Tradition stymied: A year unlike any since WWII for Augusta

A 2009 photograph of the Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia. Credit: CNN

The Masters is so intertwined with Augusta, they added an extra day to spring break.

You see, the first full week of April isn’t just a blip in time for this place.

It’s their identity, their way of life, their cart path to success.

A restaurant or bar can take a huge step toward profitability off the business it generates in a single week. An ahead-of-its-time industry sprung out of the locals renting their homes to strangers to accommodate the influx of fans, sponsors and media. From ticket brokers to impromptu parking-lot attendants, it seems everyone in the east Georgia city of 200,000 has figured out a way to make a buck off the first major golf championship of the year.

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But the Masters is more than just commerce. Relationships are made out on the course, over a pimento cheese sandwich perhaps. Or afterward, over a late-night bourbon and cigar. Then, the whole cycle repeats itself, year after year, decade after decade.

In some ways, it has the feel of a family reunion.

“We obviously do a lot of business that week,” said Mark Cumins, who 35 years ago co-founded one of the city’s most famous restaurants, TBonz steakhouse, right down the road from Augusta National Golf Club. “But it’s not just the money. People have been coming for a long time. We like ’em. Even though it’s a busy, busy, busy week, it’s a good time. That’s what makes the Masters special.”

Of course, this tradition unlike any other is on hold at the moment. The coronavirus pandemic has killed thousands, forced nearly everyone to hunker down in their homes, and shut down sporting events around the world. In upcoming weeks, The Associated Press will look at how the cancellation or postponement of iconic sporting events impacts cities and communities.

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For the first since a three-year hiatus during World War II, the Masters won’t be held in its usual slot on the calendar, serving as sort of an unofficial kickoff to spring.

The tournament is now set for November, when all those booming drives and tricky putts will be accompanied by the changing leaves of fall rather than azaleas blazing forth in all their colorful glory, the hope of spring replaced by the gloom of an approaching winter.

Everyone wonders what an autumn Masters will look like, what the world will look like in seven months.

“We don’t what the know rules will be,” Cumins said. “Are people even going to want to go out to crowded places?”

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Until now, Masters week always coincided with spring break for Augusta’s schools, largely to accommodate another tradition that predates the Airbnb era. Many locals clear out of their homes for the week, heading off on vacation and freeing up space for all those visitors who couldn’t possibly be handled by the city’s limited hotel space.

Even that comes with an extra Augusta touch.

Since the tournament doesn’t end until early Sunday evening, and most of those renters need to stay on until the next morning, the schools tacked on an extra day to the week-long break. The kids don’t have to resume classes until the Tuesday after the Masters.

“Of my friends, I would say probably 80 to 90 percent rent out their homes, and have been for years,” said Suzi Hall, whose two-story home is just a few miles from the course. “It’s a huge industry.”

For at least 15 years, Hall and her husband have rented their five-bedroom house to a contingent of AP reporters and editors covering the Masters.

Their two daughters were little girls when that tradition began.

Now, one is married, the other just completed graduate school.

Washington Road is usually the epicenter for Masters week, a hodgepodge of sprawling strip malls, fast-food joints and, of course, John Daly, who sets up his camper in the Hooters parking lot to sign autographs, pose for pictures and sell all sorts of kitschy merchandise.

This week, the parking lot is empty other than barriers adorned with hastily drawn signs, showing customers where they can pick up to-go orders.

The hoopla of the Masters stretches beyond Washington Road. A few miles away, the French Market Grille would normally be in the midst of doling out spicy Cajun cuisine to packed houses. Instead, owner Walter Clay has been making dinners for laid-off employees who need all the help they can get.

“During the Masters, we do a month’s worth of business,” said Clay, who also owns another popular restaurant, Raes Coastal Cafe. “Then we do another month’s worth over the next three weeks. That’s nice. It’s like running a business with 12 months of expenses but 13 months of revenue.”

The Masters has a trickle-down effect on the entire Augusta economy.

For instance, all those homes that are rented out require extra cleaning services during the week. Those jobs aren’t needed at the moment, of course. That’s a financial blow to some who can least absorb it.

“This is a game changer for a lot of people,” Hall said.

Indeed, this is a city that marks time by its signature event.

How many days until the Masters?

Then, as soon as it’s over, they start counting down again.

Now, all they can do is wait.