GHOST TOWN

This was supposed to be Masters week, and folks in Augusta are feeling the emotional and financial sting

By Tod Leonard

It was ghostly quiet on Washington Road for any Monday morning, much less the first Monday in April. Typically, by 8 a.m. on this particular Monday, police have closed off the Exit 198 ramps from Interstate 20 because the volume of cars already has exceeded capacity.

Masters week dawned with a bright orange sun in clear blue skies and ideal temperatures. Only there was nowhere to go. For the first time in 75 years, the first full week of April in Augusta didn’t include a Masters tournament. The lone positive news was that Augusta National announced plans to try to play the 2020 Masters the week of Nov. 9-15—the COVID-19 virus willing.

For the city of Augusta, the emotional and financial impact of a postponed Masters—even if it’s set for a fall date—is profound. Green isn't just the colour of the champion's jacket. The tournament touches thousands of lives in the community in myriad ways—most notably in the pocketbook. The Masters is estimated to annually bring more than $100 million to the region. Rates soar sometimes into the five figures per night for hotel rooms; some families command $100,000 to rent their home for the week and restaurants and local golf courses are packed with people who might never otherwise venture to this area of Georgia.

“It won’t be the same,” Al Russo, a retired Richmond County educator who normally works Masters week on the litter control crew, said before he headed to the first tee to get a round in at Forest Hills Golf Club. “I’m sure the course will be immaculate as usual, but part of the draw is the beautiful flowers that bloom this time of year. If it’s open to the public, they’ll do everything they can to make it perfect. I hope they pull it off.”

Meanwhile at this ghost Masters, there are no “Golf Traffic” signs. No ticket broker RVs parked at gas stations. No traffic at all along Berckmans Road, which snakes through the pristine and empty hills usually filled with patrons’ cars as soon as they open for Monday morning’s practice round. Even the azaleas all across town look deflated, past peak color after another mild winter and early spring.

The lone traffic jam anywhere along the normally congested Washington Road corridor was curled around the Krispy Kreme for pickup at the drive-thru, where Phil Mickelson famously rolled up wearing his green jacket the morning after winning his third Masters in 2010. Popular steakhouse TBonz is closed indefinitely. The Hooters, where John Daly always hawks his merchandise from his bus during the Masters, is open for “curb side take out” only, which will really test the theory that some men just go there for the wings.

 
hooters_2739

Photo by Scott Michaux

The Hooters on Washington Road, where John Daly sells merchandise, sits empty on Monday morning of what was supposed to be Masters week.

“Ain’t no Masters,” said Billy Deloach, a Securitas guard sitting alone in his golf cart in the parking lot at nearby Augusta Country Club, shooing folks away from what would normally be one of the busiest and most prominent social hubs during Masters week. “Club is closed.”

Deloach, who’s worked 23 tournaments at Augusta National and attended at least one round of every Masters since 1960, said the universal quiet is surreal. “It don’t seem right,” he said of an April without the Masters. “It’s for the best for everybody’s health. But it’s hard, especially with what the Masters means to everybody in Augusta. Hopefully, we’re all all right and we can do it in November.”

Augusta Municipal Golf Course—a.k.a. The Patch—is closed, along with all Richmond County government facilities. But golfers were pulling clubs out of trunks at nearby Forest Hills, including locals who normally couldn’t afford the escalated green fees during tournament week. “You couldn’t get on a course in Augusta this week unless you had a few dollars,” said Sam Arazie from the Forest Hills parking lot.

Just like the calendar turning without Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, the notion of the Masters not being played in April was heretofore unimaginable.

 
water%20tower

Photo by Scott Michaux

The busiest part of Washington Road during Masters week is near the water tower at the corner of the Augusta National course.

Since 1934, and other than three years of no tournaments during World War II, the first major of the year in men’s golf has been like Easter egg hunts and pastel sundresses—a cheery signpost in America that spring has arrived and the sweet, long days of summer are just around the corner.

“Never in a million years could people fathom there would be no Masters in April,” said Jill Brown, executive director of The First Tee of Augusta for 19 years. “You don’t think that anything can overshadow it. The coronavirus has successfully done that. For the rest of the world, that’s probably not a big deal, but in Augusta, it’s a big deal to us.”

In the sports world, there are only a handful of large-scale events and cities that are so tightly woven together. Indianapolis and the Indy 500. Louisville and the Kentucky Derby. Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series. Yet even those seem to pale when compared to the Masters and its host region.

Sharing the banks of the Savannah River with South Carolina and boasting a population of 197,000, Augusta is the second-largest city in Georgia. Augusta University is a highly regarded medical school and the city’s scientific community is robust. But say Augusta to anyone in the world who’s ever heard of Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, and they’ll respond with a wondrous expression and two words: The Masters.

“On trips or on planes, people will small talk with you,” said Megan Frazier, an auditor for a CPA firm who has lived in Augusta since childhood. “As soon as you say you’re from Augusta, that’s immediately what they go to—the Masters. The first question is, have you been to the tournament? The second question is, can we get them tickets?”

Frazier sheepishly admits she’s not much of a golf fan—college football and Formula One racing are her interests—and during Masters week the 29-year-old is swamped working on people’s taxes while catching snippets of highlights. But since buying her first home in 2016 in a neighbourhood just a few miles from the gates of Augusta National, she has rented to the same group that returns each year. Frazier asks a modest price relative to many, but it pays for home improvements and other expenses, and in that she has much in common with her neighbours.

Havird Usry is facing a double shot to the gut. He is the third-generation owner and operator of three Augusta-area restaurants, including Fatman’s Café, a city institution since the 1940s. Usry also rents out his five-bedroom home in a well-kept neighbourhood in North Augusta.

“I call the Masters my 13th month,” Usry said with a chuckle over the phone last week. Other folks in Augusta have dubbed it “Second Christmas.”

Catering accounts for about 85 percent of Usry’s business, he said, and the demand during the Masters is ravenous. Among his high-end clients for this year are IBM and the PGA Tour.

Not shy, Usry reveals the numbers: His restaurants generate about $3 million per year in revenue. The portion of that harvested from the Masters: as much as $500,000.

“It’s a big week,” Usry added. “If people only knew what went on outside the gates, they’d be amazed. There’s nothing like it.”

Though some restaurants in Augusta said they had to cancel thousands of dollars in food orders, Brad Usry, Havird’s father, said that wasn’t the case for his company. They did, however, pre-order a lot of alcohol that arrived.

“I’ve got a lot of wine if you need any,” Brad offered dryly—25 cases, or about 300 bottles, to be exact.

 
brad%20and%20Havird%20Usry-1

Photo by Joshua Bailey

Brad Usury (left) and son Havird are the owners of three Augusta restaurants and a large catering business that are being affected by the postponement of the Masters.

Like many who rent out their houses, Havird Usry is nervous about that, too. In his neighbourhood, homes fetch anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 for the week. Families have many uses for that cash, from paying college tuition to making further home improvements to be able to charge more for future Masters.

This year, Havird’s wife, who is a dentist, was taking Masters week off to travel with their two young daughters and her mother to Jamaica. Those plans have been nixed. Backyard lounging will have to do.

“It’s bizarre. That’s the best word I can come up with,” Havird said. “We were supposed to be doing our massive spring cleaning this week to get the house ready. My wife was supposed to be getting ready for her trip. My team was supposed to be getting ready.”

Brown, from The First Tee, worries about families that may have already spent deposits that were made on their homes. Even worse, some in those families may have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus.

“That’s really not good,” she said, “it’s scary when you think about it.”

The plight of ticket brokers probably won’t evoke much sympathy, but they, too, are an enormous part of the Augusta financial windfall and are in a very vulnerable spot right now.

To the consternation of "The National," as the club is known in the region, the locals who have badges passed down through generations sell them to brokers, who put them on the market to those who would never otherwise have a chance of attending. By one broker’s estimate, there are 10 large agencies doing business at the Masters, and a handful of them exist in plain sight, occupying homes on Azalea Drive, across the street from ANGC’s front gate.

Two brokers, who spoke on condition that their names or agencies not be identified, said their business has come to a standstill because of the postponement. One broker said he had about 70 percent of his inventory sold before the postponement announcement. Now he has to figure out how to manage those accounts with the November tournament date. He cited the example of a woman who purchased four weekly badges and rented a house for her husband’s 50th birthday. The bill: $58,000.

The broker would prefer the woman use the tickets and accommodations in the fall. Another possibility is putting off the trip until next April. Or a refund?

“It’s probably going to be on a case-by-case basis,” the broker said with some exasperation. “I have to look at it from a business and moral standpoint. I don’t know how I’m going to handle that.”

Both brokers wondered how the demand will change for tickets for a fall Masters, considering the economic downturn caused by the virus and what figures to be a saturated sports calendar.

“This is SEC country,” one broker said. “What if there’s a big football game that weekend? I think if you’re a fan of those teams, you skip the Masters because you know there’s another one coming up in April.”

 
GettyImages-1215775354-1

Photo by Kevin C. Cox

A sign in front of TBonz Augusta on Washington Road.

The business of golf, of course, is a significant part of the Masters. Tee times at local golf clubs are booked months in advance and the rounds can be pricey—as much as $3,000 per foursome, including food and drink.

Chris Verdery, who is coming up on his 23rd Masters as the director of golf at semi-private The River Golf Club in North Augusta, said there is a usually an electric charge in the atmosphere at the course in anticipating a couple hundred people from around the world.

“We host a lot of people who have never been here before, and, typically, they’re really excited,” Verdery said.

As with most Augusta-area public courses, The River has remained opened during the pandemic, adhering to sanitation precautions required by the state government. But in a week that would have been teeming with buzz, the atmosphere was flat.

“You walk outside and nothing’s going on,” Verdery said. “Each season has a different feel to it, and this season always feels like the Masters. It doesn’t right now.”

There was a melancholy tone in his voice that was unmistakable. Weighed down by the struggles of current everyday life—the virus’ threat, social restrictions, working from home, loss of jobs—the people in Augusta have far more to worry about than a golf tournament not being contested. But here, that very reality hits home more than it would almost anywhere else.

They wait and hope that the new November Masters date will promise a return to normalcy, all the while keeping faith in a sporting institution that has been as steadfast and reliable as any they can think of.

“Two things,” Havird Usry, the restaurant owner, said, beginning to make his point. “First, Augusta National cares about this community and its economy and will do everything in its power to make this happen.

“Second, there will be a whole lot of people who come to appreciate what the second week of April means to us.”

TIPS FROM THE TOP

Other stories

NEW