LITCHFIELD, S.C. — Our route to South Carolina took us through Augusta, Ga., scene of this weeks’ Masters golf tournament and probably the greatest financial bonanza of all the country’s sports events. Signs are up all over the place directing “golf traffic,” and to say they’re needed is like saying the Masters is just another tournament.
Fans flock in and they spend great wads of money. Corporations pay up to $15,000 to rent a house for a week while the owners leave town, and there are about 2,000 such homes available. Hotel rooms that go for $70 on the average jump to $300 and more during the tournament week.
The visitors like to play golf as well as watch it, and local courses other than Augusta National, where the Masters is played, welcome them, sort of. Greens fees that normally are in the $30 to $50 range soar to as much as $500 per round, and tee times are hard to get.
Restaurants put away their regular menus and use special Masters menus that have fewer items and Paris prices. Souvenir prices are out of sight, but few leave without some of them.
The Augusta convention bureau says that during this week there will be 10,400 visitors in the city’s hotels and motels, another 8,000 in private homes, and about 25,000 driving into town each day. They will pump $109 million into the Augusta economy.
We drove on east through Augusta and spent the night in Aiken, S.C. and when we checked out last Saturday morning four young men from Dallas were checking in for Masters week. They had driven straight through, and this was the closest motel they found with rooms available.
What Augusta should do with some of the money it rakes in from the tournament is erect a monument to Jack Nicklaus. Better than any other pro golfer, he represents the game and the tradition that makes the Masters the great event it is. He has won it six times, with his latest victory coming in 1986 at the remarkable age of 46.
When he first came to Augusta, Nicklaus was the fat kid with the crew cut who was threatening to knock off America’s hero, Arnold Palmer. “Arnie’s Army” resented Nicklaus, even to the point of applauding when he made a poor shot. This offended golf immortal Bobby Jones to the point that he wrote a short commentary on links conduct that still appears on the back of Masters tickets.
Nicklaus endured and became the greatest player in the history of the game, as well as one of the most admired figures in sports.
The cost of sleeping and eating is much more reasonable here in South Carolina, but the golf is anything but masterly. Wendy Herman of Wichita and I are here for a family-style golf holiday, and everyone is staying at the big beach house of son Steve’s in-laws, Jim and Becky Allison, of Charlotte, N.C. The price is right: zero.
However, there is a great amount of controversy here on two oft-discussed subjects, golf and whiskey. First, golf. As this is being written, we have played two days in a row and are waiting for our tee time this afternoon.
The problem is, Steve reserved the tee times a week ago by phone, and paid for all of us by credit card. The fees are non-refundable, and he says we owe him whether we play or don’t play. But get this: The fee is $109 apiece. That’s $109 each.
I’m having rapid heart palpitations just thinking about it. There will be a full report on the round, and the temporary insanity that led to it, in a future column. That is, if I survive.
The whiskey controversy centers on the fact South Carolina is the only state with a law saying that all booze must be served in miniature bottles, rather than being poured from large bottles. Now there is a bill in the General Assembly to do away with the minis.
Those favoring the bill include Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Their main point is that the minis contain 1.7 ounces of booze, which is more than the average bartender will pour in a drink. The proponents say the new law would result in less alcohol being consumed.
Restaurants and bars favor it because it would allow them to serve less alcohol, but for the same amount of money.
Opponents worry that the state might have trouble collecting taxes on drinks served, and that free-pouring might somehow lead to more drunks. They contend the state is right on the issue, and the rest of the world is wrong.
Before mini-bottles, South Carolina was a brown-bag state. The only legal liquor had to be bought at a state-owned store. Then you could take it to a restaurant and the law looked the other way while the establishment sold you a glass of mixer and ice for $3 and you poured your own.
South Carolina, incidentally, is represented in the U.S. Senate by Strom Thurmond, who is 95 and says, “I hope I feel better than I look.”