Augusta National seeks more land for expansion

Updated: April 5, 2006, 3:18 PM ET
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

While Augusta National GC has been busy the last few years making significant changes to the storied course, its most ambitious work has taken place beyond the club gates. To accommodate a new practice facility and parking lots, and possibly for further course expansion and buildings to house corporate hospitality, the club is engaged in an unprecedented buying spree of neighboring commercial and residential properties.

Augusta's Growth Spurt
With a new practice facility in mind, Augusta National GC is paying hefty prices to buy property beyond its borders. Click here for Golf Digest's exclusive story, including a map and other details.

Since 1999 Augusta National has purchased -- either directly or through surrogate corporations -- 53 lots for $22.9 million, according to a recent survey of real-estate records by Golf World that examined sales along Washington Road and neighborhoods bordering the club's western edge. The land acquisitions will allow the club to move vast parking areas off its current property into the surrounding vicinity, affording it the space to build an expanded, state-of-the-art practice range by 2011.

Currently the range for Masters contestants is 250 yards long, capped by a 100-foot-tall fence that attempts -- sometimes in vain -- to keep balls from being hit onto Washington Road, the street fronting the club's main gate. While much of the land acquired by the club or its surrogates the last couple of years is in adjacent residential neighborhoods along Berckmans Road and west of it, a significant portion is on the cluttered Washington Road commercial strip. The Washington Road acquisitions will allow the club to transform portions of the gaudy thoroughfare into a more sedate -- some might say more appropriate -- approach to perhaps the most famous golf course in the world. In late December, demolition began on a 2.6 acre shopping center in the 2700 block of Washington Road that once was home to a dry cleaners, barber shop and carpet store.

"We're like a little island," said Myles Anderson, a minister and member of the board of directors at Whole Life Ministries, a church located at 2621 Washington Road directly across the street from the club since 1991 with no immediate plans to sell. "We're just going to be here until we outgrow the facilities. We're not ready to sell now, and they [Augusta National] seem to understand that, so we have no problem with them."

A city of 191,000 people, Augusta receives up to $150 million in economic impact from The Masters. According to mayor Deke Copenhaver, there is mixed opinion about the club's reach into adjacent land. "It helps increase the tax base," Copenhaver said, "and it is a situation where they are negotiating with the private owners for the property, so it's not like they're stealing property from anybody. I think ultimately it will be a good thing for Augusta. The National has always done things in a top-notch fashion. I'll be interested to see the improvements they make [on Washington Road]."

Augusta National's plans for a new practice facility were delayed after the club released its television sponsors of their financial obligations for two years (2003-'04) in the wake of protests by Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations. When the sponsors returned in 2005, the club moved into action for an expansion plan that will increase its total land area by more than 60 acres.

"We could go on indefinitely without sponsors," Johnson said at last year's Masters. "However, we do have a huge project under way in moving 3,000 cars off our grounds onto properties adjacent to the club -- and then preparing that land for those 3,000 cars and building the practice facility we think the Masters Tournament deserves. This will be pretty demanding financially. It would stretch out a long time without the sponsors."

Citing its longstanding policy of refusing to discuss club matters, Augusta National declined comment for this story. But a source familiar with club thinking confirmed Augusta National has bought land with the intent of relocating parking to accommodate a new practice facility. "When people get there in 2010, or 2011, at the latest, they are going to see the best practice range ever," the source said. Sources also confirmed the club is intent on improving the cluttered commercial strip but denied knowledge of any plan to create off-course corporate hospitality facilities. The club currently has several structures tucked away to the right of the first fairway that are used for corporate entertaining.

The property in the 2700 block of Washington Road was bought by a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) linked to Tom Blanchard, an Augusta National member. Other LLCs involved in recent purchases are linked to club member Boone Knox and one to the club itself. Additional commercial property -- formerly occupied by Mally's Bagels and Grits, the Comedy House Theater and Steak and Ale restaurant -- purchased by Blanchard and Knox also has been torn down.

According to public records and sources familiar with the situation, various LLCs connected to the club began purchasing homes about five years ago. In 2005 the buyers offered the seller the opportunity to stay in the home for approximately two years rent-free and to receive two lifetime badges to The Masters. Now, the LLCs are offering one year of free rent and two lifetime badges.

In a city where real-estate prices are reasonable, families and businesses have been able to accept generous offers from the LLCs and relocate easily while still walking away with a handsome profit -- and those two Masters badges. According to real estate records, one of the LLCs, Berckman Residential Properties, purchased five residential properties between Nov. 28, 2005 and Jan. 13, 2006, for a total of more than $2.4 million, or about $488,000 each. In a recent transaction, a 1,400-square-foot home at the corner of Berckmans Road and Hillside Lane, facing Augusta National, was purchased for $520,000. Such a property normally sells for approximately $100,000, according to a rental agent speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Some folks are for it and excited to see it happen," Copenhaver said of the flurry of sales, "but some feel like it's driving up property values too much in their area."

Purchases along Berckmans Road could allow further lengthening of the par-5 second hole, currently 575 yards, to beyond 600 yards. There is speculation among local residents that when the club has finished buying property, Berckmans Road will become a private street owned by the club, with traffic rerouted from Heath Drive to Stanley Road, which connects with Washington Road west of Berckmans. "There are still a lot of houses along Berckmans that are in private hands," Copenhaver said. "When and if they acquire all the property, that's when I would be willing to address that issue. It's premature."

In 2003 the Augusta Chronicle reported the club also had purchased 33 undeveloped acres behind 2816 Washington Road about a half-mile west of the club and a 17-acre parcel at the end of Eisenhower Drive, about a mile north of Augusta National.

The club's clout in Augusta was evident in February. Augusta National's opposition to a proposed high-rise condominium development at the National Hills shopping center on Washington Road was a key factor in a zoning board's denial of a height variance to exceed the county's six-story maximum. The club cited safety and privacy concerns, contending that condominium residents would be able to see onto its property.

"I don't think it would have been turned [down] without the strong objection of Augusta National," Rick Martin, president of the developer, Kennedy Capital Group, told the Augusta Chronicle.

The newspaper, which is owned by William Morris, an Augusta National member, called the project "Paparazzi Towers" in an editorial commending the zoning denial. "We don't need to build a monument to peeking," the editorial said. "You may not have much sympathy for celebrities who frequent the Masters, but Augusta National is privileged to host some pretty special guests each April -- and should be allowed to offer them minimal amounts of decency and privacy."

"They put a lot back in and give a lot of money to charity," said Copenhaver of Augusta National. "They are a good community partner."

Albeit one that owns an ever-growing part of that community.

-- Additional reporting by Bill Fields

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.