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By Ralph Wiley
Yes, white pineapples. Some made of stucco, a few of stone, but mostly just painted pine, mounted on walls, gates, and fences in front of the big houses along airy Walton Way, on the northwest, upland side of Augusta, Georgia. Up above Augusta National Golf Club, where the Masters is held every April. They are a traditional sign of welcome. (The pineapples, that is.)
There are no pineapples outside Augusta National’s green-and-white brick facade. One must be invited in there. Such invitations are hard to come by. It was 1990 before the club admitted a black member. And a dispute about whether to admit women to the 300-member club became a controversy beginning last summer.
Things are less exclusive a few blocks over at the Augusta Municipal Golf Course, a small public acreage run by the Augusta Department of Recreation and Parks. Augusta Municipal, known locally as the Patch, is a mundane infield compared with the Masters track, where color-burst flora (over the years 80,000 plants of 350 varieties) floats upon a sea of chlorophyll green, an endless cumulus cloud mattress of the richest grass. The Masters is played in a world inside a world unto itself, framed by azalea, redbud, holly, dogwood, juniper, jasmine, nandina. By contrast, the Patch is just a small, forgettable muni.
Each is in zip 30904, equal in that, if nothing else. Quietly, there seems to be plenty of else. In the "Garden City," as in Joyce’s Dublin, history is a nightmare from which the residents are trying to awake. On Broad Street downtown, the Confederate Memorial stone monument bears a plaque: "No Nation Rose So White and Fair, None Fell So Pure of Crime." Since its inception in 1934, the Masters has symbolized a peculiar blend of nostalgia and revulsion, priding itself on not just its prejudice but also its ability to bend local wills to accept it as natural. A Masters Tournament badge, allowing all access to the grounds, remains expensive, hard to get. Yet today the Masters is a commercial engine for Augustans of all stripe, both native and foreign-born, east Indian expatriate motel owners to Italian restaurant managers.
Well within walking distance of Augusta National, no fast-food or commercial pop culture touchstone is left unturned. Krispy Kreme exists, Hooters too. In quaint, conservative Augusta you get the feeling that Man, for all his great feats and fatal flaws, is basically a party animal in need of fast redemption.
A middle-aged black man named Jarvis Mims, driving a hotel shuttle van, gives me a discarded, but still valid, $21 badge to a Masters practice round and offers to drive me in to Augusta National, then pick me up in three hours, on his regular run, after I see how impossibly green the course is. He’s as nice as pineapples, waving a hand callused by 30 years of backbreaking manual labor at the old textile mill near the downtown flats and Savannah River.
A blond teenager gabs as she takes in cash to direct cars on a lot near the grounds. "Got 108 in today," she says. "Money’s for my college fund."
Inside Augusta National’s green-and-white brick walls, spectators traverse the course en masse, as if in human ant trails, moving double, triple, quadruple file, over the emerald lushness; roars come in distant waves from far-off holes. The trails also march into the clubhouse area and Founders Circle, up by Butler Cabin, in and out of the golf shop selling memorabilia. The course is dotted by discreet green plastic trash bag stands. The bags are fairly unnoticeable, except for the striking block letters they bear: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.
Make that Mister "Please Please Please" himself, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, the rhythm and blues icon who grew up here and now has a downtown Augusta boulevard named for him. To divine more about Augusta, I head down James Brown Boulevard with Lourdes D’Arcy Neely Coleman. Her father, Clement Neely, a black Korean War veteran, waited tables at the Bon Air Hotel on Walton Way. Wealthy planters from Charleston or Savannah and big-city financiers came here to escape winter up north or yellow fever to the south. They needed dependable service. Thus the Neelys persevered. Lourdes put herself through Augusta College, then law school.
Now Lourdes is home to practice law after a career away from Augusta. She drives in the downtown flats, quietly marveling that the same place could produce the Masters, President Woodrow Wilson, the Godfather of Soul, and the Patch. She points out a modest brick pillbox law office she rents from a white real estate appraiser, Jack Minor, Sr. "Over there is the Jessye B. Norman Amphitheater, by the river . . . beautiful . . . and look, it’s the new school of fine arts," she says with pride, driving by a modern red brick edifice on 12th Street near Telfair. The school is a public magnet school, one of the best in the state, with an equal number of black and white students.
Score another victory over absurdity, par for today’s Augusta.
A tournament badge for the four-day Masters is worth whatever the market will bear, thousands of dollars. But on the opening day of the Masters, it costs only $28 to play 18 holes at the Patch. As Lourdes and I arrive, we see golfers on the course ducking as a Cessna on approach buzzes overhead. Probably carrying Masters customers. The ducking is understandable, as one green sits beneath a landing pattern to the airport next door.
One group playing the Patch is made up of the Smiths, father Jimmy and grown sons, Greg and Jerome. Jimmy was once stationed at nearby Fort Gordon. Jerome works at the Castleberry Foods plant, a primary blue-collar employer along with the Sweetheart paper cup factory. "We would’ve had to get dressed up to go to the National just to see a practice round," he says.
"Up to the early sixties, black folks couldn’t play the Patch, either," says a graying Richard Marshall. "Took agitatin’."
Richard is doing all the talking between him and Charlie Choice. "We caddied at the National. All kinds of golf courses around here," Richard says. "Forest Hills, Three Oaks. Did we ever play Augusta National? Yep. Weren’t supposed to. Evenings, near dark, after caddying, we played. Learned how. Heard of Jim Dent? From here. Ex-caddie. Used to be eight to ten black American golfers on tour. Now it’s just Tiger Woods."
People in zip 30904, surrounding Augusta National Golf Club and the Patch, aren’t all that much on the high-hat anymore, no matter what persuasion of head happens to be under it. Old paradigms are being subtly transmuted, a social alchemy that makes Augusta novel, in its own quiet, deceptive way.