LITTLE ROCK — Headed South on I-20, the passenger was on the lookout for Exit 200 on a never-traveled route to Augusta National.
In 10 previous years staffing The Masters, housing was within a couple of miles of the golf course. This time, a friend from years ago and his wife offered an upstairs bedroom in their historic home in Aiken, S.C. From Exit 200 to the course is easy, he said.
Exposed each April to the accommodating link between The Masters and Augusta, I should not have fretted.
We took the can’t-miss exit, made three clearly marked turns, shot straight up to Washington Road — the wide and busy street that used to be at the back of the Augusta National practice range and still offers the entrance to famed Magnolia Lane — and saw the portable lights on the large parking lot. A lob wedge across Berckman’s Road from gate 6A, the lot holds thousands of vehicles and has at least one flashing red light during the week of The Masters.
After the tournament, a local said, all signs of traffic control are gone and the 100-plus acres or so is an easy-on-the-eyes pasture. According to a Golf Digest article, Berckman Residential Properties paid close to $40 million for the homes that used to occupy the land. A few homes remain. Holdouts, presumably.
Parking on the lot is free, part of a grand plan to make a day at Augusta National a superb experience for patrons.
Two days later, I was reminded about the uniqueness of the comped parking when there were people holding signs offering a spot for $10 almost a mile from Oaklawn Park.
In the Augusta National gift shop, caps, ball makers, shirts, and other logoed paraphernalia are about half what you see online. Sandwiches and drinks for four can be had for less than $20.
Knowing that, I remember Augusta National chairman Billy Payne telling patrons "have fun" moments after Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus hit the ceremonial first tee shots shortly before 8 a.m. on Thursday. Anybody who fails to follow that directive is obstinate.
Forewarned, a Masters first-timer handled the incredible beauty, immaculate condition, and hills of one of the most recognizable golf courses in the world better than most, but he did not get a heads-up on the cordiality.
With enthusiasm, smiling greeters encourage you to enjoy the day. Late in the afternoon, they are still smiling, hoping you enjoyed the experience, and thanking you for coming. The people manning the concession stands and the gift shops, and those monitoring the galleries, are overloaded with the same civility.
Even a cynic is caught up in the genuine warmth that emanates from all involved.
Arkansan Bryce Molder won the Frys.com Open two years too early.
In 2011, Molder outlasted Briny Baird in a six-hole playoff, but did not get the Masters invite that goes to the winners of most PGA Tour events because the tournament did not offer full FedExCup points. The PGA has changed that, announcing in December that the 2013-14 season will begin with the Frys.com Open in the middle of October and include six events with full FedExCup points before year’s end.
In response, The Masters will invite the winners of each of those events, including tournaments in Malaysia, China, and Mexico.
"With the reality thereby of adding competitors to our field we have decided to amend three of our qualifications in an effort to maintain similar field size for the 2014 Tournament," Payne said.
One is that the top 12 instead of top 16 will get into the 2014 Masters. Tied for 13th this week were Fred Couples, Ernie Els, David Toms, and Dustin Johnson. Couples gets in as a former Masters champion and Els because he won a British Open during the last five years.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.