Money makes the Masters go round and round and ...

WHEN the gates to Augusta National Golf Club open at 8am, half of the fans run to the course — the rest bolt to the gift shop.

With Masters Tournament memorabilia available only one week a year, it's a hot commodity that fans are itching to get their hands on.

And that means they're spending like crazy.

Tourism officials say, on average, visitors to Augusta spend $209 a night for their food, shopping, lodging and entertainment.

The crowds and spending can be so chaotic, tourism officials have a hard time tallying the receipts, especially when the high demand forces up the prices of parking, rounds of golf and hotel rooms.

The Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau stopped calculating an economic impact for the Masters in 1998, when it estimated the event pumped $109 million into the local economy.

At the Gordon Lakes Golf Course at Fort Gordon, a round of golf with a cart on the Robert Trent Jones-designed course costs civilians $39 on a normal weekend. During Masters Week, that same round costs $85.

Hotels are capitalising too.

Some rooms that normally would cost about $60 a night can be had for close to $200 this week.

"If you go to the Indy 500 and expect to pay normal rates, you're crazy," said Tek Chand, the owner of the Days Inn on Washington Road. "It's a high-demand week. Whenever there is high demand, I raise prices. It's a supply and demand thing."

MEMBERS of the media in town this week to cover the Masters Tournament can thank Clifford Roberts for the spacious and state-of-the-art facilities available to help them cover the event.

After all, it was the desire of the late tournament chairman to make sure everything about the Masters was first-class. Even though he did not live to see the current Press Building, which opened in 1990, he no doubt would be impressed by the cavernous facility.

Most sports writers consider the Press Building to be among the best of its kind.

Not only is there a seemingly endless supply of free sandwiches and soft drinks in the upstairs lounge, those lucky enough to have an assigned seat in the main portion have the whole tournament at their fingertips. Giant-screen televisions, a digital scoreboard and headphones to listen to interviews being conducted on the ground floor of the building are just a few of the amenities.

It's a far cry from the Quonset hut that served as the media headquarters from 1953 to 1989. The hut was a cozy and intimate setting, but it was a noisy and cramped venue that had grown outdated.

Edwin Pope, who has been covering the Masters since 1947, remembers a much more informal atmosphere in the old days.

"The press tent was literally a press tent, located over by the first fairway," said Pope, now a columnist for The Miami Herald. "It had planks on the floor and 12 or 13 typewriters. Each one had a big barrel of whiskey beside it, in various stages of emptiness. Mostly empty."

The main arena seats about 400 people, mostly newspaper and magazine writers.

JACK Nicklaus has hinted he may not play another Masters after this year.

Winner of 18 Majors in an illustrious career, the 64-year-old Nicklaus is contesting his 44th US Masters, having won at Augusta a record six times.

Nicklaus said: "I would say the chances of not seeing me here next year are a lot greater than seeing me.

"It's far better than 50% that I won't play here anymore. I'd say 10th would be a good week. If 10th is good, it's maybe time to hang up my spikes."

Last year Nicklaus, who suffers from back problems, shot 85 in the first round his worst score at the Masters.

He added: "It's just how to stop playing. It's a very difficult thing to do.

"It's something I've done all my life. It's something that I know has to come to an end sooner or later. There's only one person that's going to end it, and that's me.

"People come up to me and say, 'Oh, Jack, don't quit playing Augusta. We like to see you play'. "But how much do they really see me play? They walk up on me and say, 'Oh, there's Jack, let's see him hit this 5-iron'. Then they go see Tiger."

THE 68th Masters began quietly at 8am without pomp and circumstance, photos or a ceremonial starter, but with the same familiar air of anticipation.

With clouds hovering over Augusta National Golf Club, the starter's simple words, "Fore please, Tommy Aaron on the tee", signaled the beginning of the year's first major championship. Aaron, the 1973 Masters winner, poked his tee shot into the right corner of the fairway while most patrons, who not long ago swarmed the first tee box to catch a glimpse of Sam Snead, Byron Nelson or Gene Sarazen, were race-walking toward prime vantage points throughout the pristine property.

Charles Coody and Sandy Lyle followed Aaron off the tee and all three men began the tournament with bogeys.

The Masters began for the second straight year without an honorary starter, a role Masters chairman Hootie Johnson hopes will be filled in coming years by four-time winner Arnold Palmer, who is playing in his 50th and final Masters Tournament.

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