One look at Augusta National’s new driving range and you’ll be convinced that, with full dictatorial powers, Billy Payne could eliminate the deficit, solve the health-care crisis and make Pontiac popular and solvent again. It is the most breathtaking practice facility in the game. But what else would you expect from “Green-Coated” keepers of golf’s grandest stage?
For those who visit The Masters through the magic of HDTV or the breathless pontifications of commentators, know this: The thousands of little things that never get a minute of air time are even more impressive than what you see on your 60-inch plasma. The merchandising building, history museum and administration offices, for example, look like golf’s version of a Disney park – spotless, inviting and easy to navigate, with no detail left to chance. The food concession areas are easy to get through and even easier on the wallet. And grandstands are elevated and positioned for maximum panoramic viewing, with no bad seats in the house.
The only thing, prior to this year, that didn’t seem to fit was the driving range – a too short and too narrow swath of flatland between the most photographed clubhouse entrance in the world and the strip mall-mecca of Washington Road. It even had nets, a feature more readily associated with Joe Swat’s Golf and Batting Cages than with the greatest golf club in America.
No more. In less than a year, an 18-acre parking lot at the club’s northwest corner has been transformed into a practice facility that leaves you shaking your head and saying, “This is unbelievable.”
It’s a driving range the way St. Peter’s Basilica is a church. For starters, 125,000 yards of dirt was moved to build it, roughly the same amount of earth Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore moved to create Oregon’s Bandon Trails – the entire golf course. Mr. Payne and company also transplanted nearly 2,000 trees and plants and built eight bunkers to create two faux fairways. Then they added six target greens, from 75 to 240 yards, built to the exact green specifications of the course, including sub-air systems that can both suck moisture out or pump water into the ground, depending on the fickle mood of the Georgia spring weather.
Of course, since the target greens are just like the greens on the course, you can’t run a standard ball picker across them, so the members experimented with automatic brushing arms that sweep the greens free of balls without human feet ever having to touch the surface. There isn’t a routine shot on the course that cannot be replicated on the range. Augusta National even plans to position the target pins to correspond to the pin placements on the course.
As if that weren’t enough, they’ve erected a new, two-story permanent set for BBC and ESPN behind the range, along with grandstands that will give patrons a bird’s-eye view of their favorite players as they pound balls before and after rounds.
There are other new-and-improved features that will never make the TV coverage: three new hospitality cottages that look like they’ve sat hidden for a century in the trees beside the first green, and a cable-ready television compound that lets network trucks back up to a building and plug one wire into the wall. But the big enchilada is the range – the first thing patrons will see as they cross Berckmans Road from the new-and-improved parking complex, and the thing that will cause the most people to stop and stare, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
How much did an amenity like that set the members back? Don’t ask. Discussions of money were forbidden at Augusta National when Clifford Roberts refused to make the purse public, and even though Billy Payne is a kinder, gentler chairman, grimy discussions about cost still ruffle his Southern sensibilities. Like all the members, Billy would prefer that you simply say “Wow,” and enjoy the rest of the tournament.