The Masters: Splendor in the Grass

THE MASTERS: SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS

Most of the small cities and suburban towns in America have a street similar to Washington Road. They are all populated by an endless number of strip malls, motel chains, and every fast food franchise imaginable, except that in Augusta, GA, 2604 Washington Road is the address of the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the historic Masters Golf Tournament.

Augusta National is one of the world’s most exclusive (and restrictive) golf clubs, yet walking distance from Hooters and directly across the street from a CVS Pharmacy, so I was able to purchase sunscreen before I transcended being a mere golf fan or tournament attendee into a Masters “patron.”

Until now, television was the closest I’d come to seeing the Masters and although many friends had told me about the tournament, nothing prepared me for the perfection that is the Augusta National Golf Club. The bright green grass looks as if it’s washed and buffed daily, while the white sand in the bunkers belongs in an hourglass and the trees are surrounded by lush deep brown pine needles so pristine that compared to Augusta, Disneyworld looks sloppy.

The club does not announce gate figures, but it’s estimated that 35,000 people attend the Masters and rather than engaging in any additional research, I spoke with Jon Ehrlich, a New York attorney known to friends and associates as the Masters Maven.

Ehrlich took up golf at age 10 and immediately fell in love with the game. His hero at the time was Arnold Palmer, who won his fourth Masters championship in eight years by 1964, forever instilling in Ehrlich a sense that Augusta was a magical place where dreams are brought to life. “Augusta is a horticultural masterpiece,” said Ehrlich. “It’s an oasis of aesthetic design.” Ehrlich and I also discussed how despite Augusta’s elite membership rules, the Masters is remarkably egalitarian. “It’s not unique to golfing events but given the history of this tournament and club, it offers a distinctive inclusivity – an ability to mingle that’s really striking.”

Other than a clubhouse for members and players there are no private boxes or guarded areas found at other sporting events. During Wednesday’s practice round, I walked up the fairway directly alongside VJ Singh separated only by a thin rope. All of the other patrons I encountered were friendly and engaging, especially a group from Australia who flew in especially for the tournament. I found them literally genuflecting over the spot where Bubba Watson hit his famous hook shot out of the woods in 2012, and they insisted I join them, which I did. If this seems odd, Ehrlich has the answer. “The majority of people who follow professional sports are strictly spectators, while golf fans are unique because no matter what their age may be – from 8 to 80 – many of them regularly play the sport. This provides a unique insight and great respect for the remarkable talent and skill one needs to be a professional golfer.”

It’s not all about worshipping the golf idols. Augusta also has a sense of humor. Using the bathroom at The Masters is very entertaining, thanks to James Marshall, a men’s room attendant who colorfully announces the availability of urinals. “I got one on the back nine and three pulling out on the front five,” Marshall announced as I entered the immaculate lavatory. “Fill ‘em up!” he said repeatedly. Theatrics aside, the lines at bathrooms and concessions all move remarkably fast thanks to the helpful aides.

Outside of the club, everyone else on Washington Road is equally gracious, as my friend Andy and I learned from the staff at Denny’s, who treated us like visiting royalty. Yull Wohlmuth, the Regional VP was visiting from West Palm Beach and he gave us a ride to Wednesday’s practice round in the Denny’s car.

It was better than a limousine.

The name’s Mamet, Clara Mamet

The name’s Mamet, Clara Mamet

Clara Mamet has an old soul.  Something about her reminds me of Mel Brooks and Myron Cohen, except Mamet is 19 years old and has probably never heard of the Ed Sullivan Show, where I was first introduced to their styles of humor.  Nonetheless, Mamet’s the creative force (writer, director and star) behind Two Bit Waltz, a feature film that launched at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17th 2014.

Mamet utilizes both sight gags and cerebral humor like a seasoned sketch comedy writer, employing clever set pieces to cover subjects like death, money and chain smoking.  Throughout the film, Mamet uses toast to exploit a running gag, her wry sense of humor and the deadpan delivery of her actors play the material deftly enough to sustain the joke.  She also has a gag in her psychiatrist’s office that’s really hilarious and when I asked her about it she said, “What do you want to do when you’re at a shrink’s office?  A lot of people don’t want to be there so I figured why not just move the furniture around.  It’s much funnier than cutting back and forth from the patient to the shrink.”

I mentioned a Mel Brooks influence to Mamet, who responded that “Preston Sturges is one of my favorites.  I learned about dialogue and timing from him – louder faster funnier.  But I do love Mel Brooks,” she added.

Sidney Lumet is another influence, having taught Mamet “the importance of less is more” and she considers him her favorite film maker.   Mamet wants to keep making movies and she has five scripts in the pipeline although “all of them are half finished, hopefully one will pop up.”

Mamet’s background may be considered privileged – her parents are David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon – but I found her to be a shy and respectful yet driven young woman, which is a rarity in her age group, which seems to be populated primarily by insouciant hipsters.

Mamet’s certainly ambitious and hardworking and when I asked her for a dream project she mentioned a Bond film without missing a beat.  Mamet has a true gift for humor and I hope she considers an off-beat comedy show before turning twenty one.

 

Wrong is the new Right

I’ve never enjoyed losing but sometimes I don’t mind being wrong. Prior to the first NFL game this year I predicted the Jets record would be (at best) 5 – 11 for the regular season. I was bullish on the 49ers and the Vikings. I thought Tom Brady and the Patriots were cooked. After the second game of the season I wrote a Huffington Post piece demanding Rex Ryan be fired.
I forecast a score of Bills 20 Jets 17 for yesterday’s (September 22) game but the Jets won 27 – 20.

The 49ers are 1 – 2. The Vikings are 0 – 3.

Tom Brady’s swan song may be another Superbowl.

The jury is still out on Rex but pressure to deliver is forcing him to lead in a manner he may not prefer, but one that works better for the team.

Geno Smith is fun to watch. He’s mobile, can throw darts and is only going to get better. The Jets have a shot at a 9 – 7 season.

So far this unpredictable NFL season has delivered added excitement, better banter on television and unexpected humility to many who deserve it.

A Baseball Bacchanal

It’s great to talk about food and baseball with others who are equally passionate on the subjects and recently I was fortunate enough to do so with the Nieporent brothers, Drew and Tracy, as well as Mike Landeen, Senior Vice President, Venue Services & Operations for the New York Mets. Along with Nobu and the Tribeca Grill, the Nieporents have added the Acela Club at Citi Field to their restaurant empire, which has dramatically changed the way fans can experience a professional baseball game.

Major League baseball games have become continually longer, with the average length about three hours. Instead of complaining about it (like me) the Mets organization has addressed the problem with extracurricular activities at the ballpark, many of them involving food.

According to Landeen, gastronomy was an integral part of Citi Field’s original planning. “When we began designing Citi Field it was our intention to pick the best of the best of New York so we got Danny Meyer (Shake Shack) and Dave Pasternack (Esca, Catch of the Day) and of course Drew Nieperont,” he said. It was the Mets’ mission to redefine the dining experience at sports and entertainment facilities, and they have certainly done so from the basic concession stands to the Acela Club, a pristine glass house sitting high above left field, it’s perfection obscured only by an orange foul pole.

“We treat people like we want to be treated ourselves,” said Drew.  ”It’s entertainment,” added Tracy. The expansive glass wall affords a view of the entire stadium and with televisions placed strategically throughout the restaurant it’s hard to miss any aspect of the game.

At most other premium stadium restaurants, the food is usually served buffet style, and that is something the Acela Club has avoided. “Stadiums are like cruise ships. You have a small window of time to feed a large group of people so buffet style is often the easiest method,” said Landeen. “We like to call buffets food coffins, because they kill the food.”

The Acela Club is setup so you can order an entree (seven choices) from a menu but appetizers and salads can be obtained at market tables or “grazing stations,” as Tracy Nieporent likes to call them. These stations are not typical stadium buffets because there are no steam tables. The Butcher Block station offers prosciutto, salami, along with artisanal cheeses and breads. The Antipasti station offers salads and marinated vegetables while the Al Forno station has meatballs, caesar salad and thin crust pizzas. Taqueria, the fourth station, has assorted tacos, chips and salsas.

Our waitress Erina helped me and my friend Joe navigate the menu and more importantly, the restaurant, which has four separate tiers. We sampled almost everything at the market tables (it’s all you can eat) and I ordered the New York strip steak while Joe decided on the steamed branzino. We both enjoyed all the fare from the market tables but the standouts were perfectly prepared meatballs plus a delicious crispy Caesar salad with the exact amount of necessary dressing . The entrees were just the right size to accompany the amount of food available at the various stations. My strip steak was tender as a filet but more flavorful and seasoned like a dream with tarragon, shallots and garlic herb butter. Joe’s branzino was steamed with leeks in a saffron mussel broth and excellent as well. The cost for dinner is $48.00 for adults and $25.00 for children and given the prices of hot dogs and beers that’s a very good deal. The wine list is reasonable with prices ranging from $36.00 to $150.00 per bottle. “There’s something here for every New Yorker,” said Joe. Amazingly, we made room for dessert and the panna cotta was excellent but the showstopper was the raspberry cheesecake donuts which would easily make the Homer Simpson hall of fame.

We sat down at our table shortly before the game began and stayed until the fifth inning when we returned to our seats. The only thing that took a bit of getting used to is that the restaurant is soundproof so you can’t hear any stadium noise, but the same holds true when watching a game at a sports bar or restaurant, and this was certainly a far different and better experience. “You immediately know that you’re a part of the game because everyone stops for the national anthem,” said Tracy, and in fact they did, with the majority of customers standing up.

More importantly, unlike other stadiums, most seats at Citi Field allow entry into the Acela Club. “We have a chance to create friendships,” said Tracy. “We want to serve everyone who comes to the stadium and offer a gracious dining experience without being elitist.”

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