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Before the Masters there's the madness

Monday through Wednesday, fans swarm to the merchandise pavilion in a buying binge.

By BOB HARIG
Published April 4, 2006


AUGUSTA, Ga. - There is no tournament in the world like the Masters, and no tournament like the Masters on Monday. For that matter, there is no tournament like the Masters on Tuesday and Wednesday.

A Monday at a regular PGA Tour stop would see last-minute preparations, a smattering of players showing up to register and practice, and perhaps a couple of dozen curious spectators.

Then there is Augusta National on the days preceding the Masters. Quite simply, it is bedlam.

Gates open at 8 a.m. and the masses swarm in. They pour into the merchandise pavilion near the entrance, visit the historical exhibits, wander onto the greenest grass they have seen at one of the most exclusive courses in the world. By noon, you can hear roars for practice shots.

Jon Johnson has viewed this scene time and again. A former assistant golf professional at Augusta National, Johnson, 51, now lives in Lutz and has been coming to the Masters for 25 years to work in merchandise sales and now the merchandise checkpoint and shipping area.

Nearly as stunning as the grounds is what goes on in the 12,000-square-foot building that is used one week a year.

Masters memorabilia simply flies out of the building. Shirts with the famous Augusta logo - flagstick inside an outline of the United States - hats, sweaters, golf balls, markers, head covers, calendars, coffee mugs, rain suits ... just about anything you can put a logo on.

And it can be bought only here.

"I think what amazes me is how they can still have the ability to not go on the Internet," Johnson said of Augusta National. "There are no mail-order sales and there used to be sales at the front gate. You either buy it through a member or you buy it that week. They've withheld from taking that plunge. I'm sure they could triple their sales. But you don't know. The more people have it, the less they might want it. It's nice quality items. They don't gouge the eyes out of it, but they make it so you have to get it at Augusta."

Johnson is manager of the Tampa Bay Downs Practice Facility in Oldsmar and has recruited others to take the trip with him.

This year, his son, Kyle, has made his second journey. It's the third time for Bill Gilkes, 58, who works for the North Florida Section of the PGA of America. And Tim Greco, 44, general manager at Lansbrook Golf Club in Palm Harbor, is making his first visit.

"For someone in the golf business, it's like a priest going to the Vatican for the first time," Greco said.

They left early Sunday to drive to Augusta in time for an afternoon meeting at the course, where they could go over last-minute instructions while Augusta was still calm.

Members and their guests could still play the course, while competitors could get in practice rounds away from the commotion that followed on Monday.

Of his first trip last year, Kyle Johnson said, "I thought they painted the concrete, it was so clean. And then all you see is just green grass, as far as you can see. Rolling hills and green grass."

"The thing I distinctly remember," said Gilkes of his first visit in 2004, "was when we drove on the property were the butterflies in my stomach. I remember thinking it was like being in Yankee Stadium on home plate with no one in the stadium and you could hear the sound of Babe Ruth hitting the ball over the fence. When I got on the property, I had that same feeling. It's eerie. The serenity was unreal. Unbelievable. It was breathtaking."

Most of those emotions are gone by Monday, when the hard work begins. Johnson and his group will likely work 7 a.m to 8 p.m. shifts every day this week. Augusta National hires several hundred workers to staff the merchandise outlets, which by Saturday often have been cleaned out of most of the popular items.

The reason Monday through Wednesday is so much different than the tournament rounds has to do with the unique way spectators acquire "badges" for the event. The tournament has been a sellout since 1966, and only "patrons" on a mailing list get the opportunity to buy a four-day badge. There is a waiting list, with a few people moving up each year. Unless you are on that list, there is no way to attend the tournament rounds.

But tickets to the practice rounds were always made available to the public at the gate. Then the demand became so great that in the late 1990s, the club decided to sell them through an annual lottery.

Augusta National does not release attendance figures, but veteran observers are convinced there are far more people on the grounds on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday than during the tournament.

"It's such a different crowd," Johnson said. "The majority have never been to Augusta. They stand around the museum area, they all want to shop. The lines are seemingly a block long. During the tournament, most of them have been there before. They find a place to sit on the course. It's really easier on Thursday through Sunday."

No one who works at Augusta National is allowed to discuss anything in relation to sales. But one can imagine people buying thousands of dollars in merchandise.

It is impossible to know exactly how much money flows through here, but a simple estimate of 40,000 spectators who spend an average of $100 apiece would bring a conservatively low number of $4-million per day. And that's not counting ticket sales, concessions and television and radio rights fees.

No wonder the place looks so good.