The Pilgrims on a golfing hajj arrive about once a week. They stand on the patio, look out at the course and match the fairways unfolding before them with the ones in the scrapbook in their mind. Perhaps here's where Jack donned the green jacket. There's where Tiger delivered a celebratory uppercut. When Tommy Brannen, the club pro, sees unescorted visitors with a dreamy look in their eyes, he'll send someone to gently interrupt their reverie and inform them that they're not at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. They're at Augusta Country Club.
The Washington Road entrance to Augusta National is marked by a small sign and a guardhouse. The country club entrance, which is slightly more than a mile away, on Milledge Road, "is wide open," Brannen says. There are other differences. Augusta National, laid out on an abandoned indigo nursery, is internationally known for its floral palette. Augusta Country Club, laid out on farmland, has relatively few azaleas and dogwoods. "High maintenance, a pain in the butt," says general manager Henry Marburger. "That's show stuff." On the first Sunday of this spring, the country club held a tournament for mixed twosomes. "Talk about a contrast," Marburger says. "We have a mixed event. That isn't going to happen over there." The country club has 1,325 members ( Augusta National: who knows?), nine tennis courts (none), a swimming pool (no) and a little-known gem of a golf course. The course only recently reopened after having undergone a $1.9 million restoration by architect Brian Silva, who used as his guide the plans that Donald Ross hand drew when he supervised the course's transition from sand greens to grass ones in 1927. None of that matters much because Augusta Country Club sits in the shadow of the Mecca of American golf. About all most fans know about Augusta Country Club are the slivers of the 9th hole that they see when CBS trains its cameras on the 12th green at Augusta National. "The two clubs are close, and the country club is always in great shape, but there's only one Augusta National," says Tour pro Charles Howell, an Augusta native. "If I had to sum it up, I'd say there's a little bit of a friendly rivalry between the two clubs."
Azaleas or no azaleas, there's plenty of cross-pollination between the clubs—right down to the pro shops occasionally receiving each other's merchandise by accident. People at the country club usually refer to their neighbor as "the National" or "the folks across the creek," meaning Rae's Creek, the spindly body of water in which so many dreams of Masters victory have been interred. When Rae's Creek disappears into the woods near the National's 13th tee, it remains a hidden boundary between the clubs for a couple of hundred yards until it reemerges in front of the country club's 8th green. The actual property line between the clubs has shifted over the years. Two decades ago, when the country club wanted to lengthen number 8, a par-5, it purchased the land it needed on the north side of the creek from the National. Last year the country club returned the favor. When the National decided to lengthen number 13 by 25 yards, it bought almost an acre of land behind the 13th tee from the country club.
Because secrecy covers the National's business like dew covers the azaleas, details of the transaction weren't announced. Out of respect—and perhaps because they have to live next door—officials at Augusta Country Club were silent, too. When asked about the sale last week, Marburger at first wouldn't even admit that there had been a transfer of property. "Allegedly," he said. "We're not going to confirm or deny." After a moment he added, "They do have land that we had. Let's say that." In recent months rumors had filled the information gap, and soon it was reported that the National had paid the country club $500,000 for the land. Not even Augusta National, though, can conduct a real estate transaction without recording the deed at the Richmond County Courthouse, and when SI inspected the records two weeks ago, they showed that National had paid its neighbor only $23,000, pretty much the going rate for land in that part of Augusta. The National also threw in some landscaping work on the country club's side of the six-foot-high black slat fence, topped by three strands of barbed wire, it installed around the new tee. There are new holly bushes and shoots of Carolina jasmine, a vine that grows so quickly that "in two years you won't be able to see this fence," says country club superintendent Greg Burleson. The National also planted two 30-foot pines on the country club's side of the property.
Behind the country club's 8th green there's a gate in the fence that separates the clubs. The two clubs' maintenance staffs lend each other tractors for overseeding as well as the implements that attach to the tractors, such as rotary brooms and vacuums. The clubs installed the gate in the mid-1990s so that the tractors wouldn't have to be driven on Washington Road. Burleson guesses that the gate is opened about four times a year. "I know these people, and they know me," says Burleson, who worked for Marsh Benson, the senior director for course operations and development at the National, while they were both employed by a club in Athens, Ga. "They know I'm not going to come down here and unlock it and sneak into the tournament." To make sure, the gate has two padlocks. Burleson has the key to one lock and Benson the key to the other.
"Obviously, the people at the National are very private," Marburger says. "The National is like somebody who lives next door to your house and has five acres with a pool and a Rolls-Royce. You can figure it out—it's for other people." In a sense, they is we. When Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts decided to create Augusta National in 1930, they enlisted several members from Augusta Country Club as investors and members of the National. Today about 25 to 30 Augustans (neither club will divulge the exact number) who belong to the country club are also members at the National. That's roughly 2% of the country club's membership. Jeff Knox, a second-generation member of both clubs, speaks with a syrupy eloquence about the close-knit membership of Augusta Country Club. "You have a small-town feel," he says while sitting in the country club's men's grill. "The members know each other." But when asked how he solves the delicious dilemma of waking up in the morning and deciding whether to play a classic Donald Ross design or the most desired course in the country, Knox grows silent. The battle between his good breeding and Augusta National omerta plays out for several seconds. "I don't know," he finally says. "That's a tough question. I'd really rather not discuss it. I play mostly over here."
Phil Harison, the 76-year-old grandson of Dr. William Henry Harison, a cofounder of Augusta Country Club, shows no such compunction. "I play at the club in the summer and at the National in the winter," he says. "If I'm entertaining, I'll do it at the National. People come to Augusta, they want to play the National." On his 21st birthday, in 1947, Harison was putting on the practice green at the National, where his father was a member, when Roberts walked over, wished him a happy birthday and congratulated him on becoming a member. On a wall of Harison's insurance office in Augusta are a pair of plaques, each of which holds a ball that Harison used in making an ace at the National. They weren't just any holes in one, either. Harison may be the only golfer to have made an ace while playing with a president and the greatest golfer in the history of the game. In 1955 he aced the 4th hole while playing in a group that included Dwight Eisenhower and Roberts. In '89 he made a 1 at the 12th hole in a group that included Jack Nicklaus. Harison has been the official 1st-tee starter at the Masters for 55 years, or since the second year of his membership. One of his oldest friends is Byron Nelson, who has stayed with Phil and his wife, Gracie, during Masters week for as long as Harison can remember. Harison says that he's teased by his friends at the country club. "They poke at me, call me a 'cross-the-creek guy," he says. But he doesn't believe they are envious. "Everybody understands. I can't entertain the whole world. I'd like to. They're very polite about it."
Robbie Williams, a four-time women's champion at the country club, used to be married to a man who belonged to both clubs. She recently wrote a memoir of her golfing life in Augusta titled Gentlemen Only. "The National and Augusta Country Club remind me of my daughters," Williams says. "The most important thing that happens to a daughter is birth order. When you have girls, that first one is really a queen. All of a sudden the second one takes over and is nationally and internationally recognized. The membership of Augusta Country Club is excluded because that's what Augusta National does."
In its three-plus decades of existence before the opening of the National, the country club enjoyed widespread recognition. In 1900, two years before the birth of Jones, Harry Vardon played a round there. Jones won the '30 Southeastern Open, two rounds of which were contested at the country club, by 13 shots, a harbinger of the Grand Slam to come later that year. In '32 Jones paused during the construction of the National for a friendly round at the country club, during which he made the second hole in one of his career, at the uphill par-3 14th. A plaque commemorating the shot is embedded in the tee box. From '37 to '66 the country club served as the home of the Titleholders, one of the LPGA's first major championships. The cantankerous Roberts tolerated the Titleholders, even when it began awarding its winners a too-familiar article of clothing. "I have a green jacket in the closet," says Marilynn Smith, who won consecutive Titleholders, in '63 and in '64. "I wouldn't give up that jacket."
When the National began to rope off the galleries from the fairways, it lent its ropes to the country club for the same purpose. However, according to Gentlemen Only, when the Titleholders teetered on the brink of extinction in '66, the tournament committee went to see Roberts to ask him for advice on how to improve attendance. "You can't do anything," Roberts said. "People don't like to see women wrestle, either." End of meeting. End of tournament.