The pilgrims on a golfing hajj arrive about once a week. They
stand on the patio, look out at the course and match the
fairways unfolding before them with the ones in the scrapbook in
their mind. Perhaps here's where Jack donned the green jacket.
There's where Tiger delivered a celebratory uppercut. When Tommy
Brannen, the club pro, sees unescorted visitors with a dreamy
look in their eyes, he'll send someone to gently interrupt their
reverie and inform them that they're not at Augusta National
Golf Club, home of the Masters. They're at Augusta Country Club.
The Washington Road entrance to Augusta National is marked by a
small sign and a guardhouse. The country club entrance, which is
slightly more than a mile away, on Milledge Road, "is wide
open," Brannen says. There are other differences. Augusta
National, laid out on an abandoned indigo nursery, is
internationally known for its floral palette. Augusta Country
Club, laid out on farmland, has relatively few azaleas and
dogwoods. "High maintenance, a pain in the butt," says general
manager Henry Marburger. "That's show stuff." On the first
Sunday of this spring, the country club held a tournament for
mixed twosomes. "Talk about a contrast," Marburger says. "We
have a mixed event. That isn't going to happen over there." The
country club has 1,325 members (Augusta National: who knows?),
nine tennis courts (none), a swimming pool (no) and a
little-known gem of a golf course. The course only recently
reopened after having undergone a $1.9 million restoration by
architect Brian Silva, who used as his guide the plans that
Donald Ross hand drew when he supervised the course's transition
from sand greens to grass ones in 1927. None of that matters
much because Augusta Country Club sits in the shadow of the
Mecca of American golf. About all most fans know about Augusta
Country Club are the slivers of the 9th hole that they see when
CBS trains its cameras on the 12th green at Augusta National.
"The two clubs are close, and the country club is always in
great shape, but there's only one Augusta National," says Tour
pro Charles Howell, an Augusta native. "If I had to sum it up,
I'd say there's a little bit of a friendly rivalry between the
Azaleas or no azaleas, there's plenty of cross-pollination
between the clubs--right down to the pro shops occasionally
receiving each other's merchandise by accident. People at the
country club usually refer to their neighbor as "the National"
or "the folks across the creek," meaning Rae's Creek, the
spindly body of water in which so many dreams of Masters victory
have been interred. When Rae's Creek disappears into the woods
near the National's 13th tee, it remains a hidden boundary
between the clubs for a couple of hundred yards until it
reemerges in front of the country club's 8th green. The actual
property line between the clubs has shifted over the years. Two
decades ago, when the country club wanted to lengthen number 8,
a par-5, it purchased the land it needed on the north side of
the creek from the National. Last year the country club returned
the favor. When the National decided to lengthen number 13 by 25
yards, it bought almost an acre of land behind the 13th tee from
the country club.
Because secrecy covers the National's business like dew covers
the azaleas, details of the transaction weren't announced. Out
of respect--and perhaps because they have to live next
door--officials at Augusta Country Club were silent, too. When
asked about the sale last week, Marburger at first wouldn't even
admit that there had been a transfer of property. "Allegedly,"
he said. "We're not going to confirm or deny." After a moment he
added, "They do have land that we had. Let's say that." In
recent months rumors had filled the information gap, and soon it
was reported that the National had paid the country club
$500,000 for the land. Not even Augusta National, though, can
conduct a real estate transaction without recording the deed at
the Richmond County Courthouse, and when SI inspected the
records two weeks ago, they showed that National had paid its
neighbor only $23,000, pretty much the going rate for land in
that part of Augusta. The National also threw in some
landscaping work on the country club's side of the six-foot-high
black slat fence, topped by three strands of barbed wire, it
installed around the new tee. There are new holly bushes and
shoots of Carolina jasmine, a vine that grows so quickly that
"in two years you won't be able to see this fence," says country
club superintendent Greg Burleson. The National also planted two
30-foot pines on the country club's side of the property.
Behind the country club's 8th green there's a gate in the fence
that separates the clubs. The two clubs' maintenance staffs lend
each other tractors for overseeding as well as the implements
that attach to the tractors, such as rotary brooms and vacuums.
The clubs installed the gate in the mid-1990s so that the
tractors wouldn't have to be driven on Washington Road. Burleson
guesses that the gate is opened about four times a year. "I know
these people, and they know me," says Burleson, who worked for
Marsh Benson, the senior director for course operations and
development at the National, while they were both employed by a
club in Athens, Ga. "They know I'm not going to come down here
and unlock it and sneak into the tournament." To make sure, the
gate has two padlocks. Burleson has the key to one lock and
Benson the key to the other.
"Obviously, the people at the National are very private,"
Marburger says. "The National is like somebody who lives next
door to your house and has five acres with a pool and a
Rolls-Royce. You can figure it out--it's for other people." In a
sense, they is we. When Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts decided
to create Augusta National in 1930, they enlisted several
members from Augusta Country Club as investors and members of
the National. Today about 25 to 30 Augustans (neither club will
divulge the exact number) who belong to the country club are
also members at the National. That's roughly 2% of the country
club's membership. Jeff Knox, a second-generation member of both
clubs, speaks with a syrupy eloquence about the close-knit
membership of Augusta Country Club. "You have a small-town
feel," he says while sitting in the country club's men's grill.
"The members know each other." But when asked how he solves the
delicious dilemma of waking up in the morning and deciding
whether to play a classic Donald Ross design or the most desired
course in the country, Knox grows silent. The battle between his
good breeding and Augusta National omerta plays out for several
seconds. "I don't know," he finally says. "That's a tough
question. I'd really rather not discuss it. I play mostly over
Phil Harison, the 76-year-old grandson of Dr. William Henry
Harison, a cofounder of Augusta Country Club, shows no such
compunction. "I play at the club in the summer and at the
National in the winter," he says. "If I'm entertaining, I'll do
it at the National. People come to Augusta, they want to play
the National." On his 21st birthday, in 1947, Harison was
putting on the practice green at the National, where his father
was a member, when Roberts walked over, wished him a happy
birthday and congratulated him on becoming a member. On a wall
of Harison's insurance office in Augusta are a pair of plaques,
each of which holds a ball that Harison used in making an ace at
the National. They weren't just any holes in one, either.
Harison may be the only golfer to have made an ace while playing
with a president and the greatest golfer in the history of the
game. In 1955 he aced the 4th hole while playing in a group that
included Dwight Eisenhower and Roberts. In '89 he made a 1 at
the 12th hole in a group that included Jack Nicklaus. Harison
has been the official 1st-tee starter at the Masters for 55
years, or since the second year of his membership. One of his
oldest friends is Byron Nelson, who has stayed with Phil and his
wife, Gracie, during Masters week for as long as Harison can
remember. Harison says that he's teased by his friends at the
country club. "They poke at me, call me a 'cross-the-creek
guy,'" he says. But he doesn't believe they are envious.
"Everybody understands. I can't entertain the whole world. I'd
like to. They're very polite about it."
Robbie Williams, a four-time women's champion at the country
club, used to be married to a man who belonged to both clubs. She
recently wrote a memoir of her golfing life in Augusta titled
Gentlemen Only. "The National and Augusta Country Club remind me
of my daughters," Williams says. "The most important thing that
happens to a daughter is birth order. When you have girls, that
first one is really a queen. All of a sudden the second one takes
over and is nationally and internationally recognized. The
membership of Augusta Country Club is excluded because that's
what Augusta National does."
In its three-plus decades of existence before the opening of the
National, the country club enjoyed widespread recognition. In
1900, two years before the birth of Jones, Harry Vardon played a
round there. Jones won the '30 Southeastern Open, two rounds of
which were contested at the country club, by 13 shots, a
harbinger of the Grand Slam to come later that year. In '32
Jones paused during the construction of the National for a
friendly round at the country club, during which he made the
second hole in one of his career, at the uphill par-3 14th. A
plaque commemorating the shot is embedded in the tee box. From
'37 to '66 the country club served as the home of the
Titleholders, one of the LPGA's first major championships. The
cantankerous Roberts tolerated the Titleholders, even when it
began awarding its winners a too-familiar article of clothing.
"I have a green jacket in the closet," says Marilynn Smith, who
won consecutive Titleholders, in '63 and in '64. "I wouldn't
give up that jacket."
When the National began to rope off the galleries from the
fairways, it lent its ropes to the country club for the same
purpose. However, according to Gentlemen Only, when the
Titleholders teetered on the brink of extinction in '66, the
tournament committee went to see Roberts to ask him for advice
on how to improve attendance. "You can't do anything," Roberts
said. "People don't like to see women wrestle, either." End of
meeting. End of tournament.
The two clubs have one more thing in common: Masters week is
also the busiest week of the year at Augusta Country Club. The
course opens for play at 7:30 a.m., a half-hour earlier than
usual, and members must sign up for tee times, a constraint
unneeded the rest of the year. Howell, who will be playing at
the National next week instead of at his home course, says that
"during Masters week the superintendent of the country club
tries to get the greens up to the speed of the National's so
that the members at the club can compare themselves with the
players in the Masters, but he never quite gets there."
Attempting to keep up with the Joneses is difficult enough. When
the Jones in question is Robert Tyre Jones Jr., it's an
affliction without a cure.
committee. "People don't like to see women wrestle, either."
"People come to Augusta, they want to play the National."
"Allegedly," he said. "We're not going to confirm or deny."