Augusta, Ga., is a proud old town that takes pride in much more than just its proud old golf tournament

Augusta, Ga., is a proud old town that takes pride in much more than just its proud old golf tournament

Top to bottom: The author's former office; The Patch, not soon to be mistaken for the National; the Wife Saver, purveyor of that great Southern vegetable, mac and cheese.
Edward Keating

The greatest lesson I ever learned about golf happened in Augusta, as you might expect, but it did not happen at Augusta National. Instead it happened at the Augusta Municipal Golf Course — or, as everyone calls it, “The Patch.”

I was walking The Patch with David Westin, who in those days played the course every single day, rain or shine. David is still writing golf for The Augusta Chronicle — he’s been doing it for 25 years. And I knew absolutely nothing about golf, a troubling void when you consider that I had been hired to be the sports columnist for the Chronicle. David — or “Ghost” as we called him — had a lot of teaching to do.

(By the way, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say I knew absolutely nothing about golf. In those days, one of the perks for writing sports for the Chronicle is that in May you were invited to play at Augusta National. They allowed me to do this. Once. I shot 72… on the front nine. After I wrote about my harrowing experience, the various decision makers at Augusta National ruled that not EVERYBODY who wrote sports for the Chronicle should be invited to play Augusta National.)

But that day wasn’t for teaching. No, David had invited me to go along as he played a round. He introduced me to some of the local characters. He showed me some of the fun features of The Patch — one of the holes runs right along the airport runway. Another runs up to ditches where soldiers trained during World War I. Years later, a golfer would hit into the rough on No. 8 and find a live grenade buried in the ground. The bomb squad had to come in and detonate it. Yes, the rough at The Patch could be quite penal.

Anyway, we came to one tee and there was what looked like a creek about 80 yards ahead.

“Is that a creek?” I asked.

“It’s not in play,” David said.

“Yeah, but is it a creek?”

“It’s a creek, but I haven’t hit into that thing in 10 years. It’s not in play.”

Well, you know what happened next. David Westin promptly hit his tee shot into the creek. And that was the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned about golf. It’s all in your head.

This is a story about what Augusta is like when the Masters isn’t around. So, as someone who lived in Augusta for three and a half years and has come back to visit many times since, I’m required to break this bit of news to you: There is no Piggly Wiggly grocery store across the street from Augusta National. There has not been a Piggly Wiggly for at least 20 years, and I’m not even sure there was one before that.

Despite this rather inconvenient fact, every year someone will write a story about “The Real Augusta.” And it’s at least a 50-50 shot that they will write about the Piggly Wiggly across the street. Hey, I’m a sportswriter. I understand. Piggly Wiggly is a funny name for a grocery store. It’s a funny detail to include in a story — ha, ha, right across from Amen Corner there’s a Piggly Wiggly! But there isn’t. There’s no Piggly Wiggly there or, for that matter, anywhere else in Augusta.

Truth is that we used to shudder whenever someone came to town to write that Augusta story. And people in Augusta still do. “Oh no, you’re not writing that story,” said my friend Dennis Sodomka, who was editor for the Chronicle for 21 years.

“I promise to point out that there’s no Piggly Wiggly,” I told him.

“Yeah,” he said. “But are you going to write about how tacky Washington Road is?”

Right. That’s another staple in the prototypical “Real Augusta” story. People always write about how Augusta National is on Washington Road, a tacky (always “tacky”) four-lane street lined with chain stores, fast-food restaurants, a Hooters, various strip malls, and an IHOP and Waffle House barely two miles apart. We were always amazed by the amazement of the visiting writers. They were shocked — and seemingly offended — by Washington Road. Apparently their cities had no fast-food restaurants or strip malls.

Then again, Augusta is not the sort of place where you can just parachute in for a week — especially during Masters week — and come away with any real understanding. Maybe no place can be understood that quickly, but Augusta is a particularly difficult place to sum up. It’s bigger than you would think (a half million people live in the metropolitan area) and yet it feels small. It is almost equally split between black and white. It has a big Medical District (which employs more than 25,000 people), a huge military base (Fort Gordon) and a popular restaurant that called itself “Wife Saver” in 1965 and, well, just stayed with the name.

(The Wife Saver motto is 'Put a Little South in Your Mouth.' I remember I once took a date to the Wife Saver — something that should begin to explain my time in Augusta — and I pointed out with some pride that 'macaroni and cheese' was listed as a vegetable. This is a Southern restaurant staple; in my book you are in a real Southern restaurant only when they don’t offer unsweetened iced tea, and mac and cheese is called a vegetable. My date, who had lived in Georgia her whole life, did not understand the point. 'If mac and cheese is not a vegetable,' she said, 'what else would you call it?')

Augusta is an old American city — it was founded almost a half century before the Revolutionary War — and people take pride in the history. There are many beautiful old houses. There are lots of statues. The best statue, of course, is the one that depicts Augusta’s most famous son, James Brown. The statue is so cool that there’s a permanent camera mounted above it so that, even though James Brown is gone, people will always be able to take a photo with the Godfather of Soul and then see it on the Internet.

(I met James Brown when I was a columnist in Augusta; I wanted to write a column about his high school basketball career. He had absolutely no interest in that. But he did say that I was very polite. Or at least I think that’s what he said. James Brown was not the easiest man to understand.)

August’s most famous landmark, at least as far as I was concerned, is the Archibald Butt Bridge. It was named, naturally, for Archibald Butt, a remarkable man with a remarkable name. Butt was a war hero, an aide to two presidents, and a guest of William Howard Taft when he became the first president to throw out the first pitch at a Major League baseball game. He was also a passenger on the Titanic. Butt gave up his place on a lifeboat and went down with the ship as a hero.

But what makes the bridge famous is that it is basically a giant hump — there are roller coasters that don’t have as steep a climb and descent. If you are going faster than, say, 8 mph, your car will leave the ground, and you will feel like you are in a Hollywood movie chase. For a while, they were talking about razing the bridge, inspiring protective Augustans to print bumper stickers that read, “Save our Butt.”

Augusta National is not really a noticeable part of the city. It is hidden behind trees and fence, and if it were not for the Masters and the course’s international fame you could live a lifetime in the city without knowing that it’s even there. If you are the curious type, you can stand across the street and look through the one big opening and get a fairly good look at the iconic view of Magnolia Lane.

(I remember once talking about the Masters with South African golfer Fulton Allem. He said that when a golfer goes down Magnolia Lane before the Masters, his hair stands straight up. As he explained it, 'The person who combs it best wins.')

But, in general, people in Augusta don’t think about it too much. School closes the week of the Masters — many people rent out their houses and head off for Myrtle Beach or Destin or Savannah or someplace like that. Every now and again there’s a little bit of a buzz when some famous actor or politician comes through to play the course, although these visits are usually kept top secret. You always got the feeling that Augusta National was its own little sovereign country. And that there were cordial but not necessarily warm relationships with the surrounding city.

That said, there is also a quiet pride about the Masters. After all, every year an enormous international event takes place in Augusta. How many other American cities can say that? New York? Los Angeles? You can say “Augusta” in South Africa or Ireland or Australia or Japan and people will know exactly where you mean.

Well, okay, maybe not exactly. Every year, we’d hear the story of the confused and unfortunate foreign journalist who found himself shivering at the airport in Augusta, Maine, muttering, “It always seemed so much warmer on television.”

But the point is that while Augusta is a lot like other mid-sized Southern cities — where people are friendly and private and proud and very likely to say “Hot enough for you?” — it is also a little bit different. The publisher of The Augusta Chronicle and one of the biggest men in town is Billy Morris. I always liked to think of him as a somewhat more benevolent Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life. Billy is a longtime member of Augusta National, of course, and a good friend of Jack Nicklaus’s, and he was for many years one of the main media coordinators for the tournament (or as he and most of the National members so charmingly called it: “tuna-mint”).

Mr. Morris was also my boss of bosses, and one day he called me into his office. It was quite a thing to be called to Mr. Morris’s office, and as I walked in he said to me: “I’ve been reading your columns, and if you would not mind, I would like to offer my own little critique.”

I said: “Oh, of course, Mr. Morris. I would be honored.”

He then held up a front page with a column of mine on it. And he said: “This one I liked.” He put the paper down and picked up another one with a different column. And he said: “This one I didn’t like.” He put that down, picked up another and said: “This one I sort of liked.” And it went on like this for a while.

Then, he said: “Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to talk to you for a minute the way a father talks to a son.” I made a little joke about wanting to borrow the private jet, he did not laugh, and then he said this: “Son, you have a wonderful opportunity. You get to write about the biggest golf tournament in the whole world.”

I nodded. He went on.

“And when it’s over,” he said. “You get to write about a nice town.”

He was right. In many ways the worst day of the year for me when I was living in Augusta was the Monday after the Masters. Everybody flew away. The red carpet rolled up. The humidity rolled in. The azaleas wilted. The circus left town. And as a young sportswriter with ambition and a car without air conditioning, I wanted to go off with the circus. Eventually, I did. But I come back every year and I remember what a nice town it is. I fly over the Butt Bridge, and I see old friends, and I walk along the Savannah River, and I eat at the Waffle House. When I’m there, I get my hash browns scattered, smothered and covered. It’s something else I learned in Augusta.

Joe Posnanski is a senior writer with Sports Illustrated.

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