The world may descend on Augusta for the annual rite of spring known as The Masters golf tournament; but thousands of those visitors head to Columbia when the sun sets on Augusta National Golf Club.
Take Mark Hamilton of Roanoke, Va., and Scott Rodgers of Pittsburgh, Pa., who were enjoying the front deck of the Wild Hare sports bar in The Vista on Monday afternoon, the first of three days the two friends will spend in Columbia while going to one of golf’s premier events.
“We looked around a little bit and decided this was the place to stay,” said Rodgers, a vice president of Norfolk Southern Corp. railroad, who is making his third pilgrimage to the Masters. “(Columbia) has the best hotels this side of Augusta, and it’s only an hour away.”
Masters Week, which began Monday, is the single busiest week of the year for Columbia-area restaurants, bars and hotels. While a Gamecock football game fills those establishments for a night or two, the Masters packs them in for seven.
“Instead of a weekend, it’s all week long,” said Tony Tam, general manager of the Hilton Columbia Center in the Vista. “It’s the best week of the year for everybody.”
After a couple of relatively down years due to the poor economy, Midlands hotels booked up fast for this year’s tournament, and restaurateurs and club owners are adding cooks, wait staff and bartenders.
“Demand seems to be well above normal,” said Steve Graves, general manager of the Doubletree by Hilton.
The 238-room Doubletree, formerly the Radisson, is at Bush River Road and Interstate 20. It is the closest full-service Columbia-area hotel to Augusta. This year, it is sold out, compared to near-sellouts the past two years, Graves said.
“Maybe it’s the Tiger Woods effect,” said Graves, referring to the golfer who is a favorite to win the Masters for the first time since a sex scandal wrecked his career in 2009. “Maybe it’s the change in economy.”
‘It will be packed’
No one really knows how many people flood the region around Augusta for the tourney, said Katrina Selby, spokeswoman for the Augusta Convention and Visitors bureau. Augusta National doesn’t release the number of tickets it issues, and even ballpark estimates are problematic.
“There never has been a true economic study,” Selby said. “We know the hotels are filled. But we don’t know how many homes are rented out.”
The Augusta Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Aiken and Edgefield counties in South Carolina, has 557,000 people and about 6,000 hotel rooms. The Columbia metro area has more than 746,000 people and about 11,000 hotel rooms.
Many people opt for Columbia because rooms can be less expensive than in Augusta, where many hoteliers charge premium rates during Masters Week, said Bill Ellen, general manager of Clarion Hotel Downtown. “You want to spend $300 a night and be local, or spend half of that and drive an hour.”
And while downtown Augusta, particularly Broad Street, has bloomed with restaurants, bars and clubs in recent years, it pales in comparison to Columbia’s Vista, Five Points and other entertainment corridors.
“There are just more options here for dining, entertainment and golf,” Tam said.
Hamilton, who is manager of coal sales for a mining company, said Columbia’s walkable downtown is a big draw. He and Rodgers, who are staying at the downtown Hilton, can walk to nearly 50 bars and restaurants within a few blocks of the hotel. “I like not having to drive,” he said.
Chris Clark, manager of the Wild Hare sports bar in the Vista, said he will add two servers a night during the week to accommodate the golf crowds.
Greg Harris, managing partner of the Vista’s Liberty Taproom and Pearlz, said Liberty will add three or four cooks, four or five servers and a bartender or two. “It will be packed,” he said.
‘We’re a bargain’
Many of the city’s visitors come as groups. Corporations from around the world book rooms 30 or more at a time, and dole them out to employees as bonuses.
The Hilton, for example, has three large groups coming in this year — two from Europe and one from Australia.
Often there are not enough tickets to go around, so one group will be at the tournament, while another is on a local golf course or taking in the sights, industry experts said. The next day, they switch.
And compared with the Northeast and West Coast — and, particularly, Australia, Japan and Europe — Columbia prices for rooms, meals and libations are enticing, the experts said.
“We’re a bargain for them,” the Wild Hare’s Clark said.
So most Masters visitors spend freely and tip well, Liberty Taproom’s Harris added. “They’re on expense accounts,” he said. “It’s not their dime.”