtown for a bite to eat. My favorites are Café 209, Whiskey Bar, Nacho Mamas, Frog Hollow and Augustino’s to name a few."
Plenty of restaurants and nightlife spots are available in downtown Augusta in addition to hotspots on Washington Road—close to the National—and in the surrounding area.