In Augusta, Ga., playing golf, but not the kind you think
By Andrea Sachs,
“That’s a good-lookin’ rip,” Matt Flynn called out to his competitor from the 18th hole at the Pendleton King Park course in Augusta, Ga.
Ten eyeballs followed the plastic projectile as it flew through the air like a turbo-charged UFO, covering nearly 220 yards and landing near a metal basket with a chain-link fringe. All that was required now: a short throw by a steady hand into the basket’s maw. Then off to the next hole and the next rip.
In Augusta,drop such athletic terms as “greens,” “putter” and “needs more mustard,” and everyone assumes that you’re talking about the Masters, the legendary golf tournament held each April at Augusta National Golf Club. But on a recent Sunday morning, the players were neither sporting fancy pants nor wielding gleaming irons. Instead, they wore crumpled T-shirts and dusty sneakers and toted colorful discs as small as dessert plates. These men, and a few women, represented the every-Augustan sport of disc golf.
“We have eight courses within a 20-minute drive and a good variety with lakes, tightly wooded holes and elevation changes,” Flynn said. “You can show up at any park and see other people playing.”
This last fact is significant, because only the privileged can view a round at Augusta National, a private club that hides behind towering hedges, intimidating gates and barking guards. If you want to watch the Masters, you’ll have better luck pressing your nose to the TV screen. But if you want to attend a disc golf game, simply show up at a course (for free or a nominal charge) and look for the folks chasing rainbow-colored saucers through the trees.
“The Masters only impacts us one week a year,” Flynn said. The other 51 weeks, “Augusta is just a sweet Southern town.”
Fortunately, I visited during one of the sweet weeks — the off-week this year is April 2 to 8 — though the odds were in my favor. As was the weather in this year-round destination.
“This afternoon, sunny, in the lower 60s, with southeast winds of five miles per hour,” announced the robo-voice from the National Weather Service station on the Savannah River promenade.
Georgia’s second-oldest and second-largest city has been recording meteorological changes since 1870, the year President Ulysses S. Grant authorized the formation of a national weather service. The NWS information streams nonstop on the corner of 11th Street and the Riverwalk. I sat through four cycles of weather, including the forecast for the mountains and beaches of neighboring states, not leaving until I knew for certain how to dress the next day.
The five-block, multilevel walk is as languid as the river, which separates Georgia and South Carolina. Ducking into an alcove with benches, I watched tiny birds swoop through the trees and over the heads of children romping on a jungle gym in Oglethorpe Park. On the river, a single scull floated by, briefly intersecting with a runner racing up and down the steps of an amphitheater.
The esplanade fronts a number of attractions, such as the Morris Museum of Art, which celebrates Southern artists. At the front desk, the docent directed me not to the exhibit titled “Fore!: Images in Golf,” but to the hyper-realist watercolors of Mary Whyte. The Charleston, S.C., painter documents the blue-collar jobs that once flourished here: shrimping, spinning, cotton picking. According to my watch, I had 35 minutes to view 50 pieces. The employee, noting my predicament, invited me back for free. He didn’t want me to rush, a concept that’s anathema in Augusta.
Speed is not required on the self-guided walking tour of four main thoroughfares, either. “It is not expected that anyone will take the entire downtown walking tour at one time during one visit,” advised the Historic Augusta planners in their online instructions.
I decided to focus on local personalities honored with statues, such as Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who established the town in 1736 as a British colonial outpost, and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul who crowed and funky-chickened his way to stardom. Woodrow Wilson, who resided here from 1860 to 1870, earned more than a simple rendering: The 28th president’s entire boyhood home is enshrined.
Surprisingly, Henry Harford Cumming appears neither as a sculpture nor a brick house nor a water fountain. I know! Poor Henry. But I finally tracked him down inside the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area Interpretive Center, his black-and-white image still dapper after all these years.
Cumming was the idea guy and cheerleader behind the canal, which was built in 1845 and gave Augusta a much-needed shot of B12. Once a thriving trade center, the agriculture-based community needed a jolt of energy to counter the ill effects of a depression, the railroad and rising competition. The canal allowed the city to harness the energy from the river to power mills and factories that produced an array of products, including gunpowder during the Civil War. (The 153-foot-tall Confederate Powder Works chimney still stands as a memorial to wartime industriousness.) In the late 19th century, about a dozen mills lined the banks. Today, only three plants — one textile, two hydroelectric — are in operation.
But there’s still a lot of life along the 13-mile route. On an electric-powered Petersburg boat, a replica of the mule-drawn cargo vessels that once plied these waters, I waved to fishermen sitting half-alert on lawn chairs, their lines awaiting a bite from a catfish or a bass. Turtles sprawled on logs, and a blue heron skimmed the still surface like a giant paper airplane. It was a lazy, lazy afternoon, a nice antidote to a busy, busy morning.
At the same early hour as a half-marathon that diced up the town, about 60 disc golf players had congregated at Pendleton King Park, a 64-acre bird sanctuary with an 18-hole course. I was caddying for Flynn, one of the more expert competitors, carrying his gear, which resembled a small camera bag full of discs.
We started on the 16th hole, where Flynn grabbed an XCalibur, a fast glider with long-distance legs. He followed with a Pig, a tan putter. “Simmer down, simmer down,” he said to Pig as it veered away from the target. “Now, that’s just wrong.”
It was a rough first hole.
For two hours, I tailed my foursome, the bag bouncing against my back as I hoofed it up hills and along forested paths and around a goose pond. At the 17th hole, I watched with dread as Flynn’s disc rolled toward the parking lot, a one-stroke penalty. On the sixth hole, we paused to search the woods for his red disc. And on the seventh hole, I resigned.
This happens to me with organized sports; I sometimes drift away from the action. But to be honest, I lasted much longer with disc golf than I ever have with golf-golf, including the Masters.