Life is a hangout. If you don't I have one, you're lost." My mentor, Frank Chirkinian, swirled the ice cubes in his Scotch and water and let me ponder his words. I was the student, he was the teacher, and we were embarked on a tutorial that I hope someday to develop into a book called Tuesdays with Frank. He sat on a bar stool with a window view of the Winn-Dixie parking lot. I sat on the other side of a tall cocktail table, my left elbow on the sill of an ice table filled with gray oysters, pink shrimp and bright red crayfish.
I knew that Frank was testing me. "When you say, 'If you don't have one,' "—I lifted my gaze to the ceiling fans, spinning listlessly over the crowded dining room—"do you mean a hangout? Or a life?"
Frank didn't seem to hear the question. His eyes tracked a couple crossing the parking lot, a couple I recognized as CBS golf analyst and former Ryder Cupper Peter Oosterhuis and his wife, Anne.
"Nobody really parties anymore," Frank said over the din of the bar patrons. "Those days are gone."
By nobody Frank apparently meant no Tour players, media folk and celebrities—the colorful characters he chronicled for 38 years as producer of the Masters telecast on CBS. But on this Masters Tuesday, the French Market Grill (West) had its share of golf people, including former U.S. Open champ and CBS analyst Ken Venturi, seated with friends near the bar, and three-time Masters runner-up Greg Norman, trying to be inconspicuous in a corner booth. Joe Phillips, an accomplished saxophone player and longtime Tour rep for Wilson Sporting Goods, stopped by to tell Frank that Gene Sarazen's daughter was at a table. Frank said, "Joe, my man!"
I asked Frank if he behaved like a host when he was at the restaurant, which he co-owns with retired businessman Carl Swan-son and restaurateur Chuck Baldwin, owner of the long-established French Market Grill on Berkman's Road, near Augusta National. "Like a host?" He looked almost as perplexed as he did in the movie Tin Cup, in which he played a television producer.
"Yeah," I said. "Greeting people at the door, going from table to table." Frank shook his leonine head and said, "I don't greet or mix with any of them." He then hurried off to welcome some friends who had just come in.
I didn't tell Frank the whole truth: that I had already decided to make his restaurant my Masters hangout, the place where print acolytes and other media chums will find me when I'm not hammering out stories on my old, battered laptop. I already had rejected several notable Augusta nightspots: the pricey Calvert's because it has white linen tablecloths; the Red Lion Pub because the music is too loud for conversation; Hooters because—well, I hadn't actually ruled out Hooters. The Partridge Inn and the Surrey Tavern, of course, are too closely identified with writer Dan Jenkins and the late golfer-TV commentator Dave Marr, who swapped stories and bar tabs in them for years.
Some of my colleagues made recommendations that were borderline facetious. Joe Posnanski, the columnist for my hometown Kansas City Star, mentioned the Sports Center, a downtown joint once favored by the staff of The Augusta Chronicle. "It's a biker-type place. A lot of tattoos," he said, "but really good hamburgers." Bill Lyon, sports columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, waxed nostalgic over an old road-house called the Rub It In Again Inn, where the sign outside once advertised AMATEUR JELL-0 WRESTLING ON THURSDAY NIGHTS. Back at the French Market Grill, Chirkinian made a distinction between the hangouts themselves—many of which were still around—and the characters who did the hanging out. "The kind of people who frequented those places are no longer with us," he said. "It was a harder-drinking group. They were iconoclastic, not trying to impress anybody. People today are more concerned with their images."
I wasn't sure that image consciousness explained the change, but I couldn't deny the change itself. My own reputation as a bon vivant suffers because I don't drink, smoke, cuss, dance or eat mayonnaise, onions or cooked tomatoes. I am not unlike most younger journalists—I'm 52—who drink tea, call home every night and wash their own shirts in the hotel's coin laundry. Lyon, who is 61, expressed my misgivings about this trend when he asked, "Where are the future reprobates coming from?" Frank, whose eyes never quit scanning the room, suddenly stiffened. A TV camera crew led by a nicely coiffed young woman with a microphone had come in through the canopied entrance, "What's that? What's that?" He turned to me. "That's scary. We're always in bars with people we shouldn't be with." At Frank's insistence an employee hustled over to question the intruders and came back with the sobering news that they were from Channel 12—a CBS affiliate.