In Augusta last week there were economic theorists sitting on bar stools and standing on street corners. The scalpers theorized the corporate entertainment budgets were slashed and that was what killed the ticket market. There was talk of FORTUNE 500 companies canceling their housing contracts or paying for rental houses but not using them. The theory behind the talk was that high-flying executives didn't want to be associated with lavish entertainment at a time when many companies were announcing layoffs, budget reductions and diminished earnings. At least one real estate broker who specializes in Masters week rentals confirmed that theory. Alfred Monsalvatge, a partner at Travel Masters Sports and Entertainment Group, said he knew of at least 10 houses that were rented but never used. "The market adjusted to reality," he said.
Most of the economic changes from last year were not dramatic, just telling. The changes suggested that a decade-long party is over. That's what William Murrell believes. He is the owner of an Augusta limousine service and the personal driver for Augustan James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. On Friday night, just before driving the singer to Augusta mayor Bob Young's annual Masters reception, Murrell compared this year's business with last year's. "Last year, people were having fun" he said. "They'd fly into Augusta and get picked up in our 10-passenger super stretch. This year they're flying into Atlanta, renting a car and making the drive. Last year one of my drivers picked up a guy at one of the big houses at West Lake," Murrell said, referring to a pricey housing development on the outskirts of Augusta. "Picked up the client and his date at 10 p.m. and brought them to a downtown club. The client had his driver wait and bring them home five hours later. That's five hours at $100 an hour, and the guy put a $400 tip on that. This year, the tips are $5, $10. Some drivers are complaining."
Still, life went on. The mayor had his reception. By Friday night the Days Inn was full, as it always is on the Friday night of Masters week. On Sunday morning, there were straights near the gates of Augusta National, ready to spend hundreds for badges.
What next year will bring, no one can say. One man was taking a broader view. "We have found in recent times that there is a thin line between prosperity and poverty," said the Reverend Gregory Young of Thankful Baptist Church in Augusta. "But people will always chase the almighty dollar."
On Sunday morning he addressed his parishioners a few hours before Woods teed off. "The Masters lasts but one week," Young said, "but if you have faith in the Master, you'll be set for life!" As the preacher looked out at the pews of his church, he saw that attendance was low, maybe 160 people, half the crowd he normally preaches to on a Sunday. Many congregants were working at the tournament or in private homes, making extra cash as housekeepers, as waiters, as drivers. Young's words soared, but his numbers were down. He was not alone.