The week of the Masters is the biggest of the year at Ace Package, the fine-wine liquor store 10 miles from Amen Corner. The folks at Ace fill dozens of orders for the groups that rent Augusta's big, expensive houses for the tournament. For one week, anyway, the walk-in business is an endless parade of sun-whipped golf spectators in new Masters wind-breakers. It has been this way at Ace for years, since the bull market began in 1990. This year, however, things were a little off.
"The differences were subtle, but we noticed them," said the owner, Tom Thompson. "A lot of our corporate accounts—IBM, the USGA, Bethlehem Steel, Wake Forest-had smaller orders than in the past. Overall, the buying was less showy, more informed. Last year we sold our entire stock, six bottles, of Opus One at $130 per bottle. This year we ordered seven bottles. We've sold one. People are looking for a better bargain."
For Augustans the week of the Masters is a week to make money. Schools are closed and many businesses too, so that homeowners may rent their houses and skip town or work the tournament and profit from it in some other way. Last year on April 6, the day the 2000 Masters began, the NASDAQ stood at 4,169, not far from its record high, and scalpers and restaurateurs and hotel owners in Augusta were feeling flush. They talked about how Masters week was an economy unto itself, that the high-rolling trip to Augusta had become central to American corporate life and was impervious to economic gyrations. This year on April 5, the day the 2001 Masters began, the NASDAQ had slumped to 1,639, and those same people found out they were wrong.
This was the year to come to Augusta without a ticket—or badge, in Masters parlance—and get into the tournament without ransacking the children's college education fund. This was the year to get a last-minute hotel room at 1996 prices. On Friday morning four rooms were still available at the Days Inn on Washington Road, only a mile from the course, reduced from $240 per night to $190. Most years, the closest available hotel room to Augusta for the Friday night of Masters week is 75 miles away, in Columbia, S.C.
People stayed away because they knew, from experience, that paying for a room is just the beginning. In a typical year their most outrageous expense comes from purchasing Masters badges from the ticket brokers who wander along Washington Road. What the out-of-towners didn't know was that this was the year the bottom fell out of the ticket market. It happened suddenly.
"Normal year, you've got dozens of 'straights,' people willing to spend at least $400 to buy a one-day badge," said a Washington Road scalper, unwilling to give his name because, he said, he was already on probation. A straight refers to a true golf fan—not a person on a corporate boondoggle—who has driven all night to see the tournament and be part of its history. "This year there are none," he said. "None?
Corporate entertainment organizers, who paid brokers as much as $8,000 last year for a ticket for the four competitive rounds, found they could buy that same four-day ticket this year for $2,000. It was a buyer's market. Sellers suffered. One Augustan, a retired Army officer in his 70s, first tried to sell his four-day badge on March 28. He called 20 brokers and was offered $3,200 for the ticket, last year's going rate. He refused the offer. With Tiger Woods trying to make history by winning four consecutive majors, he figured the demand for the ticket would only go up.
The Army officer was not alone: Sellers everywhere were hoarding tickets, waiting for demand to skyrocket. Every day, though, the price kept dropping. On the morning of April 3, a broker offered the officer $1,000 for the ticket. By the time they met that afternoon, the broker's offer had fallen to $500. The Army man held out for $600. They split the difference—$550—for a ticket with a face value of $125.
That basic story, the shrinking market for discretionary cash-based services, was told again and again by different people in different businesses. Brian Beatty owns a company called Augusta Escorts. On the Sunday night before the tournament, he was besieged with calls. "I wasn't expecting it," Beatty said. "I had more calls than girls to go out, so I geared up." Beatty called in some of his reserves from nearby cities. He had as many as 15 women ready, but for the rest of the week, business fell off.
"Usually, people call up ahead of time; they want the girl for 10 p.m. for a party or something," Beatty said. "This year we're getting calls at four, five in the morning, people wanting a girl right away after drinking all night." Money was being spent, but the purchasing was impulsive, not a calculated part of an entertainment budget.