AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters creates the impression that its magical powers, at least within the diameter of golf and Augusta, Ga., are only slightly short of infinite. The Eisenhower Tree is gone this year, killed two months ago by a winter freeze. If the thing had bitten the vegetable dust a couple of months earlier, the Masters Committee might have been able to find a perfect duplicate in Borneo, transplant it here, replicate all of Ike’s ball marks in the bark and nobody would have been the wiser.
Each year when regulars return here, we look for evidence that the Masters can make things happen, or perhaps just materialize, in ways that do not happen anywhere else in sport. From one Masters to the next, seven holes might completely change their length and even their basic shape, from a dogleg right to a dogleg left — as in the great Tiger Proofing experiment — to such a ridiculous degree that your first reaction is, “They did this in one year? Everything looks like it’s been here a century.”
Which brings me to Alexander Drive. About a half-dozen of us sportswriters, in different combinations over the years, have been staying in a house together during Masters week to save our bosses money and to increase the number of tall tales and unprintable anecdotes we can add to our arsenal. At least from the visible evidence, we’ve also eaten several hundred pounds of a lot of chocolate chip cookies (each), shed them, gained them back and, currently, well, shed some of them.
Getting from “our” house to Augusta National, about five miles, can take 15 minutes or a half-hour depending on whether you obey both the letter and the spirit of the town’s golf-centric laws. In other words, you are requested — by large signs — not to use certain routes through residential neighborhoods to short-cut your way to Washington Road, which runs in front of the National.
I will leave to the reader’s imagination the percentage of times that I have not taken the short cut that winds over railroad tracks, does a double-back in a thickly wooded swale, winds through various housing developments and pops out beside the hub Washington Road’s spiritual life: Kroger. (Here’s a hint: I don’t even know the “legal” way to go.)
A couple of years ago, feeling guilty every wheel-turn of the way, wondering if, someday, a Smokey will haul me in as would be my just desserts, I prepared to turn over the railroad tracks, into the winding woods, up the hill, around the bend and…
There was a super highway. Its name: Alexander Drive.
Gone were the-sweet-lord-knows-how-many homes whose peace and quiet I had disturbed on so many mornings. Gone were nature’s wonders, all the woodland vermin that tweet and bite as well as the woodland itself. In its place was “Speed Limit 40” and about six cars in sight in a mile-long straight shot to Washington Road.
“Oh, my God,” I thought. “They built us a highway.”
If I’d left D.C. for a month and came back to discover that the Mall had been replaced by a river, I wouldn’t have been more shocked. Augusta is a town with an enormous economic and emotional investment in being one of an American Brigadoon: Nothing changes. It’s still 1958, Arnie just won his first Masters and he and President Eisenhower played together the next day. Ike probably cussed the damn tree on 17 as usually but also shot his best round ever at the National: a 78.
Of course, everything has changed since ’58. Every decade here is unrecognizable from the last, just as the course and its mammoth grounds undergo enormous change. But it all happens so gradually.
In that Masters-week context — “nothing changes and if it does we make it so seamless that you don’t notice” — Alexander Drive just appeared, like a magician’s trick.
How does that happen? Is the National so rich that it can toss out millions of bucks just to improve track flow to a tournament that takes place one week a year? What happened to the former residents? Taken to Area 51? Bought out at a generous premium to their property values? What price such progress?
I’d intended to go on in this vein until a bad idea struck me: Why not find out from one of the members whom I’d known a long time? Perhaps this is the genesis of “Never let the facts get in the way…” Augusta and the Masters are acquainted with urban planning. Not only has Alexander Drive been turned from a twisting back road into an autobahn, but they’re going to do the same darn thing to another road pretty soon just to improve traffic and, you know, do good stuff for Augusta. They did it between one Masters and the next because they know how to build roads in Georgia and why wouldn’t you?
“Used to be a little old back road,” the member said.
Now that I know the truth, I’m going to forget it. I say it was magic. I say the Masters can make anything appear or disappear at will, at its whim or simply for its convenience. I say that the Masters can …