It’s all about knowing your angles.
If you’re going to fit 35 cars onto a little less than an acre of property in a way that offers them the ability to actually get in and out in one piece, you really have to map out where each vehicle can go. You can park trucks in the back since there is more room to turn around, but you can fit smaller cars up front and possibly squeeze in one or two extra customers.
For nearly 70 years, my grandmother has lived in a modest, but lovely brick ranch home on Magnolia Drive. The street is so named because if you extend Magnolia Lane, a particularly famous tree-lined stretch of painted green pavement, across Washington Road the two roads would almost perfectly fit together.
Living in such close proximity to arguably the most famous golf course in the world hosting arguably the most famous golf tournament in the world has its perks, and I, along with other family members, took advantage of them. From my elementary school days in the 1980s on, we’d gather at her house, wave our arms in a windmill fashion and funnel in 30-plus cars each day.
For those behind the wheel, coming from places as varied as Toronto and Los Angeles, money really wasn’t an object. It was nothing to pay $30 for the opportunity to take a short walk across the street just for the privilege to set foot in golf’s grandest arena.
We weren’t alone in pursuing our own capitalist dreams.
You have to realize the week of The Masters is its own designated holiday in the Augusta area. Schools close, and parties convene. Lots of locals leave town just as golf enthusiasts flood the city for a tradition — and, most importantly, an experience — unlike any other. But plenty of other locals stick around, participating in a unique market.
In Augusta, an entirely separate economy operates one week out of each year geared toward the thousands of visitors who stream into the city during Masters Week. Over the years, it has evolved, from families parking cars to global entertainment companies hosting some of the most powerful business leaders in the world.
One thing has unified them throughout, however, and that’s a motivation to be a good host, and cash in on the allure of Southern hospitality.
How did we get here
Washington Road, like most major commercial thoroughfares in suburban America, features a blend of chain restaurants, national retail outlets and various other ventures. There’s a lot of bright neon lights at nighttime and steady traffic in the daytime, funneling commuters from downtown to the neighborhoods in Richmond and Columbia counties.
Unlike most major commercial thoroughfares in suburban America, however, it does draw the annual gaze of international media and throngs of visitors, many of them quite well-off financially, and that breeds a lot of scrutiny and a little bit of elitism.
There have been countless articles and columns penned by out-of-towners casting their nose ever so slightly downward at how the city presents itself, such as this one from the Irish Times or this Associated Press article, which succinctly summarizes the jarring juxtaposition of the two worlds:
Right outside the gates of one of the world’s most exclusive golf clubs sits a hodgepodge of sprawling strip malls, fast-food joints, energy-drink hawkers, a replica stock car covered in sponsor decals and, yes, John Daly decked out in a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and flip-flops, taking a drag on a cigarette as he signs autographs and moves merchandise in the raucous parking lot outside Hooters.
Make no mistake — and I say this as an Augusta native and unabashed defender of my hometown — but it’s not an entirely inaccurate description when put into the context of what so many might expect that first visit to the city to be. If you see only the immaculate conditions shown on TV, it can be a bit other-worldly to drive by a litany of fast-food restaurants and budget hotels.
But it’s that stark contrast which ultimately gave birth to the micro-economy that thrives not only in the immediate area around the course, but also throughout the city. While Augusta is the second-largest city in Georgia, that recognition needs to come with a bit of a disclaimer when the frontrunner is Atlanta, which boasts a bustling metro area that includes half of the state’s population.
People flock to Atlanta every day of the year for conventions or sporting events or business meetings or vacations or making Marvel movies. Augusta, for one week of the year, might be the center of the universe, but for the remaining 51 weeks it’s like every other mid-sized community in the U.S.
“Part of it is that Augusta is not able to provide that much of an experience,” said Joe White, publisher of Metro Spirit, the weekly alternative newspaper that serves the community. “These jet-setters are accustomed to a level of service, and you can’t just create that out of thin air one week out of the year.”
What you can do, however, is build the infrastructure that will stand for those other 51 weeks so the switch easily can be flipped to provide the necessary care and support for those coming into town.
And that’s how we get to where we are today.
Catering to those coming in town
For much of the tournament’s history, the neighborhood of National Hills offered up its own dose of local hospitality for the fans.
Much like my grandmother’s property, houses that lined Azalea, Magnolia and Eisenhower drives filled their yards with the cars of patrons who handed over $5, $10 and — in the heady days following Tiger Woods’s initial win — $30 so they could take a short walk across Washington Road.
That informal hospitality grew more official around the turn of the century.
Sandie Crowley has been active in this secondary economy for 20 years, building a successful personal brand thanks to a popular moniker given to her — Augusta Golf Girl.
“It was a nickname,” Crowley said. “It was ‘get in touch with that Augusta Golf Girl, and she’ll help you.’ The name just kind of stuck. There were people who didn’t even know my name, they would just say I was told to call the Augusta Golf Girl. It was like this secret society.”
Like many of those navigating the hospitality landscape in those early days, Crowley’s greatest currency was her knowledge. As a native of the area, she understood the best places to eat, the nice neighborhoods to rent a property, the top-rated golf courses to seek a tee time, and the best ways to avoid the nightmarish traffic that afflicts the community during the tournament.
Her first job was fairly straightforward — prepare a rented house for incoming guests and serve as their primary point of contact during tournament week. She helped to craft a customized schedule for the visitors and managed any issue that arose.
By week’s end, her path had been set when the COO of a prominent technology company told her it was the best Masters Week he had ever been a part of and inquired if she could help the following year.
That type of informal entry into hospitality was indicative of how the broader industry would grow in the neighborhoods around the golf course. You see, unlike other professional sporting events, The Masters long relied on a minimal number of corporate partners and no official, on-site hospitality offerings.
The presumed rationale — at least my presumed rationale — for this was the patron experience itself was unrivaled in the golf world. Of course, it also minimized distractions that would detract from the power of the tournament’s brand.
As such, a completely separate hospitality economy developed in those surrounding neighborhoods, composed of national ticket brokers and local entrepreneurs. Ram Silverman is the general manager of The 1018 Club, a hospitality house on Azalea Drive, and he remembered how his company slowly entered the market.
“It started out where a competitor of ours had set up a tent at the corner of Washington Road and Magnolia Drive next to the old Green Jacket restaurant,” Silverman said. “Originally he had set up a tent with some liquor and a TV with some food. We had some customers who were looking for something other than just badges to the tournament.”
A desire to gain greater control over the customer experience led Silverman to do what many others were doing, and that was build The 1018 Club.
The first permanent hospitality house, according to Rob Sherman, the planning director for Augusta-Richmond County, was built in 1999. That year, Robert Reese Marshall purchased a piece of property on Azalea Drive next to Whole Life Ministries — located in a shopping center appropriately named The Master’s Plaza — for $150,000 from Patricia Williamson.
He transformed it into a large building capable of hosting several hundred guests per day and set up the first permanent structure devoted to providing daily hospitality to patrons during Masters Week.
Marshall might have been the first, but he was far from the last. In the coming years, house after house in National Hills would be sold to either out-of-town ticket brokers or local entrepreneurs, all eager to cash in on the tourism money that seemed to be growing each year.
The economic impact
Let’s play a bit of a numbers game. Most sports economists suggest that hosting the Super Bowl, arguably one of the biggest sporting events in the world, will net roughly $300 million or so in economic impact for a city. It’s a staggering amount of money yielded from a full week of activities.
The Masters delivers an annual economic impact of $120 million to a city with a little more than 200,000 people — smaller than Des Moines, Iowa — and it happens every … single … year.
Most hotels markup the cost of their rooms by 200 to 300 percent in some instances, regardless of the rankings on Expedia or Travelocity. A dearth of hotel rooms provides the perfect market conditions to net those rates.
It also drives the vibrant rental housing market during the week.
Housing rentals in Augusta can run from $5,000 to $30,000 per week, depending on the quality and size of the property and its location. Neighborhoods like Jones Creek and West Lake, as well as older homes along Walton Way and in the swanky area of Augusta known as “The Hill” demand top dollar and host high-ranking CEOs and celebrities.
This economic largesse reaches beyond housing rentals, though.
Area golf courses are flooded with wannabe hackers, while restaurants in town are booked nearly a year in advance.
Teachers who are out of school for the week chauffeur guests around town, and their high school and college students find work both on the course and off it. On your way to the course, you’ll even find high school football teams and local church groups hawking bottles of water and badge protectors to help raise a few extra bucks for their causes.
“I started in 1993 at the paper in my role in sales, and back then it didn’t matter if you had a gas station on Gordon Highway, you were going to make money during Masters Week,” White said. “It was a windfall for everyone, regardless of what you did.”
At the top of this secondary market’s food chain are the hospitality houses. Not only do they employ countless local residents during the week, they also provide a high-end experience for the city’s guests.
A typical experience includes dropping your car off at the valet before heading inside to check your bags (and cell phone), enjoying a catered, buffet-style meal with a full open bar to serve you before heading off on a short walk to the course itself. Upon return, there’s more food, more drinks and possibly some live entertainment (I saw Drivin’ & Cryin’ on the back patio of The Executive Club, my personal favorite hospitality locale, last year).
Many of these houses are quite large, filling the footprint of their respective piece of property. They, of course, look like houses, just really big ones. Some are large, Georgian-style homes that feature multiple levels, while Silverman’s The 1018 Club is multi-tiered deck experience.
While much of those first few blocks fronting Washington Road in National Hills are predominantly hospitality houses today, Sherman noted Augusta-Richmond County passed some subtle zoning changes to minimize the scale of some of these buildings. Today, new properties have to be within a certain percentage of size of the surrounding properties, helping to ensure large projects don’t trickle down deeper into the rest of the neighborhood.
“In the beginning, National Hills had a pretty strong neighborhood association, and as these homes were being developed, we would hear from them,” Sherman said. “But they learned how to live together. Masters Week in National Hills — or anywhere in that area — if you’re from Augusta you’re used to that week, and that’s not going to change.”
As evidenced by the impact delivered to the city, there’s still plenty of money to make, but it has required adaptation and evolution to meet a market that responds to even the most subtle of moves by Augusta National.
An evolving economy
Perception can be reality, and as visitors have noted, driving down Washington Road en route to the tournament can be, well, a lot to absorb.
Damon Cline is the business editor for the Augusta Chronicle, and he said Augusta National’s desire to reshape the patron experience led it to reach out to consultants from one of the global leaders in customer experience nearly two decades ago — Walt Disney World.
“If you’ve been to Disney World, you see that they basically control the experience from the moment you drive through the gate to the moment you leave,” Cline said. “Everything is perfect. Everything is well oiled. Everything is on time. It’s a fantastic experience.”
As a former Disney Annual Passholder, I can fully attest to the brilliance and efficiency of the customer experience there — You arrive; You play; You leave; And you never set foot off the property.
For the Augusta National, the pattern does seem to be one that more fully immerses patrons in The Masters experience.
The first step was the shifting of the main gate from Washington Road to Berckmans Road, which helped improve pedestrian safety across a busy thoroughfare, but dramatically impacted the ability of National Hills residents to park cars.
Then came the construction of a significantly larger parking lot inside the newly expanded gates, thanks to years of acquiring property on the other side of Berckmans Road (which, according to property records, were at prices considerably above the market value). In fact, the road itself would eventually be moved, with Augusta National literally loaning the money to the city so the project could be completed sooner.
Policy changes on the number of times a guest could be admitted to the grounds changed, too, with unlimited re-entry opportunities ticking downward to two. Cline also pointed to rumors of the RFID technology in the badges that is useful in implementing the re-admission policy also being used to help cut down on re-sales on the secondary ticket market.
Augusta National’s launch of Berckmans Place, an on-course venue for certain corporate partners, represented its foray into the world of providing high-end hospitality experience for its patrons.
In recent years, the club has continued to acquire property and expand its footprint. Though it’s unwise to speculate about the rationale, the end result to date is clear — greater control over the broader patron experience that also has yielded enhanced aesthetics in the surrounding areas.
Of course, this has impacted everything else in the community. The secondary parking market in National Hills, which already was starting to thin out in the early 2000s with the rise of the independent hospitality market, was erased. Many of the local restaurants and bars are unsure about how a more robust on-property experience will impact their bottom lines.
White acknowledged he takes a more pessimistic view of Augusta National’s moves during the past two decades. He said the property acquisitions and policy changes are slowly squeezing out Augusta businesses and entrepreneurs from the financial largesse during tournament week.
“They want the patrons to come straight to the Augusta National, stay as long as they want to stay, and then leave,” he said. “That’s where it gets sticky for small business people who have supported it and kept it going all of these years.”
That said, of those I spoke with both on the record and off, he remained the lone critical voice of these moves. While I am quite sure he isn’t alone in holding those opinions, others I spoke with offered different assessments, praising Augusta National for its charitable giving and efforts to enhance not only the patron experience, but improve the aesthetics around the course.
Cline said the club is clearly leaving a mark on the community, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing.
“Every time I write a story about Augusta National buying another shopping center or the Wendy’s or whatever, it doesn’t take too long for social media to start blowing up with they’re just buying everything up and there’s going to be nothing left to Washington Road,” he noted. “There’s this anger over this club spending its money. I look at it as, well, they’re not condemning anyone’s property. They’re not taking it by force or buying anything from anyone who doesn’t want to sell, so it’s a consensual transaction.
“Why you would be upset by that in the first place, I have no idea.”
What’s to come
Today, my grandmother is one of the few people who live full time on that stretch of Magnolia Drive.
She’s been there since the 1950s, when she and my grandfather purchased their home for roughly $20,000, raising my father, and his brother and sister. The house on her left was purchased for $425,000 last year, while the house on her right recently sold for $500,000.
At some point my grandmother or her children will have to make a decision on what to do with her property, and there figures to be a line of suitors seeking the opportunity to acquire it. What ultimately happens to it when this occurs will be up in the air, just like most things these days.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the tournament to November, giving us an autumn Masters for the first time in history. For safety reasons, no patrons will be admitted on the grounds, meaning no ripple effect for the Augusta community and those who strive to provide an experience for visitors beyond the gates.
Silverman, as well as several industry contacts I spoke with, indicated their preferences for another November tournament in 2021. The uncertainty that surrounds the pandemic is breeding confusion, particularly for international visitors who may not be able to even get into the country.
“It’s our hope that the tournament gets moved one more time to November because we do feel by then that there will be a vaccine, and there will be a way to have full events by then,” Silverman said. “But we don’t see a whole lot changing from now until April. It’s not like they can wait until the first week of April to make a decision to move the tournament. We haven’t really been selling a whole lot for next year because I think people recognize the same thing. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
Whether or not the tournament is shifted later in the year again is something to be decided another day. Whatever happens, however, this secondary economy will do what it’s always done — adapt.