They come from all over the world. Passionate patrons absorb spring in Augusta as they wander about one of the greatest venues in sports. They get an up-close glimpse of tour tempo, hear the sound of pure contact, combined with a little sun on the back of their necks and legs, and they're overcome with the undeniable urge to tee it up.
Which explains the frequency of the tweet: "Where should we play while we're in town for the Masters?"
Here's a sampling of six golf options and four restaurants.
I'll start with the golf, in order of preference.
Palmetto Golf Club (1892) Aiken, S.C.
Distance from Augusta National: 22.5 miles
Masters week green fees: $225 per player includes cart, range and lunch.
There aren't a lot of courses in the country with established dates in the 1800s. And adding to the prestige is the fact that Alister Mackenzie's crew, after finishing up at Augusta National, came up to Aiken to help convert Palmetto from a sand course to a grass course. Both Tom Doak and Gil Hanse have been involved in some tweaks and restorations, but no one has touched the spike-riddled wooden benches in the locker room.
And there's nothing like a wall of names that includes the likes of Nelson and Hogan, who would spend two weeks at Palmetto prepping for the Masters. Hogan felt nos. 3-through-5 are among the best three-hole stretches of par 4s in golf. For 51 weeks a year, Palmetto is private, but for the week of the tournament, they open their tee sheet to the public. Pay $225 per player and Head Professional Brooks Blackburn and his staff will make you feel like a member for a day. The price includes golf, cart and lunch, but it's hard to quantify the value of access to Palmetto's memorabilia room or the nostalgia and charm that drips from the dark wood in the old pro shop.
In eight days of opening their gates to the public, Palmetto membership will raise close to $200,000, which goes right back into the maintenance of the course and facility. There are other good private courses in the area that allow some outside play the week of the Masters. Sage Valley and Augusta Country Club are two courses that get a lot of attention and mentions, but their tee sheets are filled with friends of members or corporate outings. In that sense, Palmetto is much more accessible, affordable and might be the best course of the bunch.
Aiken Golf Club (1912), Aiken, S.C.
Distance from Augusta National: 23.5 miles
Masters week green fees: $100 per player includes cart and tee prize.
With links to the Tufts family, who owned Pinehurst, this is another course with an abundance of charm and nostalgia. Laying claim to being the first course with a set of "ladies tees," you'll be following in the footsteps of Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg. And locals say the current owner, Jim McNair, has brought the game's Scottish roots back to the prideful club that more than welcomes the influx of retail golfers the week of the Masters. The course is tight, short and fun. And after the round, I suggest a cold beer, a "blue burger" and a view of the first tee and 18th green.
Forest Hills Golf Club (1926), Augusta, Ga.
Distance from Augusta National: 4.4 miles
Masters week green fees: $140 ($55 Monday after Masters). Includes cart, range and lunch.
The home course of Augusta State (aka Georgia Regents), as well as the scrappy little Aquinas High School, I'm a big fan of Forest Hills. A Donald Ross design, later modified by Arnold Palmer, it gets some criticism for extreme greens, but I still like the routing and the setting. On any given day there's a healthy mix of ages and genders, walkers and riders, combing the rolling fairways of Forest Hills. There's a grass range and they serve a tasty 8-ounce burger in the renovated clubhouse. On the weekend before the Masters, the men's team at Augusta State hosts the 3M Augusta Invitational, which is made up of 15 of the best teams in the country. This year's individual winner was Georgia's Lee McCoy, who shot a final-round 64. The team title went to New Mexico, who beat Illinois by three shots. On Monday of Masters week, every team and coach received a ticket to watch practice rounds. (So, everyone gets a trophy.)
Champions Retreat Golf Club (2005), Evans, Ga.
Distance from Augusta National: 13 miles
Masters week green fees: $1,900 per foursome, which includes cart and all you can eat, all you can drink.
"We don't take the word 'retreat' lightly," says Davis Sezna, managing partner of Heritage Golf Group. "We feel fortunate to steward what we consider one of the most distinctive clubs in America."
What's distinctive about Champions Retreat is that it's the only architectural collaboration that includes The Big Three. Jack Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player all designed nine holes at this upscale private club that, during Masters week, opens its doors to the public. "We make sure you leave feeling like a member for a day," Sezna said. And might I suggest showing up hungry and thirsty. It's the only deal in town that includes all you can eat and drink, so if there's perceived value, it's because you've earned it.
The River Golf Club (1998), North Augusta, S.C.
Distance from Augusta National: 6.6 miles
Masters week green fees: $1,100 per foursome. Includes cart, range, breakfast and lunch.
Tom Fazio has done a lot of work in and around town, including building Sage Valley and almost all of the renovations to Augusta National, but his brother Jim built The River Golf Club, which is one of the most convenient and popular options the week of the Masters. It's also one of the most expensive. At $1,100 per foursome, it's still tough to get a tee time at the River Club, which has the look of a coastal course and is flat enough to be a good walk. They also have three golf cottages (each sleep eight), which makes it a potential staging ground for a buddies trip to Augusta any time other than the week of the Masters, which is when green fees are usually $65 during the week and $75 on weekends.
Jones Creek (1986), Jones Creek, Ga.
Distance from Augusta National: 6.5 miles
Masters week green fees: $900 per foursome. Includes cart, range, tee prize, breakfast and lunch.
Jones Creek is an upscale community within 10 miles of Augusta National. Built around a golf course designed by Rees Jones, a lot of the houses in the neighborhood are rented out for the week of the Masters, making Jones Creek a popular course for golf before or after a day of watching the too-na-ment. The routing is tight and can play long, so I encourage first-timers to move up a set of tees if they want to have fun. Last year, like most courses in the area, the conditioning had suffered the effects of a harsh winter. This year, the course is back to form.
Also worth noting is Jones Creek's expensive learning center. There are four PGA Professionals available for lessons, club fittings and club repair. Former LPGA star Laura Baugh joined the team of teachers six months ago. Although she'll be around Masters week, she probably won't be teaching many lessons.
Augusta restaurants: Where to eat during the Masters
The week of the Masters, the only things more crowded than the tee sheets, Washington Road and trunks full of merchandise are Augusta's restaurants. Almost none of them take reservations, so expect considerable waits for a table.
A lot of locals like Luigi's, and so does Ben Crenshaw, who brings in a big group every year. From the hospitality of the Ballas family to the vintage jukebox, you'll feel like you've crashed a reunion. I recommend the Greek chicken with an extra order of sauce.
The Frog Hollow Tavern is the best fine dining in Augusta and is one of the few restaurants that take reservations during Masters week. Unfortunately if you get one, it might not be until next year.
There are two French Market Grilles near Augusta National. One is near Jones Creek and the other is closer to Forest Hills, which is the one I prefer. Owner Chuck Baldwin just celebrated his 30th anniversary of serving some spicy Cajun cuisine and my new favorite desert: peanut butter pie.
Patricia Sheehan Beck is the granddaughter of Jerome Franklin, who was member no. 3 at Augusta National. Franklin was a close friend of co-founder Clifford Roberts, and now his granddaughter and her husband, John Beck, own Sheehan's Irish Pub and Restaurant, which has a creole bias. Just a few miles from the course, and with 200 outside seats, it's especially popular when the weather cooperates.