Jolee Edmondson is a Savannah-based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Smithsonian, among other publications.
Augusta National has gobbled up about 100 acres outside its storied gates. What’s the plan? A spokesperson for the famously secretive club will only say that off-campus property “supports tournament operations.”
Herman and Elizabeth Thacker won’t budge. Longtime residents of Augusta, Georgia, the elderly couple keep saying “no” to the most powerful entity in town: Augusta National Golf Club, the iconic venue of golf’s most prestigious event, the Masters.
“Money ain’t everything,” Herman has often said when asked why he refuses to sell his modest, memory-filled house to Augusta National despite staggeringly generous offers. In a neighborhood that’s been bought and bulldozed by the club to create free Masters parking, Thacker is a hold-out. The first week of every April he now looks out at a field packed with upwards of 8,500 vehicles.
The world’s wealthiest, most exclusive golf club is reshaping the urban landscape around its flawless fairways. Since 1999, Augusta National has spent an estimated $55 million acquiring and demolishing peripheral property. It has also invested in the rerouting and widening of Berckmans Road, a public street that skirted the golf course—-all the better to accommodate Masters traffic and expand the club’s footprint. To expedite completion of the city-initiated project, the club gave Augusta a $17 million, interest-free loan, which will eventually be repaid via a 1 percent sales tax appropriated for transportation projects.
In all, Augusta National has gobbled up about 100 acres outside its storied gates, with Washington Road—the busy commercial thoroughfare that abuts the club—particularly impacted. Most of the small businesses and homeowners who have sold their property gladly relocated after pocketing an undreamed-of profit. To clinch real estate deals, the club has paid at least 150 percent of assessed property value. A Pep Boys auto shop, for example, fetched a jaw- dropping $7 million.
Rumors swirl around Augusta National’s buying spree. The latest buzz has the club eyeing two shopping centers. What’s the plan? A spokesperson for the famously secretive club will only say that off-campus property “supports tournament operations.” The creation of outlying Masters parking has clearly been a primary objective. Among the bought and leveled properties now serving as parking tracts: a 456-unit apartment complex, a Goodyear Tire, a music store, and a TGI Fridays. With the club’s beefed up free parking, the lucrative tradition of homeowners renting out their yards as car parks during Masters week are history.
Beautification of its environs also appears to be a top priority. The club has dramatically spruced up once blighted Washington Road, implementing a landscape that complements its immaculate grounds. New parking areas remain unpaved, instead being maintained as green spaces, which have been planted with mature pine trees and lush flora. Some speculate that the club intends to further isolate itself from a county whose mean household income is $37,424 by extending its boundaries and developing a self-contained enclave with high-end lodging, shops and restaurants, conceivably taking a lot of business away from the city during the Masters. To that hypothetical end, Augusta National has spent in excess of $13 million building additional on-site guest cabins and corporate entertainment facilities, including Berckmans Place, a posh, 90,000-square-foot VIP hospitality pavilion with five gourmet restaurants—-built on land acquired with the rerouting of Berckmans Road.
Native Augustan Austin Rhodes, a prominent local talk show host and writer privy to the Augusta National grapevine, says “there’s talk among the members of building a Masters museum that would be a year ‘round attraction near the club but wouldn’t provide access to the club.” According to Rob Sherman, deputy director of Augusta-Richmond County Planning & Development, the club hasn’t recently applied for any building permits. Asked if he’s aware of its ultimate vision for Washington Road, he says, “Nope. Only they know. Whatever they do is always nice, beyond expectations.”
It’s been suggested that the club should feel obligated to inform the public about its plans for its multiple properties along a major roadway. Sherman disagrees: “They’re a private club. Private property is private property. It’s their business.”
A leading Augusta realtor, who asked to remain anonymous, says, “The club usually doesn’t make their plans known in advance. They just do it.”
Whatever Augusta National’s plan, some folks don’t look kindly on its secretiveness and extraordinary influence. When the realignment of Berckmans Road was started in May 2015, a number of residents in neighborhoods that would be affected by the 2-year construction project claimed they’d been left in the dark. According to homeowner Benjamin Isaac, there was no notification from the city. “It seems a lot of people involved with Augusta National and its property do a lot of stuff behind our backs,” he told local newspaper, Metro Spirit. “It’s almost like we have to go out and seek the information.”
Mechone Williams, a neighbor of Isaac’s, concurred. “We are like David and they are Goliath,” she said, referring to Augusta National. “We are making so many provisions for visitors who are only here in our city for seven to 10 days at the most for the Masters. We live in Augusta 51 weeks a year.” An anonymous letter sent to Metro Spirit protested that “the project was conceived and driven by the powers that be at Augusta National to propel its own selfish objectives.” The city did post a brief explanatory synopsis of the road project on its website.
While the new Berckmans Road is an undeniable improvement for the city, it was obviously designed with the Masters in mind, when some 40,000 spectators stream to the golf course from parking areas. More of a sleek parkway than a road, it has pedestrian underpasses with stonework walls (accessible only during the Masters), a multi-use trail on one side, state-of-the-art lighting, broad sidewalks running its length, and impeccable landscaping maintained by Augusta National. The club owns the land on both sides.
In a town that would be just another nondescript Southern burg if not for the larger-than-life mystique of the Masters, Augusta National has an Oz-like aura. It’s an image reinforced by an impenetrable seclusion. The club is part of the city of Augusta, yet separate—a realm unto itself. Few Augustans have set foot on its hallowed turf, catching only a fleeting glimpse through a wall of dense vegetation as they drive by. It’s ironic that the city on the outside looking in funded the first Masters in 1934, agreeing to give the then-financially strapped Augusta National $10,000 to launch its tournament.
In the end, any resentment toward the club’s extreme privacy and seeming dominion over Augusta pales next to gratitude for its contributions. While other cities fiercely vie for high-profile sports events, Augusta has pro golf’s only permanent venue for a major tournament right in its own backyard. Observes Rhodes, “The club gives us the equivalent of the Super Bowl every year.”
Indeed, for one week every year the Masters focuses the international spotlight on this laid back city straddling the Georgia-South Carolina border, infusing the local economy with millions of dollars, thousands of jobs (4,000 at the tournament alone), and more than $3 million in charitable donations.
“They’re Santa Claus with a checkbook,” quips Rhodes.