When the Masters descends on Augusta, local students exchange pencils for pimentos

March 21, 2017

The club’s marching orders are simple: “Be polite, make sure the payment is processed.”

In 2013, when LaSherrica Christian made a cross-Georgia move from Macon to Augusta to start her freshman year at Augusta University, she was surprised to learn of the late date for spring break. Then she found out why: In Augusta, in surrounding Richmond County and in neighboring Columbia County, nearly every school follows the same calendar. When the Masters is on, schools are off.

You can follow the money. Within 20 or so miles of Augusta National, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of homeowners who rent their houses for the week of the tournament. They pack up, lock the liquor cabinets and split the scene, kids-on-vacation in tow. There are also hundreds of people, 16 and older, who use their week off from school to work the tournament. Last year, as a junior, LaSherrica worked as a merchandise-tent cashier. This year, she’s doing it again. LaSherrica, a psychology major, says she earns $9 an hour for the first 40 hours and $13 an hour after that. Last year, over the course of eight long days, she made $1,001, before taxes. She also bought $75 worth of merchandise for her golf-crazy father.

In keeping with unspoken club tradition for tournament employees, she doesn’t wear bright colors to work and makes sure her tattoos are covered. The marching orders, she says, could not be more straightforward: “Be polite, make sure the payment is processed.”

I interviewed a half dozen Masters-week employees. They all said they enjoyed the week. Some sample comments: I served Nick Jonas! It’s sooo quiet. I saw Bubba Watson in a concession tent. I can’t imagine a more perfect place. I almost met Condoleezza Rice.

Another Augusta University student, Hydea Collins, calls her father daily during the tournament. “I’ll say to him, “Dad, were you watching? I was standing by the 18th green!”” Child envy. An elemental part of the American dream.

The school-closing custom goes back to at least the 1970s. Before that, kids just played hooky. In the 1960s, golf-team members from Boys Catholic in Augusta often got to work the big manual scoreboard by the 18th hole. In the 1950s, local kids helped the Herndon family of Augusta prepare thousands of pimento-and-cheese sandwiches, a staple of the Masters then and now (though they’re no longer made by the Herndon family and their student helpers). In the late 1940s, when Fleming Norvell was new to golf and a student at Augusta’s oldest public high school, the Academy of Richmond County, he helped in the pro shop while the head pro, Ed Dudley, played in the tournament. “It didn’t register with me as a big deal,” says Fleming, who has been a club member for decades. “Now I wish I’d written everything down.” Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, coming and going.

For years, the Augusta schools were closed Monday through Friday during Masters week, but now they are closed on the Monday after the tournament as well. “Everybody needs a day to recover after the tournament,” says John Loebl, Richmond Academy’s golf coach. He doesn’t work the event. He caddies that week, next door at the Augusta Country Club.

A math teacher at Richmond Academy, Jamie Baxley is a manager of a concession stand near Amen Corner. Each April, several of her students work under her. It’s enlightening, she says, seeing them in another capacity. Monday through Saturday, beer sales start at 8 a.m., but not, she noted, until early afternoon on Masters Sunday, after the club gets a call from a nearby church to report that the last parishioner has cleared out of the church parking lot. Another employee, at a different concession stand, said the same thing. It might sound like an unusual custom, but Augusta—the club and the city—is a world unto itself. “We’re in the heart of the Bible Belt,” Jamie explains.

Jamie’s Masters money helps pay for an annual vacation. Brianna Cooper, an Augusta University student who works as a housekeeper during the tournament, puts her Masters paycheck toward her off-campus house rental. One week of hard work and long hours pays for three months’ lodging. She’s majoring in kinesiology and wants to become a dental hygienist. Her work at the Masters is playing a role in getting there.

David Ardrey, an 18-year-old senior at Richmond Academy, hopes to someday play Augusta. “That would be a dream come true,” he says. In the meantime, he’s seen glimpses of the event. He says that in his first year working the tournament, on a break, he “saw Luke Donald wearing a white shirt and pink pants, talking to his caddie about his tee shot on 10.” No tournament in golf is more intimate than the Masters. There’s player-spectator intimacy. There’s spectator-employee intimacy, too.

“It’s a great week,” David says. “The people are kind, the place is neat—there’s nothing like it. It’s the Masters!”