[This story was first published prior to the 2016 Masters.]
Whether you're a wide-eyed first-timer or a savvy veteran, nothing in sport compares to making a pilgrimage to the Masters. Here's your guide to the premium Augusta experience.
Scoring a Golden Ticket
While an April visit to Augusta National remains one of the toughest tickets in sports (even the waiting list to purchase badges has been closed for years), the secondary market is alive and well. Early in 2016, brokers had options ranging from weekly badges (roughly $8,000) to Monday practice-round tickets (starting at $400). For a premium experience, however, it's all about the package, says Andy Meltz, CEO of Epic International, a Vail, Colorado-based company that has offered Masters bundles since 1996.
“Our typical client spends two days at the tournament, often a Thursday-Friday combination, and we provide them with badges, private housing, 24/7 personalized transport and outside hospitality," Meltz says. "We can bring a private chef to your house, book tee times at area courses and arrange for airport transfers. The ultimate packages include a private jet and a mansion with its own bowling alley. Hospitality is the key to maximizing the Masters experience."
TicketCity, Ticket Exchange USA, Magnolia Manor and the Pinnacle Experience are among the reputable companies that combine tickets and badges with hospitality opportunities within easy walking distance of the course. TicketCity, for instance, features the 1018 Club and The Lodge, which come with valet parking, premium food and bar, shuttle service and onsite concierge.
Where to Stay in Town
Augusta isn't exactly flush with five-star hotels, but if you want to impress, the Partridge Inn is the place to nest. The 106-year-old, 144-room property boasts youthful vigor, thanks to a recent multimillion-dollar renovation. While it has retained its Southern charm, the Partridge sports updates to its iconic veranda (one of the best Masters gathering spots), guestrooms, lobby, and revitalized P.I. Bar and Grill.
Many Masters regulars eschew hotels and instead rent a house for the week. Ranging from modernist to mansions, these homes are terrific for entertaining, especially those with roomy backyards. There are few better post-round bonding experiences than burgers and beers on a spring evening. Locals rent out their homes for the week through the Masters Housing Bureau. The only rental bureau sanctioned by Augusta National, it has worked since 1970 to match individuals, families and corporations with properties custom-tailored to their needs. A host of private entities assist with luxury private home placements as well. Among the best regarded are Diamond Home Rentals and Corporate Quarters Inc.. West Lake, Jones Creek and River Island are three of the more popular developments for rental houses.
Inside the Gates
When you make it to Augusta National, there are a few things you should make sure to cross off your Masters bucket list:
• Taking in Wednesday's Par-3 Contest. You'll witness legends like Nicklaus and Player teeing it up on the most beautiful short course in golf. The eighth and ninth holes are best for viewing, but arrive early because they fill up quickly. Spend the rest of the afternoon walking the championship course in near solitude—players aren't generally on the course after noon.
• Landing the ultimate viewing spots. During tournament rounds, the small grandstand behind the 12th tee is a prime elevated position for watching approach shots into the 11th green and tee shots at the 13th and 12th, one of the world's greatest par 3s. Another preferred vantage point is at the elbow of the dogleg at the par-5 13th, where azaleas, bunkers, fairway contour and Rae's Creek are all on display, and where the risk/reward second shot is one of the greatest ever devised.
• Huddling at the live oak. Situated between the first tee and the clubhouse, this majestic shade tree is a beehive of activity all week, a place to see everyone who's anyone in the game of golf, from pros to caddies to administrators to broadcasters. Safe to say, the oak tree at the Masters is the epicenter of golf.
Berckmans Place: The Ultimate Hospitality Venue
"In response to repeated requests from our members and companies with whom we have done business, in many cases for decades, we built Berckmans Place," explained Billy Payne, Chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, at a pre-tournament press conference in 2012. "It offers the enhanced level of hospitality requested and allows us to provide the Masters experience for a greater number of golf fans."
Payne's understatement is almost worthy of its own green jacket. Today, admission to Berckmans Place—which soft-opened four years ago and formally debuted in 2013—may be the most coveted VIP perk in golf.
Berckmans Place is a 90,000-square-foot, air-conditioned, multilevel, permanent structure situated adjacent to Augusta National's fifth fairway. Nearly invisible from the action but only steps away, it's decked out in Southern finery, with classic fronting white columns, azalea-framed paths and country club–interior furnishings. Entering the facility, you're greeted by a prominent Augusta National member. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is often on hand, as is retired Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann. Among the full-service, sit-down restaurants are Calamity Jane's (named for Bobby Jones's putter), MacKenzie's Pub (named for Augusta National course architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie) and Ike's: A Southern Experience (named for longtime Augusta National member President Dwight Eisenhower).
There are no food or drink prices—everything is included in admission, which ranges from $6,000 to $7,500 for the Monday-through-Sunday Masters week. Only club members and corporate clientele are eligible to purchase these rare and limited Berckmans Place badges. And brokers have access to just a small handful of them.
Elsewhere are memorabilia-studded trophy cases with letters, press clippings and equipment related to Jones, Eisenhower and co-founder Clifford Roberts. Immensely popular are the exact-replica putting greens that allow you to try out the putts that the pros and members face at the 7th, 14th and 16th holes—you even get club and former Masters caddies to help you read the putts. A choice of top-of-the-line putters and a Titleist ProV1 ball are also part of the deal.
Architect Rees Jones has been a guest at Berckmans Place, and he lauds the experience. "It's the perfect 21st-century addition," he says. "It doesn't interfere with the history, the ambience or the actual playing field. Billy Payne has maintained the integrity of the event, while making it a better experience for a lot more people. Bobby Jones would be proud."
Dining On and Off the Course
"If you don't have access to the clubhouse or to Berckmans Place, you'll dine like most of the other Masters patrons—around the grounds. And that's not a bad thing at all. The prices on menu items appeal to every demographic, in almost a reverse-chic way. The modest costs for beer ($4.00), peanuts and sandwiches are one more reminder as to how cool the Masters is, with its emphasis on rich tradition rather than pure profits. Two can't-miss items are the legendary Pimento Cheese sandwich ($1.50) and, for dessert, the Georgia Peach ice cream sandwich ($2.00).
• Eventually, the Masters folks insist that you leave the grounds for the day, so you'll have to venture into Augusta for dinner. The place to start is TBonz on Washington Road. True, the waits can be arduous and cramped, but no one seems to mind, thanks to the proprietor, Mark Cumins, who blends conviviality and professionalism like few restaurateurs anywhere. The steaks are superb, the service terrific, and you'll spot more major golf figures, from players to broadcasters, than at any place other than the grounds of Augusta National.
• For Italian, the choice is Luigi's. Situated in downtown Augusta, not far from the town's James Brown statue, Luigi's is a favorite of Ben Crenshaw, who craves the Toasted Ravioli with Meat Sauce—though the week's runaway best-seller is the Baked Lasagna.
• Locally owned by Chuck and Gail Baldwin, French Market Grille has been serving up Louisiana-style cuisine for more than 30 years, but save room for dessert: the Frozen Peanut Butter Pie is legendary.