Pilgrims at Augusta by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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According to that modern font of wisdom known as Wikipedia, a pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is “a traveler (literally one from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place.

Typically, this is a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the adherent of a particular religious belief system.” Leaving aside the “on foot” part, I’d say that last week, my friend Key and I were poster-pilgrims.

The object of our journey was a small town just on the Georgia side of the Savannah River. There is a cathedral there known as Augusta National Golf Club, a place blessedly central to those of us who practice the particular religious belief system known as golf. Every year about this time, the archbishops of this cathedral conduct a holy rite of spring known as The Masters Tournament that draws pilgrims like Key and me to Augusta like moths to a flame. To say the very least, it did not disappoint; to say more, we have been restored. Hallelujah!

The archbishops of Augusta Cathedral all wear robes—well, jackets—of emerald green. To commemorate the consecrated site of their cathedral which was originally a fruit tree nursery (and before that, an indigo plantation owned by Belgian Baron Louis Berckmans), the priestly hierarchy decorate the close with thousands of flowering shrubs and trees: Azalea, Pink Dogwood, Redbud, Flowering Peach (after all, this is Georgia), Magnolia, Carolina Cherry, Flowering Crab Apple, Camellia, and Yellow Jasmine (the list goes on), all watered by a natural spring of holy water known as Rae’s Creek. It is said that that when the 365-acre property was optioned in 1930 for the princely sum of $70,000, the sainted Bobby Jones who along with the sainted Clifford Roberts had always dreamed of building a golf cathedral in northern Georgia, looked out over the land, saw that it was good, and murmured, “Perfect!”

To realize their dream, Jones and Roberts hired Dr. Alistair McKenzie of Scotland who had already built two other cathedrals (Cypress Point and Pasatiempo) out in California. For Augusta, McKenzie imagined high hills and deep valleys, spires of tall Georgia pines, long, narrow aisles of manicured fairways, and altars of subtle, undulating, and devilishly fast greens. He even envisioned a unique little chapel within the cathedral that would come to be known as Amen Corner, a place requiring lots of pious prayer from the supplicants passing along its beautiful but rugged way. Construction of the cathedral began in 1931; the first service was held in January 1933. Today, the cathedral is only open to a small band of members a few months each year because during the long, hot Georgia summer, it lies in quiet repose, each blade of grass, flower bed, and tree lovingly tended by gentle hands.

Fortunately, however, during the first week of April, Augusta Cathedral opens its doors to weary pilgrims like Key and me. (Key has made the annual journey more than twenty times; this was my novitiate year.) We bathed in the font of memory and watched in awe as the ordained high priests of our beloved game returned to worship at the shrine. We were welcomed with gracious southern hospitality and adhered to the ancient rites of etiquette and decorum. We marveled at the efficient conduct of the services and the modest cost of the succulent offerings of food and drink: pimento and cheese sandwiches and glasses of sweet tea. Except for the angels whispering in the treetops and the birds singing in the choir, the nave of the cathedral, even packed with a few thousand fellow pilgrims, was miraculously hushed and still. (Cell phones are not permitted in the cathedral.) Pine straw incense perfumed the warm Georgia air.

Each year, many aspiring supplicants come to test themselves at the cathedral and from them, one man of sound character and steady nerve earns the right to be inducted into the sanctum sanctorum of Augusta. He is venerated, given an honorary robe (ok, jacket), and a place at the locker room table. This year, it was a Spaniard, once a gifted boy but now a grizzled veteran of many legendary battles, who became champion and was joyously anointed into the mysteries of this special place.

Bishop Nance annually reminds us that The Masters is a tradition “unlike any other.” The same must be true of the cathedral we know as Augusta National Golf Club for it is the only golf course in America that has never been rated. It never will be. I guess heaven must have a higher standard.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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