If the world of golf was a planet-sized, dimpled white ball, Tiger Woods would be the Atlas holding it aloft on his shoulders.
From busboys to CEOs, from television executives to clerks at sporting goods stores, as goes the world's greatest golfer, so goes an entire industry. And this Atlas has been doing a lot of shrugging lately. But now that he has announced his long-awaited return to the sport, there is a palpable buzz throughout the sport and all the people who depend on it to make a living.
No community was more relieved at news that Woods is getting back in the game than the city of Augusta, Ga., site of the PGA's Masters tournament. News that Woods would play his first competitive round in nearly five months at the prestigious tourney sent the city of 200,000, located 150 miles east of Atlanta, into overdrive.
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Residents and merchants are working around the clock this week to prepare for Woods' return to the tournament he has won four times. As landscapers tend to pristine yards and business owners spruce up their shops and restaurants, everyone is breathing a sigh of relief, and smelling money.
“Part of the lifeblood of Augusta is people renting their house during Masters week,” says Chuck Baldwin, owner of the cajun-themed French Market Grille, which he calls “ground zero” for visitors attending the Master’s tournament. In recent months, Baldwin noticed that people were getting nervous that Woods wouldn’t participate, which was driving down rental prices.
“There was a house asking $7,000 for the week, and once Tiger committed, they changed their price to $21,000 and rented it immediately,” he says. “Some people pay six months of their mortgage from renting their house.”
Area hotels and bed-and-breakfasts get in on the action as well. While the city does not keep a week-by-week tally of income, last year lodging tax collections for the month of April totaled $9.75 million, up 200 percent from the average month. The Masters drives the annual boom, and this year's could be bigger than ever.
The excitement in Augusta started long before Woods swings a club and launches his quest for a fifth green jacket at the fabled Augusta National Golf Club, as media from all over the world descends on this bucolic city to set up camp. “There’s a sense of gleeful anticipation,” says Baldwin.
At Bonventura Discount Golf, one of the oldest golfing retail chains in the country, owner L.D. Waters is just happy that golf season is starting up again. The Masters is the first major tournament of the year and it always sparks renewed interested in golf equipment.
“It’s like having Christmas during April,” says Waters, noting that his business usually earns as much money during Master’s week as it does during the entire holiday season.
And that’s just to start. “We do more business after,” says Waters. “People tend to make the big purchases after the tournament ends. They usually see a product they like on television and come in and pick it up after the Masters ends.”
Waters hopes that a stellar performance by Woods will boost his Tiger Woods products, whose sales have been in the rough since the scandal.
However, Doug Janchik, co-owner of onlygolfapparel.com said that his national sales of Tiger Woods products have actually gone up 14 percent since January. He thinks that Woods enjoys a loyal fan base and attributes the bump in sales to all the media attention he’s getting. “Every time he’s on TV, we sell product,” he said.
Still, some are worried that Woods threw his visor into the ring too late for many long-term planners who have opted out of coming to Augusta this year.
“Last year was quieter. I believe this year will be the same due to the economy,” said Karen Miller, manager of Somewhere in Augusta, a bustling restaurant and sports bar less than half a mile from the Masters fairways. “I believe if Tiger had said he was coming earlier, things would be busier.”
Nevertheless, Miller and her crew are “busy as bees right now,” setting up extra tables and chairs, fencing off a beer garden, and updating the menu. Miller says she looks forward to the event every year, even if she’s scheduled to work 86 hours that week.
And the restaurant is cashing in on all the Tiger Woods hoopla as well. Batches of T-shirts reading “Tiger’s Back - Masters 2010,” are flying off the shelves. “We’ve sold out twice already,” says Miller.
At The Playground, a happening bar in downtown Augusta, manager Sam Adam hasn’t concocted any quick money-making schemes involving Woods, although she thinks a “sex-on-the-golf-course” could be a popular drink. “Coconut rum and melon liqueur!” she laughed.
Although Adam will be working seven straight 12-hour shifts during the Masters, she says it’s thrilling meeting people from all over the world. “We get people from Germany, England, Italy, all over America. And people from Ireland who order Bud. That always cracks me up,” she said.
Some find it hard to criticize a man they know puts money in their pocket. “If you think it doesn’t happen with most athletes, I think you have your head in the sand,” said Karen Miller.
“He’s an amazing golfer and he always has been. His personal life shouldn’t affect anything,” Adams added.
The world will be watching when Woods tees off, but whether his return is triumphant or disappointing, the city of Augusta figures to hit the green.