Augusta proves to be exception

Published 1:25 pm Wednesday, April 23, 2003

By By BILL CRIST - Publisher
Most sporting events are better viewed on television than in person. While many of us dream of standing on a sideline or parked in the bleachers, the reality is that many sports are better watched in the familiar setting of our living room, lying lazily on the couch.
Having been fortunate enough to attend a variety of events, I was a firm believer in this theory. Particularly when it came to golf. I've fought through the crowded galleries, straining to get a clear view of the action. Spread out over a course that measures somewhere near five miles in length, it was difficult to follow the action and see more than one particular shot.
The Masters, at Augusta National Country Club proved the exception to that rule, though. Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing the course will tell you television does not do justice to the natural beauty of the course. Until you've climbed the hills, seen the perfectly cut and deeply green grass and experienced it in person, it's hard to know just how beautiful the course is. And treacherous for the golfers.
This year I was lucky enough to get a Masters Patron's badge for Sunday's round. After years of watching the tournament on television each April, I thought I would be familiar with the course, its sweeping fairways and greens. Nothing, though, could prepare me for what was awaiting inside the main gate.
Parts of the club resemble an amusement park more than a golf course. Visitors, or patrons as they are referred to at Augusta, are ushered past gift shops and museums before emerging on the first fairway. The first thing a person notices, aside from the perfectly maintained grass, are the hills. The course winds its way up and down several large hills. In some ways the layout looks more like a ski resort than a golf course. From various vantage points, you can look back down one fairway and see numerous fairways, tees and greens in the valley below.
Another feature that strikes many visitors is how small and undulating the greens are. Always known as being very fast, the greens around Augusta are also remarkably small and feature some of the scariest breaks imaginable. The holes, which move location on the greens from round to round, are strategically positioned to make the most of those small hills and breaks, leaving players to make risky, and potentially score inflating, runs at the pin.
The crowd, estimated to be over 40,000 per day, is another unique aspect of the tournament. Not once does a patron hear the now common "You da' man," after a long drive. Instead, many place folding chairs at strategic spots around the course, wander around to view the action elsewhere, and return confident that not only will their chair still be where they left it, but also that it will be empty. The gallery responds with polite clapping after good shots although occasionally it will let out a roar that lets everyone know a remarkable one has been hit.
Aside from a single vendor on Washington Street leading into the parking lot selling pro-Hootie Johnson T-shirts, there was no evidence of the controversy surrounding the club's membership rolls. Johnson, the embattled chairman of the club, has been waging a very public war over Augusta National's all-male membership with Martha Burk, leader of a coalition of women's groups.
People often make lists of things they hope to accomplish during a lifetime. Those lists vary greatly and can be very personal in nature. Seeing The Masters in person wasn't always on my own list, for a variety of reasons. When I moved to Brewton, within easy travelling distance of Augusta, that feeling started to change. It's an experience that can be hard to explain, but I'm certainly glad I have had the opportunity to try.
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