Augusta during Masters week brings you into contact with everything that is wonderful and awful about golf's best major. Every place is overcrowded, every item and service is overpriced, every time you want to do something there are two fat guys in loud golf shirts ahead of you in line--and there is no better place to be in all the world. Especially so if you can figure out how to get in some great golf at the same time. And, despite what you may have heard, you can. With a little luck and a few phone calls, you can be treated like family by the members of one of the oldest clubs in the country, one of Ben Hogan's favorites. Or you can play golf at the course favored by Augusta's caddies and staff. With a little time and gasoline, you can find world-class courses that, even during Masters week, will give you a tee time and memories for a lifetime. They may not be Augusta, but for satiating the golf lust that watching a Masters invariably induces, they will do very nicely.
Palmetto Golf Club
Founded in 1892, Palmetto is one of America's oldest clubs. Many of its members were among the founders of Augusta National, which is one of the reasons why that club was built in Augusta rather than in Atlanta, where Bobby Jones wanted it. The course was originally designed by Herbert Leeds and then redesigned by Alister Mackenzie in 1933, after some of the members saw what he did down the road. Palmetto is only about eighteen miles from Augusta, in Aiken, South Carolina, a quaint former resort town once home to Fred Astaire, who played Palmetto frequently but never became a member. He didn't need to. This is that all-too-rare American private club that treats nonmembers kindly, even during Masters week. To get a tee time, all you usually have to do is call the pro shop. Palmetto's 6,380-yard par-seventy-one layout features many of the design elements Mackenzie used at Augusta. Most of the greens are surrounded by mounds that can make a short approach shot bounce wildly left or right. The greens have the same false fronts as Augusta's, which play on your perception of distance. The courses' similarities have not been lost on tour pros. Hogan used Palmetto to tune up for the Masters and said that three, four and five were the three toughest consecutive par fours he ever played. These are just the sort of holes you'd expect Hogan to admire: no water, no gimmicks, just good, solid holes that require sound thinking and well-executed shots. Ben Crenshaw practiced at Palmetto before his 1995 Masters win, and word is that Tom Watson had his tee times blocked out for this year's pre-Masters rounds some time ago. Like many other wonderful courses, Palmetto is not impeccably groomed. But the golf is great, and so is the company. If you're a good guest, you may be invited to one of the pre-Masters parties held by the members, some of whom have been known to throw ten dollars into a pot and pick the player they believe will win the tournament. (Last year, Mark O'Meara was picked fortieth out of a field of ninety-eight and paid $520.)
The Club at Jones Creek
The main advantage to playing Jones Creek during Masters week is that you can play a full eighteen and still spend half the day at the tournament. The layout is just a ten-minute drive from Augusta National. A semiprivate course that runs through an upscale housing development, it's a decent public track (par seventy-two, 7,000 yards) that you'd be happy to pay $50 to play anytime. But during Masters week, the greens fee is $150. The design runs through hills; you often find yourself hitting down into a fairway from an elevated tee and playing up to an elevated green, so the course plays longer than the yardage on the card would suggest. Its namesake creek comes into play on ten holes. At 546 yards, the second is a good, short par five. You hit your tee shot into a large landing area and then must play your second shot over a skinny creek into a narrow green with water along the right side. On number seventeen, a strong par five of 557 yards, the creek runs along the length of the hole on the right, then sneaks back in front of the green to form a blind hazard for the approach shot. In other words Jones Creek has its moments, but the price to play it is justified by its proximity to the Masters, not by the course itself.
Forest Hills Golf Club
A Donald Ross course that was built in 1926 and went public about twenty years ago, Forest Hills (par seventy-two, 6,875 yards) is the preferred track of the caddies and staffers of Augusta National. Located right in Augusta, only about five miles from Augusta National, it's a straightforward layout with tree-lined, rolling fairways, on which keeping the ball in play is fairly easy. The signature hole is the 420-yard twelfth, which requires a long iron or fairway wood off the tee to avoid a pond that bisects the fairway about 230 yards out. The green is slightly elevated and rather long, allowing for a variety of pin positions that can greatly affect club selection. Perhaps the best thing about Forest Hills is that it's the one course in town where you can walk on during Masters week, particularly as a single in the afternoon. The greens fee is $100 ($70 for golf, $30 for a cart).