It was 1999. My wife and I went out to eat at some restaurant at Augusta Exchange, and as we were getting out of our car another couple in a stylish SUV was disembarking next to us. They were fussing over their young son, about a year old, in his car seat.
The kid could’ve had his choice of any toy, but what was clutched in his chubby little hands? A little plastic golf club and an oversized plastic golf ball. In Augusta they start ’em early.
WHEN WE BOUGHT our house in 2000, we discovered a set of golf clubs in the crawl space under the stairs. My wife thought they belonged to a previous owner. I assumed that every new homeowner in the Augusta area automatically gets a free set of clubs, based solely on choosing to settle here.
See, I don’t play golf. I’m the only person in Augusta who doesn’t. Ask around. Never teed up a ball. Never swung an iron. The closest I’ve come to playing golf is owning ugly pairs of pants.
Still, it fascinates me to see how golf has intertwined with Augusta’s growth. Most people think the city’s love affair with golf started with Bobby Jones and the Masters Tournament, and that’s true mostly. But golf really took hold first when Augusta emerged as a popular winter resort near the end of the 19th century.
If you’re visiting Augusta and you’re familiar enough with Walton Way to know where the Partridge Inn is at – right at that big curve in the road – you’ve probably also seen what used to be the giant Bon Air Hotel. It’s a big Spanish Revival edifice, rebuilt after a fire in the 1920s. The original Bon Air, built in 1889, was very airy and Victorian, and a few years after its construction the owners decided to build a nine-hole golf course.
That’s when golf started taking off in Augusta.
A feature story on the Bon Air ran in the Jan. 30, 1898 edition of The Augusta Chronicle. The writer said the fad of bicycling was losing interest because “golf requires all the energy that can be devoted to outdoor sport.
“So far, this latest favor in the field of fashionable fancy has struck the South very lightly, if at all,” the article said. “In fact, the only reason why it is known at all is due to Northern enthusiasts. To them a season without golf is what a barbecue without meat is to a Southerner, and we all know what that is.”
THEN THE WRITER made a bold prediction – that golf might get so popular in Augusta that the city could someday play host to (imagine this) a nationally recognized golf tournament. Sound familiar?
Remember, this idea was floated in 1898:
“As yet, few Augustans have displayed any interest in this game, though it is thought the rage for this sport will be felt as intensely here as it is in the Northern cities. To give an added impetus to the votaries of the game, it is very probable that at a near future day a contest will be arranged, and a trophy cup presented to the best team. This will be an event looked forward to, not only by those taking part, but it will excite a degree of interest throughout the country where the popularity of the game is recognized.”
That happened, all right. It just happened several blocks north at a newer venue – the Augusta National Golf Club.
And the Bon Air? Today, it’s federally subsidized housing, and its grandeur exists only in people’s memories.
Dan Jenkins, the legendary sportswriter, wrote a column for Sports Illustrated in April 1964 about Augusta and what it’s like to spend a week here during the Masters. At the time he had covered the Masters a mere 13 times (this year marks his 63rd time). He wrote then: “Speak to me now of a Masters, and while you envision deep-green pines, luscious fairways and Bobby Jones, I envision – to pick a starting point – the Bon Air Hotel.”
HE THEN DRAWS the reader, as only Jenkins can, squarely into the middle of the quirkiness and shabbiness and unapologetic Southern-ness of a once-grand place to stay. The Bon Air has a million fascinating stories, and in his 1964 piece Jenkins tells a few of the best. The column is out there on the Internet – it’s called “Augusta: Where Georgia Retaliates For Sherman’s March” – and nearly 40 years later it’s still a hilarious read.
So on your way out of town this year, take a ride down Walton Way, to that curve on the road, and get a glimpse of where Augusta golf began.