By Larry Mayran

Driving into Augusta trying to find the location of Augusta National Golf Club my addled brain kept repeating, “Two down, two to go” in my fantasy quest of playing all four sites of golf’s Grand Slam: The Masters, PGA, The U.S. Open and British Open. I had already played Pebble Beach (U.S. Open 2000-2010), and the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland site of countless British Opens, including the 2015 tournament.

Augusta National Sign

The Augusta National Golf  Club sign was the closest Larry got to playing The Masters.

Attaining the first two was relatively easy since the Grand Slam tournament sites of the PGA, U.S. Open and British Open move yearly so you have lots of sites to choose from. Only the Masters is permanently anchored at the Augusta National in Georgia, and the chances of a non-club member playing this storied course is about equal to my beating Tiger Woods in match play.

As I drove  to where Washington Road and Eisenhower cross,  the Augusta National Golf Club was revealed. Its vast perimeter was completely fenced in by tall trees and wrapped like a gift package in acres of green tarp. The tarp effectively screened the interior from view. It was mid-March and preparations for the 80th edition of the Masters Tournament held April 7-10, was not for mere mortals like me to see. I stopped by the Augusta National  sign hanging above an open gated entrance that provided a brief glimpse of the hallowed grounds. Jumping out of the guard shack an officer topped with a Smokey Bear campaign hat assumed a defiant stance that allowed nothing more than a two quick snaps of the Augusta National sign with my camera.

Partridge Inn
The grand and legendary Partridge Inn after multi-million dollar restoration and 21st century enhancement.
Photo courtesy of The Partridge Inn

I continued driving west toward my hotel destination The Partridge Inn. This five story hotel, a venerable Augusta landmark since the 1890’s underwent another multi-million-dollar enhancement  and restoration  program  in 2015, remodeling its 144 rooms, and suites,  the restaurants and dining facilities, plus  adding hi-speed wi-fi and flat-screen televisions, all under the direction of new General

Manager Lloyd Van Horn. Historically preserved properties such as The Partridge Inn are becoming more and more of a rarity in this country and the property is now part of the Hilton brand of Curio hotels, a collection of independent properties with remarkable personalities and each with a storied history all its own.

The hotel’s  P.I. Bar and Grill, celebrated for its outdoor dining and verandahs is also known as one of the “scene” restaurants in Georgia where you go to see and be seen.  Executive Chef Robert Plouffe  commands the kitchen where he infuses traditional Southern cuisine with French, Caribbean, and Continental dishes. Some must try’s on the menu include Smothered Catfish with Crawfish Etouffee, Beef Pot Roast, and the awesome Mac and Cheese with Andouille sausage, country ham and pork belly.

Pursuing my Grand Slam fantasy I petitioned a knowledgeable member of the front desk staff to find a close alternative golf course to the Augusta National. “Frankly there is none quite equal to Augusta National. However why don’t you try Forest Hills or The River Golf Club. Both are only a few minutes from the Augusta National and you’ll be breathing the same rarified air they do.” Upon checking availability the staff found that Forest Hills had scheduled a tournament  the next day so the River Club became the choice. My tee off time was set for 10:15 am the next morning.

Riverclub, Augusta

(Top) Magnificent River Club clubhouse viewed from 9th green.
(Bottom) Aerial view of 6,847 yard, par 71 River Club course.
Photos Courtesy of the River Club

Situated along the banks of the Savannah River in north Augusta, the 6,847 yard, par 71, semi-private River Golf Club course has a coastal wetlands look and a miles away from civilization feel, despite the fact that it’s only five minutes away from downtown Augusta. Ron Whitten, Golf Digest’s golf course architect critic called The River Club a gem. “It is a special golf course of solid design by Jim Fazio and a sterling example of how golf can enhance a local environment.”

River Club Director of Golf Chris Verdery, PGA, briefed me on the course layout,  plus challenges, and  partnered me with Seth Young, a young assistant pro. Despite his youth Seth displayed the mien of a veteran club professional with his pleasant playing style and professional demeanor.

Young told me that designer Fazio created a large lake that runs through the middle of the golf course and he gave every hole enough land to create a distinctive shape, contour and individual character. Twelve of the holes, seven on the front and five on the back nine have mostly lateral water hazards in addition to the lakes and marshes. There are large and small sand traps, and a couple of huge waste bunkers that love errant shots.

On #2, a 503 yard, par 5 with a creek meandering across the fairway 260 yards away and marshland on the left, Seth wisely chose a three wood and drove his ball about 230 to the desired landing area. He said, “The creek changes the dynamics of the hole so play smart.”  Arrogant instead of smart, I hit driver instead of a three wood and luckily managed 220 yards, right center of the fairway. We both were short of the green on our second shots leaving Seth with a wedge shot and me an eight iron. He got his within eight feet of the hole and I double clutched with a weak shot to the fringe. He putted true for his par and I managed a bogie.

A pretty par three at 135 yards across some marshlands marked the 4th hole. My nine iron, hit with a prevailing wind arched high and sweetly onto the front edge of the green. Seth’s shot went slightly awry but he chipped to within two feet. I two putted for my par and he tapped in for his three.

The most appealing part of the front nine was the near total immersion into solitude. A fine assortment of trees including bald Cypress, Pine, Elm, Japanese maple and Red Bud frame the fairways. Birdlife is abundant with red tailed hawks flitting and diving about while herons, cranes, and kingfishers stolidly focused on nailing prey in the marshes.

With downtown Augusta skyscrapers clearly visible but still a feeling of solitude playing.

There are three signature holes on the back nine are #15, #16, and #17. With the downtown skyscrapers of Augusta clearly visible on our left, the solitude was missing but the play was stimulating. The 403 yard, par 4 hole is the toughest on the course which I played like a pro until I missed a three foot putt like an amateur for a bogie.

Everybody’s favorite is the par 4, 16th where a wooden trestle from a Confederate era railroad curves along the left side of the 315 yard hole behind an elevated green.

A two tiered island green on #17 sat 128 yards away over a marsh and guarded by a right side bunker. Seth nailed a wedge into the wind, his ball landing about 15 feet from the pin and then two putted for his par. Naturally, my nine iron found the bunker but I sand wedged out to within 10 feet bringing an approving nod from Seth. I prematurely whooped “Up and down for a par” just as my putt slid a fraction of an inch past the hole. River Club is very affordable   Mon – Thurs is $55, Fri: $59 and weekends is $65. They also have twilight and  senior rates and golf packages for those staying in their golf cottages.

Partridge inn
Towards sunset, the Partridge Inn never looked more welcoming. And it’s less than 4 miles from Augusta National.
Photo courtesy of The Partridge Inn

Later that evening dining at Abel Brown, an inspired Southern Kitchen & Oyster Bar in nearby Surrey Center .capped off a memorable day. In this comfortable ambience, and savoring a fine glass of  New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc my mind drifted toward the progress I had made so far in my Grand Slam fantasy quest. In between delectable courses like a dozen fresh oysters on the half shell, pan roasted Georges Bank scallops perfectly cooked, and classic Crème Brulee for dessert, I mused that only the PGA site escaped my quest.

With the 2016 PGA Championship scheduled to take place from July 28-31 at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield Township, New Jersey and 2017 at Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, North Carolina, these sites are a little out of my range. Guess I’ll have to wait a few more years when the PGA site is closer to home and worthy of an attempt. In the meantime while my name will never appear alongside past Grand Slam winners like Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods, I’ll bet none of them had a more relaxing and enjoyable stay at the Partridge Inn while playing at  The River Club in Augusta than I did. And that’s no fantasy.

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