Originally created 04/02/00

Masters week brings change



Devotees of the game of golf are flocking to Augusta.

They are trekking by car, by train, by plane, all on a crusade to enter the gates of golf's sacred ground -- Augusta National Golf Club -- where they can worship at the azaleas of Amen Corner.

They are coming by the thousands for the 64th Masters Tournament, to be held Thursday through Sunday at the fabled course. And outside Augusta National's bamboo walls, the Garden City says it's ready for its patrons.

"We're as ready as we will ever be," Mayor Bob Young said. "We've had years and years and decades and decades of practice at this."

The Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau no longer estimates the number of visitors to Augusta during Masters Week, or the tournament's economic impact on the city, said Peggy Seigler, the bureau's public relations director.

In the past, local boosters had estimated that the tournament brought more than 250,000 people and $100 million into Augusta.

But realistic projections are difficult because tournament officials do not release attendance figures, and Masters badges often are used by multiple people during the event, Ms. Seigler said.

Visitors might find it easier this year to locate a place to stay, Ms. Seigler said. As late as last week, single rooms were available in some area hotels, she said.

"It's one night here and there," Ms. Seigler said.

Three new hotels, with a total of 237 rooms, have opened in the city since last year's tournament, Ms. Seigler said, continuing a hotel boom in recent years. Since 1997, 10 new hotels have opened in Richmond and Columbia counties, bringing the total number of rooms to 5,598.

"It's getting to the point where we're not completely saturated," Ms. Seigler said. "We can accommodate everybody."

Restaurateurs hope to say the same. Many local eateries are preparing for an onslaught of out-of-towners looking for good meals and cold drinks.

"I'm losing a lot of sleep, laying awake at night," joked Brett Fraser, managing partner of Carrabba's Italian Grill off Washington Road, as he described his Masters preparations.

The restaurant opened in December, and this year's tournament will be Mr. Fraser's first. But native Augustans have told him what to expect, he said.

In ordering food for the Masters, the establishment assumed a one-week sales increase of 40 percent to 50 percent, Mr. Fraser said. The restaurant also will open its patio, for 50 additional seats, and extend its operating hours.

The place will close only after "the last table is served," Mr. Fraser said.

"We're going to be busy like we normally are, just for a longer period of time," he said.

As hotels and eateries prepare for business, Jim Huffstetler is figuring out how to get those prospective customers around town.

Road crews erected the last directional signs late last week, said Mr. Huffstetler, the county's traffic engineer. Workers placed signs along every possible route to and from Augusta National, so that visitors can find routes between the course and Interstate 20, Mr. Huffstetler said.

To keep traffic moving, the state Department of Transportation will deploy its "Intelligent Transportation System," Mr. Huffstetler said.

Using fixed cameras at key interchanges, and the view from a Georgia State Patrol helicopter, traffic engineers can alter the flow of traffic to prevent bottlenecks within minutes, Mr. Huffstetler said.

The volume of Masters traffic is not the problem, the engineer said. But heavy traffic near the course -- especially along Washington Road -- alters regular traffic patterns, making for heavier driving on thoroughfares such as River Watch Parkway, Wheeler Road and Walton Way, Mr. Huffstetler said.

"If you just look at the numbers, you don't see that great of a difference," he said. "What you do see is a modification of traffic.

"Generally, traffic is predictable, but the Masters occurs and everyone adjusts their traffic patterns. That throws a kink into the rest of the city."

Locals know about the traffic and adjust their driving habits accordingly, Mr. Huffstetler said, or they just leave town altogether. Many residents will take vacations this week, or sentence themselves to voluntary house arrest.

Those folks can get as close to the gallery as modern technology will allow. CBS will broadcast this year's tournament in high-definition television, a new broadcasting standard that offers twice the clarity of conventional television and CD-quality sound.

It promises to allow viewers almost to smell the azaleas, and it can be yours -- for the price of a high-definition compatible set.

Augusta's CBS affiliate, WRDW-TV, made a pricey investment itself to prepare for the tournament.

The station spent about $4 million upgrading its equipment for high-definition TV; another $4 million will be spent before the conversion is completed, said John Ray, WRDW's president and general manager.

The station's high-definition signal will appear on Channel 31, Mr. Ray said.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.