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Serenity Flees Augusta National

Peaceful country club famed for its magnolias to be transformed by arrival of 80,000 fans watching the world's biggest golf tournament

April 03, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Ben Crenshaw looked to his left, then he looked to his right, then looked straight ahead, across the first fairway, over the ninth fairway and down a great green slope of grass that leads eventually to Rae's Creek.

It was Sunday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club, and the place was virtually deserted.

"This is the best," said Crenshaw, the Masters champion in 1984 and 1995. "This is just too perfect, so serene, so peaceful. There's nothing like it."

He may be right, but get ready to say goodbye to serenity, because peaceful ends today.

Better look fast because there isn't going to be anything remotely resembling peace and quiet once they throw open the gates for the first practice round and about 80,000 fans spread out to make the course their own.

The Masters may be the biggest pro golf tournament in the world, and Augusta National its grandest stage, but on a sunny and unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, the day before tournament week, it looked like something completely different.

Waiters in butterscotch colored jackets and black bow ties poured iced tea at round tables under umbrellas set up in a thick carpet of grass. Four tables were occupied.

A small crew of workmen dabbed white paint on the cupola on the roof of the 19th century clubhouse that was the main house of what was a nursery. The clubhouse, which was built in 1854, is regarded as the first cement house constructed in the South.

The sole drink cart that services the golf course is parked near the 10th tee, where club members and their guests and a handful of pros played through.

Tom Watson, in his all blue ensemble, stood out in contrast to his predominantly green surroundings. And yet he fit in.

Watson, 56, has played the Masters 32 times and won it twice, in 1977 and 1981. He said he is filled with a familiar sensation each Sunday morning before the beginning of Masters week.

"It's that short drive up Magnolia Lane," he said. "If you look at those old pictures in the clubhouse, that was the entrance to the nursery. So that keeps it in a historic context."

There are 61 magnolia trees that line each side of Magnolia Lane and they date to the 1850s when they were planted as seeds. The drive is about 330 yards long, slightly farther than Tiger Woods' average.

Experts believe that the oak tree on the golf course side of the clubhouse is 150 years old and its bright green leaves are just emerging. Closer to the clubhouse is another old tree, an Aphananthe aspera, a type of elm, cloaked in wisteria vines that are covered with blooms of purple.

During tournament week, it's easier finding a parking space on Washington Road than a place to stand under those trees, but there wasn't a soul around Sunday.

Most of the dogwood and azaleas for which Augusta National is famous haven't yet popped out, but Billy Payne, a club member, said that the blooms follow their own timetable, not the tournament's.

Making his own assessment of the calm before the storm was Hootie Johnson, the club chairman, who surveyed the course from inside his golf cart. Johnson said he had just caught up with Gary Player at the fourth hole and that Player told him the course looked great.

Johnson smiled, his green jacket shining in the sun. He said that Sunday before Masters week is a precious time.

"There's nothing like it, but I'm ready to get this thing started," he said.


The facts

The overall purse is $7 million at the 70th Masters tournament. All times Pacific:

When: Thursday-Sunday.

* On TV: Thursday, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., USA; Friday, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., USA; Saturday, 12:30 p.m.-4 p.m., Channel 2; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Channel 2.

* Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

* Defending champion: Tiger Woods (276, -12).

* Par: 36-36--72. Yards: 7,445.

* Course changes: The course has been stretched an extra 155 yards, making it the second longest course in major championship history. Whistling Straits was 7,514 yards on the scorecard for the 2004 PGA Championship.

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