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The door at this Augusta golfing institution is always open

I played my first round of the year the other day at The Patch. Actually, I had two other games elsewhere. No pars. I'm not counting 'em. The Patch's real name is the Augusta Municipal Golf Course, but only the phone book is so formal about it. Its nickname comes from the vegetable and fruit garden the longtime course manager, the late Lawson (Red) Douglas, planted on the left side of the 10th hole, hard by the fence that separates the course from Daniel Field, where Arnold Palmer, Greg Norman and Sean Connery have landed their private planes.

Once, years ago, a commercial 737 landed there, the pilot getting tiny Daniel Field mixed up with the regional airport, which U.S. Air, Delta and TWA (Tiger Woods Airline) fly into. Another time a student pilot misjudged the runway, and his plane came to rest just off the 13th green. In his little rectangle of a garden next to the Daniel runway, Red Douglas grew tomatoes, watermelons and cucumbers -- "nothing that wouldn't be sightly," his son Lawson told me. If you take Gordon Highway to The Patch from downtown Augusta you'll go past Honey Hole (a liquor store), Augusta Repo (a mobile home sales center) and Masters Lanes (a bowling alley). If you take another route, by way of Walton Way, you'll pass a series of antebellum brick mansions, with iron gates and slate roofs. Have you ever been to Augusta? It's some place.

In the men's room near The Patch's sparse pro shop, there was a green sign above a urinal that read:

master's
week
low low low
price

$30

My afternoon no-cart green fee was $23, including a bag of amazing range balls. There was a Callaway with a red line so thick it rivaled the stripe on the Red Stripe beer bottle. There was a yellow X-out Top Flite XL. There was a gorgeous Titleist Pro V1 that I did not pocket. There were Noodles and Pinnacles and an old Maxfli Red Dot among other vintage varietals. It was like a golf ball museum.

Later, when I got to 15, I found out why. Sliced tee shots off the tee at the par-4 wind up in the driving range. Maybe you know somebody who slices. Anyway, the range is excellent, with an elevated, confidence-boosting teeing area and many patches of thriving spring grass to hit off.

The Augusta air was warm and soft. Back home, it was freezing. Oh, I was striking it pure. For a change I took my range game to the course, and I hit a bunch of solid shots on the front side. Struggled with the little ones, though. At the 9th, on a domed green about the size of a yarmulke (as they might say at Congregation Temple of Israel on Walton Way), I had a short one for par. With the pressure on -- looking to end the shutout -- I yipped it.

I played the back nine with a man in denim shorts named Bruce Dickey who transported his head-covered clubs in a pull cart his wife had given him for his birthday. I think he pitied me in my long pants, hauling my bag around on my shoulder. On the 11th fairway he offered me the spare pull cart he had at home, which needed only two inflatable tire tubes to be good-to-go. On 17 he helped get my putter lined up for a par putt. (Bingo!) On 18 he invited me to his church for Sunday services, at the New Life Christian Center on Wrightsboro Road, about a mile from the Augusta Mall, in a former Piggly Wiggly. I told him I appreciated the offer but that I was more of a Saturday guy.

He talked about The Patch's financial problems and how Augusta State wants to buy it from the city to expand its campus. I knew that Jim Dent, the former Tour player from Augusta, among many others, was against that idea. Dent had once said he was interested in buying the course. He started playing The Patch regularly in his 20s, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened the course to black golfers. Today, maybe half the players at The Patch are black men. Maybe more. Before '64 black golfers could play the course only on Christmas Day. That's what Lawson Douglas, son of the original Patch man, told me.

Dent lives in Tampa now but he owns property in Augusta and visits The Patch every time he comes home. He plays it now and again. It's a par-71, not quite 6,000 yards, with Bermuda greens, no rough and flat traps with little, light rakes. Dent learned to shoot low scores at The Patch and learned to hit punch shots off pine needles that stayed under sticky limbs. It's a place filled with memories for him, of pay-up birdies and absent friends.

"Went by one day this winter, ain't never seen so much snow on the course," Dent told me recently. He remembered the late Henry Brown, one of his first golfing heroes, an Augusta National caddie who played cross-handed and could break par anywhere. "He won the Budweiser there," Dent said, referring to an annual city-wide amateur tournament held at The Patch. "That was a big deal." A black man winning a golf tournament in Augusta in the '60s. A very big deal.

Jim Dent was the first pro that the Tour player Charles Howell III, an Augusta native, ever played with. As a boy Howell played The Patch often with a group of grown black men who worked at Augusta National, including Charlie Bussey and his son and Harold (Boomer) Gantt.

"The Busseys would pick me up at my house, in a Cadillac," Howell recalls. "We went in style. One day I remember we played 63 holes. If I lost a dollar, they made me pay up. Every year, I'd say from the time I was 10 until I was 16 or 17, I played Augusta National with them on Employee Day. They'd have me as their guest. They let me join their club."

That's some statement, isn't it, from the white son of a prominent Augusta surgeon who was a member at the elite Augusta Country Club? Howell's Patch friends were worldly men. They grew him up. "They'd say, 'Stay away from them girls. They're three-putt queens,' " Howell says. "I don't know if they followed their own advice, but that's what they told me."

It's funny. After my round, as a still Friday afternoon was turning into a mellow Friday night, I went back to the range. To my left was an athletic black man named Tony Michaels who was smashing drives with a new TaylorMade driver. To my right were a half-dozen black men, a wide range of ages; they were having a closest-to-the-pin contest. When they ran out of range balls, Tony gave them a few from his stash. "This place," Tony told me, "is like their girlfriend." They sneak out to it and think about it when they're not there.

Tony has only been playing for a few years but he's got the bug bad. He stocks shelves at an Augusta supermarket and volunteers as a marshal at another public course, Gordon Lakes, for the free green fees. He, too, kindly extended a Sunday invitation to me -- for golf. He's looking forward to attending a Masters practice round. Augusta National in person, he says, "is in hi-def."

From what I could tell, all the regulars at The Patch have some sort of link to the Masters or Augusta National, which is just a few miles down the road. The courses are sort of kissing cousins. Jariah (Jerry) Beard, Fuzzy Zoeller's caddie when Fuzzy won the '79 Masters, plays The Patch four or five times a week, often breaking his age, which is 70. He told me how he pulled clubs and read greens for Fuzzy 32 years ago. He told me how a hand grenade found on The Patch's 8th hole two years ago by a golfer who had hit a wayward drive had to be detonated. (The course, dating to 1928, is on land that was once part of a U.S. Army base.) Lawson Douglas told me he played The Patch thousands of times -- and Augusta National once. Two brothers I parked next to, Pierce and Tony Pounds, told me they had signed up to work security at the Masters this year. They were surprised to learn that when your shift is over you have to leave the grounds immediately. They were hoping to do a little spectating.

When I asked people to compare the two courses, they laughed. Augusta National is one of the best courses in the world. But The Patch is something more. It's a decent enough course, affordable and walkable and pretty, with its telephone number on its entrance sign and a door that's wide open. When they were out of range balls, the six men next to me moseyed down the hill to the putting green, where they played for dollars and bragging rights in the early-evening light. Not one of them had a cellphone in hand, but they all had the needle out. All they did was laugh and hole putts. Had I asked them to look at my putting alignment, I think they would have helped me. To join the club at The Patch, the only prerequisite is that you like golf. Charlie Howell got in that way. For a day, I did too. The same, most likely, would be true for you.

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