AUGUSTA: Where Georgia Retaliates for Sherman's March

Thousands of golf followers are once more set to descend on this spoof of a spa. There they will happily retest the theory that it takes more sportsmanship—and courage—to face up to the challenge of Augusta and its Bon Air Hotel than it does to win the Masters
April 06, 1964

Augusta, Ga. has squatted on a red clay ridge along the Savannah River in the shade of enormous pine trees for 231 years. For most of these years it has tried to do more than just sit there, but things keep happening to Augusta. In 1735 James Oglethorpe had hardly hung his fur cap on a wisteria branch, declaring Augusta a trading post, when the Yuchi Indians started their raids. Surviving the raids was easier than surviving the Revolutionary War. Augusta was conquered so many times that both the British and the Continentals got bored crossing the river. Even in the Civil War, Augusta deserved a better historical footnote. It was the largest Confederate powder works, but General William Tecumseh Sherman, marching from Atlanta to the sea, didn't even bother to veer slightly north and burn it down.

Economically, unscorched Augusta had a perfect right to flourish after the war, because it had lumber and cotton and a river. And it did flourish for a while. But after the town had become a market and textile center, a member of what passed for the jet set in the 1880s decided that Augusta's sunny, invigorating winter climate was grand for bathing, porch sitting and polo. Augusta soon became a curiously fashionable if somewhat lazy spa, a place where U.S. Presidents sometimes hibernated. Augusta had just got accustomed to this idea, however, when something worse than Sherman's troops came along—something called the Florida boom. Florida's warmer climate made Augusta's winters seem like Stalingrad. Even if Augusta had been able to divert its energy back to industry, it would not have mattered then, for the Depression was about to swallow up a whole country, including Georgia.

For more than 30 years Augusta has been gamely fighting its own deterioration, but one thing it is never going to be again is a resort town that thrives on its guests. Thus Augusta is now a place that happens to its visitors.

Specifically, Augusta happens to its visitors during one infuriating, confusing and yet altogether hilarious week—the first or second week of April, the week of the Masters golf tournament. This is the one week in which Augusta speaks, groans, growls, yowls, laughs and weeps. Overnight it combines all that is good and bad in Louisville during Derby Week and Pasadena during the Tournament of Roses. It manifests all of the fun, frolic, anguish and hysteria that would occur if the Democrats held their national convention in Pamplona, Spain when the bulls are running through the streets. A week in Augusta during the Masters is like a surrealistic dream.

Thirteen times I have lived this dream. Speak to me now of a Masters, and while you envision deep-green pines, luscious fairways and Bobby Jones, I envision—to pick a starting point—the Bon Air Hotel.

In Augusta the landmarks of a lost elegance are everywhere, but eventually almost every visitor is drawn through streets of old Georgian and Classic Revival homes to the crest of a hill where the massive, wrinkled, 372-room Bon Air is exposed above a meandering drive of dark magnolias. The Bon Air gazes, like the Sphinx, upon Augusta and its newish tone of short-order cafes, car washes and drive-ins. Old and rambling, the Bon Air's whitewashed face looks most immediately at something that tells the entire story: the almost always dry cavern of its own swimming pool. The pool, located in a courtyard where Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge once took their ease, has occasionally been filled in Masters week, filled with green water on which floated paper cups and hats and other strange baubles. In 1961 a motorboat sat foolishly on the surface with a sign that said "Mutimer for Sheriff." (Mutimer won.)

At night during the Masters, as music grinds from speakers on the upstairs porch, as wandering couples lean against the walls, as ancient waiters in white coats tumble drowsily through the dining room, the Bon Air conjures up the atmosphere of a Riviera palace the evening before World War I began. One of the jokes about Augusta is that President Wilson declared war on Germany after his room at the Bon Air put him in the mood. There are an awful lot of jokes about the Bon Air, because the sort of stay-at-your-own-risk attitude that has governed life there—and at most other Augusta hotels and restaurants—has become as much a part of the Masters as the divots taken out of the Augusta National Golf Club's velvet turf.

In many curious ways the Bon Air is the Masters. It is the most famous survival school of all the places that have for years tried to pass themselves off as Augusta hotels, and it is not unsymbolic that when one begins his first approach to the Bon Air there are red patches of blooming azaleas which lie against the lawn like the blood of a thousand vanquished guests.

While the Masters is the cornerstone of any present-day Augusta rebirth, it is a chipped cornerstone, for this first major outdoor sports event of each spring has been understandably too big for the city—now 70,000—to handle ever since the tournament grew so important after World War II. Nonetheless they come, 100,000 golf enthusiasts each year, entering into the gold, green and red beauty of an early April in Georgia, always with a mystical forgiveness and a renewed hope of and for a better-equipped Augusta. And each year they find it basically the same.

First, of course, they discover that the Bon Air still endures. Owners of the property, on the fringe of a fine old neighborhood not two miles from the golf course where the Masters is played, may come and go, and hotel managers may do the same, but the building stays. The Bon Air has, in fact, another new owner this year. It is a Houston realty company, which is gradually converting it into a residence for the elderly, catering to senior citizens at $125 per month for room and board. For the past four years the Bon Air has been closed most of the year, reopening only for the Masters. "That's wrong," says Jessie Outlar of the Atlanta Constitution. "The Bon Air has always been closed. They've only charged money to stay there during the tournament."

Most Masters guests remember the Bon Air for its décor, which at best could be described as Early Insanity. Take last year. The sofas and chairs still needed reupholstering, the chandeliers still had not been dusted since Bobby Jones defeated Eugene Homans at Merion and the carpet on the stairs was thin as a shirtsleeve. In far-off corners of the sprawling lobby were drooping potted palms that needed water even more than the swimming pool. Long jagged scars crawled across the plaster ceiling. In other years the plaster had been peeling, if not dripping—at times in frightening chunks. Still stretched across the broad arch leading into the dining room were yards of ornamental iron trim, more common to the balconies of Louisiana courtyards. The halls still sloped awkwardly toward rooms numbered in such fascinating sequences as 352, 353, 362.

Most of the rooms at the Bon Air are wide enough so that by turning sideways a guest can walk between the bed and the dresser. Windows are of two types. If, upon entry, a window is up it is not likely ever to come down, especially if the evening is brisk. On the other hand, if the window is down, it will never go up, and Augusta evenings can be stifling.

But the real fun is a Bon Air bathroom—at least it always was in my extended experience under previous Bon Air managements. (The new Texas ownership reputedly has done some work on the plumbing.) The bathroom was usually shared with a family of four from Savannah. If it happened to be larger than the bedroom, that was good, because it left plenty of room for all of the strange people who came marching through it in search of the next day's tournament pairings. The tub and the basin were never worth much. The basin would not have any hot water, and the tub would have only in-between water. In either case, the water gushed out of the faucets with the fury of eyewash from a dropper. The water had variety. There was burnt-orange water, pink water, red water and water with lumps in it. One learned it was easier not to bathe. Even if burnt-orange, pink or red water came out, after a great groaning noise that seemingly began in the basement and worked its way upward, causing an extreme vibration in the floor, there would be no towels. And no one, of course, wanted to waste the one tiny sliver of soap, most likely left behind by some carpetbagger.

Nor would a guest be likely to obtain soap and towels by phoning for the maid. Bon Air maids are where you find them, and they usually respond to any plea by locking the guest in his room. No one knows why. It simply happens that way. One morning Jim Turnesa, the former PGA champion, started out of his room with ample margin to make his tee-off time. But he did not get out. Repeated pleas by phone that he was locked in eventually produced a carpenter who had to take the whole door off to free Turnesa.

He arrived at the course just in time, and in the same jovial mood as thousands of others who have gone to the Masters every day, every year, from the quaint old Bon Air.

The Bon Air offers other surprises. Bob Drum, a former newspaperman from Pittsburgh, once sent the only good suit he had brought to Augusta out to be cleaned. Drum is a big man, who wears a size 46. Two days later an aging valet returned a size 40 suit, roughly the same color. Drum explained his problem to the valet and received appropriate apologies, but not his suit. Drum's suit turned up two weeks later, and the Bon Air was pleased to mail it to him—uncleaned.

The place has a way with shoes, too. Two years ago Bud Shrake, a writer from Dallas, sent a pair of brown loafers to the valet to be shined. A day passed. Two days passed. The tournament was in its final round on Sunday. Shrake went in search of his shoes. The valet shop was closed. Well, he would get them Monday as he was leaving for the airport. The valet shop was still closed. Shrake went to the manager. The valet shop, he was told, was separate from the hotel and no one had a key or any authority to break in. Worse, the manager did not know how to find the owner. Shrake finally persuaded a chambermaid to try her key on the valet shop and, not too surprisingly, it worked. Shrake got his shoes—unpolished.

The hotel has an attitude of convivial goodwill about all this that somehow makes any show of anger by a guest seem boorish. It is like being in the Army—you might as well laugh. When Shrake wrote a newspaper column about his Bon Air misadventures the management congratulated him on his accuracy and posted the story in the lobby.

Sleeping at the Bon Air has long been difficult, for reasons other than the heat or the cold or the hardness of the beds. It is noisy. Not the least amount of noise sometimes is caused by the clacking of high-heeled shoes going down the fire escape outside a guest's window at 4 a.m. David McCahill, a former USGA committeeman from Pittsburgh, once had two couples enter his room in the dead of night through a window and leave by the door with mild apologies. "I never knew how many others came through that didn't wake me," he said.

All of these things combined to urge Jim Murray, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, to express for every Bon Air guest the proper feeling a year ago. Wrote Murray: "I am staying at the house on Tobacco Road that Jeeter Lester moved out of."

But the Bon Air was not always a place where the safest way to spend an evening was to take a burnt-orange sponge bath, dry off on a bedsheet and lie down to listen to the argument in the next room. All of the professional golfers and their wives who went to the Masters prior to World War II looked upon the Bon Air as one of the most pleasurable stops on the tour. "It was like Pine-hurst," says Valerie Hogan, the wife of Ben. "We used to dress for dinner at the Bon Air. It was really very elegant in those days," says Louise Nelson, Byron's wife.

Even in the early '50s, when the Masters was growing into the second most important championship in the country—second only to the U.S. Open—the Bon Air was the place to be, and to be seen. A majority of the contestants still were lodged there, and at night they loitered in the lobby in bronze faces and white sport coats. Great throngs of people surged through the place, staggering out of rooms where not-so-private parties were under way and pushing into the small bar that adjoined the vast dining hall. There were pleasant sounds: the throb of a Dixieland band on the main floor, or a cool jazz combo downstairs in the breakfast room, where the chairs bore the names of famous golfers, or an orchestra in the ballroom. The Golf Ball was (indeed, still is, but in hardly recognizable form) held at the Bon Air on the Saturday night of the tournament. This was a formal affair, honoring the winners of a beauty contest, and the lobby spilled over with pretty young girls in yellow, pink and blue lace dresses, escorted by gangling, uncertain boys. It was busy, noisy, confusing and fun. But one week of lavish success and 51 weeks of desolation was too much for the Bon Air to bear—and aside from Masters week, Augusta was by now just another town that vacationers flew over on the way to Florida. The Bon Air lost its status as official host to the players, exhausted the means and patience of three ownerships, went bankrupt in 1960 and has opened and closed four times since—always on behalf of the Masters. Now it is open again, with 15 elderly guests who are trying its retirement charms, and a sellout crowd for next week. It will even have linen service this year—unlike 1963. But rooms will not have telephones.

The Bon Air's decline into dishevelment was exceeded—hard as it is to believe—by its neighbor across the street, the Partridge Inn. The Inn was known by insiders as the Tennessee Williams Arms. In 1959 a man from Fort Worth recalls being ushered into a room at the Partridge with his wife, and facing instant divorce. The windows were open. There were no screens and birds lived on the sagging balcony. The glass of one window was shattered and pieces were sprinkled on the floor. The bed had no sheet or spread, and the mattress contained a huge burned hole, about a foot in diameter, in the center. The couple had been brought up in the Partridge's only elevator, which is no larger than the ordinary shower stall and which travels, as if pulled by threads, at a speed of one foot per minute. Oblivious to the shambles of the room, the porter kindly said, ' "If yawl need anything now, you call right downstairs."

Downstairs last year was almost as amusing as upstairs, which had changed very little. On the ground floor of the Partridge there is a bar, the name of which changes from year to year. This time it was called the Key Club. But on the door was a piece of cardboard taken out of a man's shirt from whatever laundry in Augusta returns shirts, and on it in crayon had been carefully written "Dinning Room." Business was better than the spelling. This year, however, the Partridge has been redecorated, and who knows what awaits the guests?

Is there no way to escape Augusta's lodges? Only two. An attempt can be made to get into one of the increasing number of motels being built within range of the course. The best-established of these, the Holiday Inn, even had a putting green, but its surface was maintained in the Bon Air tradition. The green—now gone—was harder than the motel driveway, and no one had been seen putting on it since the night three years ago when two drunks were observed at midnight playing for $5 a hole. Many of the Masters players stay at the Holiday Inn, but they practice their putting on the carpets.

The second alternative is pleasanter still. Augusta boasts a fine residential area on its eastern edge, not far, ironically, from the Bon Air and the Partridge Inn. It has huge old southern homes and many modern ones, and renting them has become Augusta's answer to the Depression. The going rate for one of the big ones is $1,000 and up, complete with servants the Chamber of Commerce provides invaluable help as to rates and listings—and these homes are understandably in great demand at any price. Two, four and as many as eight couples get together and share the expense of renting a house, thus protecting themselves from the crowded unpleasantness of the hotels and restaurants. Advertisers, publishers, TV men, golf club manufacturers and groups of newspapermen are among the types who have discovered, all too slowly they now admit, that a private home is the best of all possible worlds in Augusta. And the golfers themselves have made the same change. Arnold Palmer will pay S600 or so for a smallish house this year. Gary Player had a house the year that rain delayed the Masters, and he ran into one of the hazards of home renting—the extra day's rent can sound like a good share of the purse money.

The taking over of the big homes has done wonders for the social life at the tournament. In the evening along the streets the lights from the two-and three-story houses glow through the pine trees, and automobiles line the curbs. It looks as if dozens of wedding receptions were in progress. Almost any stranger can walk uninvited into one of the parties and be riotously welcomed, handed a drink and led into the backyard, where a blistered chef in a golf shirt, such as Toney Penna at the MacGregor house, is turning steaks with one hand and enthusiastically demonstrating Jack Burke's grip with the other.

The best food in town is now being dished up in these homes. There are but few fairly safe alternatives: the Town Tavern restaurant downtown and the Red Lion, to name a couple.

Eating at the Town Tavern is an athletic event in itself. By Augusta standards, the food is exquisite, and so is the pain of getting in to eat. The Town Tavern is a narrow, dark restaurant with a row of booths on the left and a tiny bar on the right as one enters, and tables down the center. Upstairs there are three other dining rooms. Autograph seekers may find some of the top players there, but the process of eating at the Town Tavern involves six things: pushing inside the entrance, getting a number for a table, finding space to stand at the bar while waiting for your number to be called, tackling a waitress without alienating her affections, having the food served, getting a check. Minimum time: three hours.

The Red Lion also has an upstairs, which it tries to hold back for groups of six, eight or 10. Last year six men stood on Saturday night of the tournament for one hour, were directed upstairs, waited 30 minutes for a menu, ordered elaborately and never even got any water. One of them eventually complained to a fast-moving waitress. "I ain't got but two hands," she said, moving even faster. The men left with a minimum of displeasure, switched to a drive-in down the street, produced an order that staggered the attendant and ate in a rented car.

Other starving fans besiege the numerous short-order places. At one of them a fry cook scrambled so many eggs between 6 p.m. and 3 a.m. one night that he finally broke into tears. The crowds were still lined up outside when the cook went to the phone, dialed a number and said between soft sobs, "Clarence, if I...don't git some hep over heah...I don't know...what I gonna do.... You git somebody over heah now, you heah?" One can only hope Clarence came through.

Once the Masters visitor is conditioned to all of the challenges of lodging and meals, there comes, of course, the biggest challenge of all: trying to see the tournament and, more important, trying to survive while seeing it. All other estimates to the contrary, the largest golf galleries in the world are at the Masters. Also the fastest, gaudiest, nerviest and most responsive. Over the great emerald valley of the Augusta National Golf Club, these galleries advance like the Mongol hordes. Arriving by airlines, private plane, train and automobile, they spread across the course's hills and mounds, making a giant smear of a mosaic, sprawling on the rich turf, on the pine needle beds beneath the mammoth pines or in the parking lot, which accommodates 10,000 cars, but becomes a marshland when it rains. (Masters weather is predictable. In the four days of the tournament proper it will rain, get cold, turn hot and become windy.)

While the throngs come from everywhere, mostly they are southern. Their god is still Bobby Jones, who built the course and originated the tournament, and they stand ready to defend his honor at all times. Until 1948 Jones played in his own tournament, and his followers frequently outnumbered those of the leaders. Jones was never a threat at all to win, but that made no difference to Georgians. Charles Bartlett, a Masters-wise golf writer, recalls the time he stood by the 10th tee, watching Henry Picard play through. "Picard has the smoothest swing in golf," Bartlett said to a friend. Whereupon a southern gentleman rapped him smartly with an umbrella. "Suh," the man said, "don't you realize Bobby's still plain'?"

As recently as 1959 Art Wall, who was destined to win the Masters that year, was leaning (carefully leaning) against a pillar in the Bon Air lobby—the one near the dying palm plant—when he was unexpectedly confronted by a sun-bleached fan. "Ain't you Art Wall?" Art nodded. "You the man who's s'pose to have made 35 hole-in-ones?" Art nodded. "Why, man, who you kiddin'? Bobby didn't make but two!"

In the last 10 years the Masters crowds have expressed their unconcealed joy over just three other golfers: Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. In that curious interlude of golf between 1954 and 1958 when no player really took charge of the game because Snead and Hogan were too old to win consistently and Palmer was too young, the bulk of the Masters galleries still followed Sam and Ben, as they had Bobby. It was as if, through some divine order, one of them had to win. It was in 1961, after Palmer had twice won the championship, that Arnie's Army was born—born in Augusta and fully mobilized. As Palmer pursued Gary Player over the final nine holes of that Masters, the throngs were at their trampling, shouting, hurdling best. Once, as Arnold bent over a putt, a voice from the crowd blurted, "Make this one, bubba, and you da leada of da tribe!" And it was on the big scoreboard near the 11th green that a sign was posted, "Go get him, Arnie."

Even though the Masters committee has struggled to manufacture vantage points—mounds, knobs, grandstands—no one can truthfully claim that he or she has followed a Masters star and seen all of the shots on all of the holes of a round. Through years of experience, the fan finally may settle on this system for the last nine holes: pick up the leader on his approach shot to the 11th green, watch him play 12 and 13, dash to the 15th green, dash to the 17th, forget 18. Aside from the cameramen on top of the towers and the few hundred spectators who grab places at the edge of the green and sit there from dawn on, no one in 20 years has seen the putting surface of the 18th green. A true Masters follower never says he saw Palmer win in such-and-such a year; he says he was there when Palmer won. It is a neat distinction.

But in the end, survival in Augusta, like survival at Guadalcanal, can be learned. With an indomitable stomach, indomitable feet and an indomitable sense of humor, the restaurants, the galleries and the living quarters can all be conquered. And who really worries, anyway, when there is the prospect of seeing—just for a fleeting second—a Palmer walking down an Augusta fairway amid a Georgia springtime? You soon get a feeling for the Masters, and nothing will daunt you. Yea, Bobby! Dust the switchboard, Bon Air! Grease up the skillet. Town Tavern! Vote for Mutimer! Next week is the Masters, and Augusta's the place for me.

ILLUSTRATIONMARC SIMONT ILLUSTRATIONOnce a posh affair, the Golf Ball has suffered the same decline as its surroundings, hut golf fans using various grips try to ignore the decor and dance on.

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