AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Utilizing an innovative concept, a gathering of 165 golf fans from Maryland bought tickets for $250 for what may now be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of the crowd at the Masters.
It wasn't for regular tournament play, which began here today, but the chance to see a practice round on this fabled Augusta National course that offers breathtaking beauty and profound tradition.
But what worked for them this year may not be permitted in the future. A promotional organization, Dream Chasers Inc., sold a charter plane excursion from BWI Airport to Augusta with a return trip late the same day.
Some of those coming to "worship" at this temple of golf said it fulfilled their most ambitious desires, merely to see Augusta National, one of the world's most renowned courses.
They arrived at 9 a.m. and departed at 6 p.m. In between, they watched an assemblage of the game's greatest players close-up and viewed the splendor of Augusta National.
The $250 price included air passage aboard what carried the corporate name, Private Jet MD-80; shuttle bus service to and from the facility; and a ticket to watch the golfers engage in preliminary shot-making, both on the course and driving range.
Admission to a practice round is $15 for Monday and Tuesday. The cost is $20 Wednesday, which also offers a chance to watch nine-hole competition on an executive-sized layout different from where the Masters is conducted.
If you're lucky enough to have a tournament badge, the cost for all four days of the event is considered a bargain at $100. Those on the waiting list are not forgotten. It's just a question of living long enough to be accommodated. Twenty to 22 years is the approximate waiting period for your number to come up.
Since the Masters is the most difficult ticket to obtain in all of sports, considering that management has not permitted an addition to the waiting list since 1977, innovative ways are devised to gain admission.
But it appears from the comments yesterday of Jack Stephens, chairman of Augusta National, that this door of opportunity is going to be closed. The two Augusta airports are having difficulty handling the extra traffic.
Stephens said the club will take more supervision over the allocation of practice round tickets. Asked if the excursions, similar to the one from Maryland and other parts of the country, would be discontinued, he answered, "as I said before, we can do a lot when we have control."
A specific policy will be detailed on May 1. Crowds for the practice rounds have grown larger each year. Right now they exceed the tournament proper.
With excursions coming to Augusta National, via the work of outside travel agencies and promoters, it was only a question of time until club officials recognized what was happening. They resist all types of infringements and even sued and won a legal action against the Ladies Professional Golf Association to hold what they wanted to call their own version of the Masters.
The Marylanders who visited to watch the practice golf were ecstatic in their reactions. Greg Fudge, owner of the Pro Golf store in Severna Park, said, "The entire setting far surpassed what I anticipated."
Four members of the Tee To Green Golf Club in Arbutus were similarly impressed. Vince Anikas said: "It has to be seen to be believed." Lee Strayer commented: "I saw Arnold Palmer and the Augusta National course. This is what I wanted to do all my life."
Duke Schoenfelder remarked the visit was unique because "to get a ticket someone has to die and then you might wait 20 years."
Bill Willie, another member of the spectating foursome, observed, "What a thrill to see Nick Price, Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd in the same group. And concession prices are extremely reasonable."
In this connection, Fudge bought three sandwiches (all wrapped in Masters green paper, of course), a large cup of beer and said, "I didn't even have to spend $10."
There's no doubt the pilgrims from Maryland, availing themselves of the opportunity provided by tour organizer Ann Caldwell, had an extraordinary experience. They'll tell family members, friends and fellow golfers how much they enjoyed Augusta National close-up.
There's no doubt others will want to do the same. But, from reaction in high places, the window of opportunity may be slammed shut for group travel. Individual practice tickets will be available but not on the basis of coming via a package deal. Augusta National protects itself from entrepreneurs and insists on controlling its own show.