AUGUSTA - Georgia will be on everyone's mind come April when it's time for the 2010 Masters Tournament in Augusta. The big question for those attending the world's most famous golf tournament isn't whether Tiger Woods will be playing the links, but where to eat, sleep, and play once they get to this gracious Old South city on the Georgia-South Carolina border.
I'll get to that, but first a little about Augusta's history is in order. It was established in 1736 by General James Edward Oglethorpe, which makes it the second-oldest city in Georgia after Savannah. Once the winter playground of Northerners in the late 1800s because the rail line ended here in this land of sunshiny days and moonlit nights perfumed with magnolias, dogwoods, and azaleas, Augusta was important enough in its early days to twice be named capital of Georgia.
Known as the "Garden City of the South" because of its number of gardens, Augusta is home to the world-renowned Medical College of Georgia, the oldest medical school in Georgia. The population, including that of North Augusta, S.C., runs about 200,000.
Golf marvel Bobby Jones - he remains the only golfer in history to win the "Grand Slam of Golf in one year - and his friend investment banker Clifford Roberts founded Augusta National, home of the Masters, in 1931, with the first games held in 1934 as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament. The name change to the Masters came in 1939.
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If you want to play golf at Augusta National, you must be a member or a friend of a member. It's easier to get into a White House state dinner than it is to play at Augusta National. Anyway, if you don't have the big bucks or the pedigree to get through those storied gates but still want the bragging rights to say, "Oh, I've played Augusta," then try one of dozens of public and semiprivate courses scattered around the area, including Augusta Golf Course, Forest Hills Golf Club, First Tee Augusta, Goshen Plantation Country Club and Augusta Municipal Golf Course.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Just about every major lodging chain for every budget is represented in Augusta - Marriott, Hilton, Days Inn, Holiday Inn - and plenty of locals skip town and rent out their homes during the tournament. But for the quintessential Augusta experience, no place is quite like the historic Partridge Inn. Wrapped with long verandahs, quiet porches and venerable magnolias, the elegantly appointed inn is also home to the P.I. Bar & Grill, named Augusta's "Best Sunday Brunch," and featuring contemporary Southern cuisine with outside dining overlooking shady, quiet streets. A beloved landmark for more than 100 years, the Partridge Inn's past guest list includes celebrities and golf elites like Bob Dylan, Crystal Gayle, Reba McIntyre, Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger, Gary Player, Dennis Quaid and even Augusta's favorite son, the man himself, James Brown.
Plenty of people also stay in Columbia hotels and motels during the tournament, given it's just an hour's drive.
WHERE TO EAT
Augusta has really come into its own from a culinary standpoint with a host of chef/owner-operated independent restaurants - as opposed to the many chains and franchises - that are referred to the "Culinary Masters of Augusta." Among them are:
- Bee's Knees Tapas Restaurant and Lounge. The name is taken from 1920s jazz-influenced slang referring the hip and cool. International dining including Thai, Spanish, Cajun, Mediterranean, Japanese and French.
- Blue Sky Kitchen. From fried catfish to Jamaican jerk chicken, Blue Sky offers an eclectic mix of Southern and international menu items.
- La Maison on Telfair. Offers fine dining in a Victorian home. A friend has only one word for it: "Super!" Also check out the 5,000-bottle wine collection.
- The Boll Weevil Cafe. Famous for its desserts and five-layer cakes, the restaurant is located in an old cotton warehouse.
- Bistro 491. It's all about the freshness and quality of ingredients here, plus they offer weekly food and wine pairings.
- Sconyers Bar-B-Que. Former President Jimmy Carter once had some of Sconyers' famous pork flown to Washington, D.C. Yeah. From personal experience, it's that good.
WHERE TO PLAY
If you don't do another thing while you're in Augusta, you have to see the Riverwalk and Augusta Canal, Georgia's homespun version of Venice. The canal, a National Heritage Area, is a blend of history, recreation, and unique experiences situated along almost nine miles of towpaths and waterways on the Savannah River. Built in 1845, it is the nation's only intact industrial canal that is still in use for its original purpose of harnessing water and power from the river.
The canal was the site of the Confederate Powder Works and 19th century textile mills. During Reconstruction, it was deepened and widened to meet the ever-changing needs of industry, especially textile manufacturing. The canal's interpretive center takes you from the canal's inception to today through a series of interactive exhibits.
While the canal, built in three levels, is essentially man-made, efforts were made to return many areas along its banks to a more natural state that is now part of a beautiful and unique aquatic ecosystem that includes egrets, herons, otters and other wildlife. Explore the canal and the city's history by hiking, bicycling, canoeing or kayaking its myriad trails or even enjoying a guided tour aboard a Petersburg replica canal cargo boat on a Moonlight Madness, Saturday Sunset or Canal Heritage cruise.
Next, visit The James Brown exhibit at the Augusta Museum of History. Seriously, it's a whole lot of "I feel good" fun with music, memorabilia, family photos and interactive components. Kids can even take a dance lesson from the Godfather of Soul. And in March the museum will host "The Sport of Golf" exhibit that pays homage to the legacy of golf in the Augusta area.
Augusta serves up quite a menu of other museums with the Morris Museum of Art, Boyhood Home of President Woodrow Wilson, Lucy Croft Laney Museum of Black History, Augusta Cotton Exchange and the Laurel & Hardy Museum in Harlem, on the outskirts of the city. If your tastes run more to outdoors and science, there are the National Science Center's Fort Discovery and Phinizy Swamp Nature Park of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.
When Augusta really began revitalization of its historic district and Broad Street in the 1990s, Artists' Row became a pet project. Now a favorite destination of visitors with its myriad art galleries, working studios, specialty shops, restaurants and coffeehouses, it's the place to find locally and internationally inspired pottery, sculpture, paintings and specialty gifts. There's a monthly arts event held on the first Friday of every month called, appropriately, First Friday.
A high-flying way to see Augusta is by soaring into the wild blue yonder in light aircraft with Augusta Aviation's sunset tours. You'll get a "birdie's-eye" of the city (get it?), including Augusta National with its long legendary fairways. The half-hour flights come complete with a picnic basket filled with wine, cheese and fruit, and as the sun drops into the horizon in a blaze of Georgia gold, it's the perfect way to end a visit to Augusta.
IF YOU GO
For more information, contact the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau (800) 726-0243 or visit http://www.augustaga.org. Contact the Masters at http://www.masters.org. Contact the Partridge Inn at (800) 476-6888 or visit http://www.partridgeinn.com.
The Masters tournament begins April 4