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For one week a year, in mid-April, Augusta is the center of the sporting universe. There's no school in Augusta during Masters week, and good luck getting into the T-Bonz steak house, just down Washington Road from the Augusta National entrance, unless you're Fuzzy Zoeller or some other golfing notable. But then the tournament ends, and school resumes, and the old Southern city-slash-endless strip mall returns to its off-season ways. If you experience Augusta only through the genteel CBS Masters telecast—the courtly Butler Cabin interviews, the whispering galleries, the string music interludes—you probably think Augusta is tranquil and mossy, old-world, another Savannah.
Greater Augusta has more than 500,000 residents (including 60,000 people associated with the Fort Gordon Army base), a dozen tattoo parlors, two T-Bonzes, one Hooters and a long association with professional wrestling. In Augusta, birthplace of Hulk Hogan, they wrestle for real. There are still folks in town who remember the wild night in the late '70s when Tommy (Wildfire) Rich and "Mad Dog" Buzz Sawyer couldn't settle their staged battle within the confines of the snug Bell Auditorium and took their dispute into the parking lot on Telfair Street, where all bets were off. Now when wrestling comes to town, it's held at the charmless Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center, but that doesn't mean everybody plays nice.
For 51 weeks a year Augusta's sporting life is conducted above the din; even at the bass fishing contests in the massive, man-made Thurmond Lake (named for the late Strom Thurmond, the U.S. senator from South Carolina) there's a whole lot of whooping going on. Yes, the rowing events in the Savannah River are subdued affairs, but that's an aberration. The engine rumble from the annual Southern National Drag Boat Racing Championships, held on the river each July, leaves women, children and fish holding their ears for mercy.
The 8,500-seat Civic Center is the hub of the city's sports life in the long off-season. It's where the occasional boxing match is held, where the Harlem Globetrotters play annually, where the monster truck competitions take place and where the Augusta Lynx, a minor league hockey team, play about three dozen home dates a year.
The Lynx, a member of the East Coast Hockey League, are only six years old, but their hard-skating style made them an instant hit; they now draw an average of 4,500 fans per game. Checking and brawling are sure ways to get into the sporting heart of lunch-bucket Augustans.
It's hard to escape from golf in Augusta. The hockey team's nickname plays off a golf term, links, and one of the team owners, Frank Lawrence, also owns a car dealership, Bobby Jones Ford, off the Bobby Jones Expressway. Another Lynx owner, William S. Morris III, publisher of The Augusta Chronicle and Gray's Sporting Journal, was the main force behind the creation of the Greater Augusta Sports Council. But what's really notable about him is this: He's an Augusta National member.
One of Morris's goals for the sports council is to make Augusta inviting to various sporting organizations. The Georgia Golf Hall of Fame is in Augusta, and the Professional Disc Golf Association is now relocating from Toronto to Augusta, where there are four disc golf courses. Disc golfers call real golf "ball golf," but they are golf buffs all the same. Pat Govang, now the association's former commissioner, thought he'd died and gone to heaven when, during his organization's recruitment by Augusta, he was invited to attend a Masters practice round, where he spent about $3,000 on souvenirs. "It's the ultimate carrot," says Tammy Stout, the sports council's executive director. A Masters badge is often said to be the toughest ticket in all of sports. In her job, knowing Augusta members is huge.
W.S. Morris—that's Mr. Morris to the many folks who work for him—is a horseman, and he's rich and persuasive, which explains why Augusta is the national home of the Atlantic Coast Cutting Horse Association and why the Augusta Futurity, an annual equine competition held in the Civic Center, has a $1 million purse. For the 10 days of the Augusta Futurity, Morris puts on a cowboy hat and asks to be called Billy, just like the other Futurity cowboys named William. The Chronicle's coverage of the Augusta Futurity is beyond comprehensive.
As in every city in the South—small, medium and large—football and baseball dominate high school athletic life in Augusta, where integration has made little headway in the public schools. Augusta had a professional Arena Football team for a while, and the Boston Red Sox have a Class A team in the South Atlantic League, the Augusta GreenJackets. (The name is another play on golf, although Augustans are as likely to call Augusta National members greencoats, as the colonial British soldiers were redcoats.) The GreenJackets usually draw a few hundred fans to their games at Lake Olmstead Stadium, but when they have a fireworks night, you can't hardly get a seat, as the locals would say. Ty Cobb, a.k.a. the Georgia Peach, played his first year of pro ball in Augusta, married an Augusta girl, lived in Augusta for years and knew Bobby Jones well. There's a plan under consideration in the city council to rename the stadium for baseball's most accomplished redneck.