Toughest Table In Town If you can squeeze your way through the door, Mark Cumins's TBonz is the place to see and be seen during Masters week

April 18, 2004

TBonz Steak House, during Masters week, is the 700-yard par-5 of
restaurants. The wait for a table is long, two hours or more. The
bar area--defined by rustic trellises, a bust of Elvis Presley
and three televisions tuned to sports--holds only 40 patrons
standing breastbone to breastbone. Another 100 or so crowd the
entry and spill into the parking lot, where vendors at card
tables sell cigars, T-shirts and framed golf prints. If this were
an old Disney cartoon, the walls of TBonz would be bulging
rhythmically to tinny music and partygoers would be tumbling out
of windows. ¶ Mark Cumins, during Masters week, is the Toots
Shor of Augusta. He co-owns the Washington Road TBonz and 12
other restaurants with longtime friend and attorney Jerry
Scheer, but Scheer is the invisible partner. Cumins is the
public face of TBonz, and what an amiable face it is. Even
without his trademark ponytail, which he cut off three years
ago, and his bushy beard, which he now trims to a
salt-and-pepper stubble, Cumins is the antithesis of the
green-jacketed plutocrats who reign a half mile up the road.

Who goes to TBonz? Well, that's Fuzzy Zoeller and his entourage
over there in the corner booth, and there's CBS golf analyst
Peter Oosterhuis and his wife, Ruthie, on the other side, and the
big fellow clogging the doorway is English sports agent Chubby
Chandler, which means that Darren Clarke is probably in the
house, along with a few CEOs of major corporations. That
suave-looking Middle Easterner with the neatly trimmed beard is
one of the owners of the Emirates Golf Club; he just flew in from
Dubai in his private Boeing 737. Of course, this is a slow
night--nothing like the uproarious fete of a few years ago when
Jim Courier, George Brett and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills ran up an
$1,800 bar tab.

Why do they go to TBonz? Well, the steaks are thick, the service
is brisk, and you can nibble yourself to death on blackened
crawfish tails and Texas cheese fries. "We're pretty good,"
Cumins allows. "We're not Smith & Wollensky in New York. We're
sort of a lower-class Hard Rock Cafe." Hearing a platter crash to
the floor behind him, he winces. "See what I mean?"

Others insist that Cumins himself is TBonz's biggest draw. "It's
all about that guy, he's the mayor," says David Broderick,
president of a Kansas City-based sports-hospitality company that
brings up to 50 guests a night into the restaurant. Austin
Rhodes, the news-talk host at WGAC radio in Augusta, says, "Mark
is the only guy I know who has the home phone numbers of James
Brown, Fuzzy Zoeller and the President."

Pressed for his age, Cumins claims at first to be 103--"I age in
dog years," he says--before fessing up to 47 conventional
birthdays. He lives in Charleston, S.C., but was born and raised
in Augusta. His dad, a stockbroker and recreational golfer who
died when Cumins was a teenager, took him to his first Masters
when he was four, hoisting him onto his shoulders so Cumins could
see a portly, crew-cut Jack Nicklaus come off the 18th green. "To
this day, when I walk out there and smell the grass, it triggers
memories of my dad walking hand in hand with me on the course."

In 1985 he and Scheer made the fateful decision to open the first
TBonz, on Baxter Street in Athens, Ga. "I never thought of it
being my life's work," Cumins says. "I simply wanted to amuse
myself." The partners sold that restaurant years ago, but it was
successful enough to allow them to go site hunting in Augusta,
which was entering a period of sustained growth. The building
they settled on was a Godfather's Pizza in a cluster of budget
motels and gas stations on Washington Road, a couple of blocks
east of I-20. Two decades haven't done much to gentrify the
neighborhood, but Cumins points out that up to 50,000 cars pass
his place every weekday of the year.

When they opened the Augusta TBonz in 1987, Cumins and Scheer
didn't plan to steal Masters-week business from established
Augusta eateries. The Tex-Mex decor featured plank floors, booths
of rough-hewn timber and, hanging from the ceiling, a giant slab
of redwood shaped like a T-bone steak. The turning point came at
the 1987 Masters, when Fred Couples had dinner at TBonz and met
Cumins. The following day, during a practice round, the golfer
spotted the restaurateur in the gallery and went over to the
ropes to tell him how much he had enjoyed his steak. That started
a buzz among the out-of-towners. Before long TBonz was known as
the place where you could share air with an Ernie Els, a Seve
Ballesteros, a Brad Faxon, a Scott Hoch. A shrewd man, Cumins
trained his staff to keep an eye out for the celebrities. "Mark
had me study the pictures of all the players in Augusta
Magazine," says Karen Miller, manager of the Washington Road
TBonz. "He said, 'Know these faces, Karen.'"

For Cumins, a divorced father of two (Jakob, 6, and Joshua, 3),
business success and advancing age have forced an occasional
self-appraisal. His hippie look served him well for years, but it
came at a price. The first time he played Augusta National,
someone yelled, "Hit it, Willie!" as he prepared to drive off the
1st tee--a reference to the long-haired troubadour Willie Nelson.
Another time, at a picnic table in Cooperstown, N.Y., Hall of
Fame pitcher Warren Spahn playfully yanked on Cumins's ponytail,
saying, "Why don't you cut this s--- off?" Three years ago, in a
half-hearted try for respectability, Cumins finally chopped the
mop. "I thought maybe it was time to grow up," he says, "and
maybe people would begin to take me seriously." He chuckles. "I
found out I would never grow up, and nobody's ever going to take
me seriously."

Three days before the Masters, he took a break from the
schmoozing to take Jakob to Augusta National for the first time.
("I walked hand in hand with him and told him, 'This is what my
daddy and I did when I was a child.'") Afterward he spent hours
at the restaurant, working the crowd until midnight. "Mark has
more friends than anybody I've known," said Broderick, watching
from a spot by the door. "He's made TBonz the headquarters of
international golf."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER FULL HOUSE A staff of 100 serves up to 1,000 dinners a nightduring Masters week--more than three times the output ofnontournament nights. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER TRADITION Cumins (left) hosted as Phil Mickelson's caddie, JimMacKay (top left), and Els's Ricci Roberts celebrated Sundaynight. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER SALAD DAYS As soon as play is over, the parking lot at TBonz(right) begins to fill. Inside, icons and staff are ready for therush. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER WAITING GAME Diners can putt away the time it takes to be seatedfor a feast of steaks, crawfish and ribs (right), the housespecialties.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)