$TC AUGUSTA, Ga. -- There's the almost intoxicating fragrance of blossoming wisteria. Azaleas and dogwoods are in their prime. And on the way to the antebellum-styled clubhouse of the Augusta National Golf Club, at the end of Magnolia Lane, there's a canopy of trees that presents a tunnel-like vista fit for a postcard.
The Masters Tournament is being played for the 56th time and it stands so far out in front as America's finest sports event -- even if you despise golf -- that it's difficult to determine what might be in second place.
Why is it a classic, a word all too frequently and erroneously applied to so many mediocre athletic and entertainment events? The Masters is what it is because of its unfailing consideration of you, you and you. The public gets a measure of respect at the tournament that it rarely receives these days from promoters, sports policy-makers, athletes and team owners.
A tournament ticket -- four days of watching the best golfers in the world -- is $90. That's a bargain, compared to the Super Bowl and the World Series.
Once inside the gate of what used to be a plantation and then a nursery, the natural beauty is captivating. Bobby Jones, soon after winning the golf's Grand Slam in 1930, saw the property and envisioned what could be done with it.
He decided to build a golf course here and ask some friends, pro and amateur, to come play what was first called the Southern Invitational. It didn't become the Masters until 1938. The name is distinctive and suggests all that's to be recognized in grand tradition and social refinement.
The membership represents a cross-section of "Who's Who In America." You don't make a request to join. You must be asked.
But the rules of Augusta National are precise and demanding. The predominant colors of the surroundings are green and white, even to the wax paper sandwich wrappings at refreshment stands and the webbing that is placed over a storm drain.
John Haines, a former professional at Hunt Valley (Md.) Golf Club, who is now in Wyoming, was coming through the gate to watch a practice round when a Pinkerton guard approached. "Sir, wouldn't you like to have one of our Masters' cups?" he inquired.
With that, the guard took a white Styrofoam cup from Haines, poured the convenience store coffee he was carrying into a Masters' cup and told him to enjoy the golf. Only at Augusta National. Color-coordinated, even to the drinking cup.
Ticket buyers are treated as guests, not chattel. Spectators, in turn, exhibit good conduct and a consideration for each other that is, unfortunately, rare these days at public gatherings.
Fans are not treated like a captive audience. They are not gouged on the prices of food and drink. That's not the Masters' way.
The Masters provides parking, a pairing sheet, a message center and a check stand, all for free. On the way out, youngsters are handing out free highway maps so you can find the way to your hotel or motel. Only at the Masters.
Compare the prices here with those at your favorite ball park or stadium:
Sandwiches: Pimento cheese, egg salad, $1; ham, $1.25; turkey, barbecue, ham and cheese combination, $1.50; club, $2; chicken breast, $2.50.
Beverages: milk, 50 cents; lemonade, soft drinks, 75 cents; domestic beer, $1.50; imported beer, $2.
Snacks: potato chips, candy bars, crackers, chewing gum, 50 cents; ice cream bar, $1.
And if you have a headache or upset stomach, you can buy a tin of aspirin for $1.50, or Rolaids for 50 cents. Sorry, no hot dogs are available because Augusta National does not want the cooking odors to permeate the surroundings.
Augusta is where Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower vacationed in the years after World War II. And two Augusta members, the indomitable Clifford Roberts and Alton Jones (no relation to Bobby) helped raise the funds that paved the way for Eisenhower's election to the presidency.
There was much consternation over when the first black player was going to earn his way to the Masters. It happened in 1975 after Lee Elder won the Pensacola Open.
Jim Thorpe, a former Morgan State athlete, competed here and said of the experience: "The people treat you fantastically. You're royalty here. There is nothing like it. You know you are in Augusta and there's no better place."
Bobby Jones died in 1971 and Roberts six years later, but the rhythm of the Masters continues. A three-time champion, Gary Player, said, "If there's a golf course in heaven, this is it. I want to be the head pro."
Augusta National Golf Club and its Masters Tournament stand alone in concept, design, scenic splendor and their significance to golf. Even more importantly, the Augusta is grateful for the spectators and treats them as they deserve.