David and Goliath

Local owner of The Lodge on Heath, Robert Williams, talks about what it’s like to have the Augusta National as a next-door neighbor

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David and Goliath

There it sits.

Less than 150 feet away from the main pedestrian entrance of Gate 9 to the Augusta National.

A two-story, spacious, 12,000-square-foot hospitality house with outdoor decks, a rock garden and even its own putting green.

Known simply as The Lodge on Heath, it is the ideal location for Masters guests to congregate, relax and enjoy everything from outstanding food and a massage to hand-rolled cigars and even instruction from a PGA professional who will analyze their golf swings.

This hospitality house can’t be moved and, so far, it can’t be bought.

The Lodge on Heath is the permanent neighbor to the Augusta National, whether the golf club likes it or not.

Originally, this house was built with hospitality in mind,” said Robert Williams, the owner of The Lodge on Heath, as well as the owner of Roux’s Catering in downtown Augusta. “When we bought the facility in 2008 from the previous owners, there were still houses all around us. It was legitimately still a neighborhood. Now most of those houses are gone. It is amazing how this area has been transformed.”

For the past several years, the Augusta National Golf Club has purchased parcels

along Berckmans Road, Heath Drive, Stanley Drive and Hillside Lane to clear land and develop a grassy field to be used for patron parking during Masters Week.

I was born and raised here in Augusta, so I have been a part of this area forever,” Williams said, sitting at a high top table inside the beautifully designed lodge. “I grew up in National Hills and my father actually lived on the other end of Heath, so this area has been a big part of my life.”

There is no other location outside the gates of Augusta National more perfect for a hospitality house than the corner of Heath Drive, Williams said.

We are the closest hospitality house to one of the patron entrances, so for us to be right in the thick of it all is wonderful,” Williams said, adding that he purchased the property before Augusta National closed all of the patron entrances on Washington Road. “The primary entrances were gates 3 and 6, but when they closed Gate 3 on Washington Road, that is basically when our Gate 9 came into full play.”

“Most of us are local guys that own these hospitality houses, from Bobby Walker to Lewis Blanchard to us,” Robert Williams said. “We are local. I have lived here my whole life. And most all of us have. We are all Augustans. This is our livelihood.”

For Williams, Gate 9 has always been considered “the gate to go in,” even as a child.

When I was young and we would go to the tournament, this is where we usually went in was through Gate 9,” Williams said, pointing towards the gate and explaining that this entrance puts patrons close to popular spots on the course such as Amen Corner. “To me, I like where it puts you on the course. I like that back nine side, so where Gate 9 puts you, to me, is where a lot of the fun on the course happens.”

To say that The Lodge on Heath’s location directly across from Gate 9 is crucial to him and his partners, VIP Sports Marketing, Inc. based in Chicago, is an understatement.

So, when the city announced plans a few years ago to redesign the northern section of Berckmans Road which currently boarders Augusta National, it definitely caught Williams’ attention.

He attended all of the public meetings held in 2012 to discuss the proposed plans to redirect Berckmans Road to align it with Alexander Drive.

As of right now, Williams said he has been told that the new road will be located to the left side of The Lodge on Heath and it should not impact his business.

But when your neighbor is a private golf club whose members are some of the most powerful and affluent people on the planet, Williams realizes anything can happen.

Let’s be honest, it’s like David and Goliath,” Williams said, laughing. “They are big ol’ Goliath and we are little ol’ David. They want, we have and we don’t want to sell it.”

But you won’t hear Williams speak ill of his neighbor. In fact, he has all the respect in the world for the hospitality and professionalism of Augusta National.

To me, when I think of that hospitality that the South is known for, I think Augusta National represent it as good as anybody does,” Williams said. “From the time you walk through those gates to the time you leave, I can’t think of anywhere else that I go where I have as many people that are as courteous, that are that genuine when they say, ‘How are you today? Have a great day! Enjoy yourself! Thanks for coming!’ They basically knock you down with hospitality. It represents Augusta in a very, very positive way.”

“It’s funny to me, you take something as big as what the Masters is and in most markets everything around it just booms because of it,” Robert Williams said. “But now it is almost like an implosion that everything is just evaporating from around it. I mean, to have the resources that Augusta National has to buy neighborhoods, to buy whole apartment complexes and turn them into grass lots, it is mind blowing.”

It is extremely important to Williams that The Lodge on Heath tries, as best as it possibly can, to parallel that experience.

Open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., The Lodge on Heath serves as basically a “stopping point” for its private guests going in and out of the tournament.

This is a place for our guests to host their clients, a place to provide them breakfast before going to the tournament, a place once they come off the course, to come back in and have appetizers and relax before they go on to their host homes,” Williams explained. “We are somewhat of a springboard for folks who may be at a host home across town and we transport them here and they just spring from here to the course.”

VIP Sports currently lists 2014 Masters Lodge on Heath hospitality passes starting at $310 per day on Monday and Tuesday of Masters Week and $615 per day for the remainder of the week.

Clearly, this is serious business for Williams and VIP Sports. And it is a business Williams aims to protect.

When asked about the estimated $16 million Berckmans Road project, which will include the replacement of a bridge over Rae’s Creek, Williams openly admits that he has some reservations about the road’s redesign.

Just from a taxpayer’s standpoint, completely taking myself out of how I benefit from our location, I just think it is an expense that the city of Augusta doesn’t need to incur,” Williams said.

“It feels like a green space that was never developed with the exception of our big old sore thumb that sticks out in the middle of it,” Robert Williams said, chuckling. “So I don’t have any disdain for what they’ve done because they have done it in a tasteful way.”

But the project is moving ahead thanks to an interest-free loan provided to the city last year by none other than Augusta National.

Augusta commissioners were told that construction on the road project could begin later this year.

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Williams, like many of the residents in the area, is keeping an eye on the project to see how it progresses.

Standing on the upper deck of the lodge overlooking the grassy fields that Augusta National has created for patron parking, Williams can’t help but reflect on how much has changed since he first purchased The Lodge on Heath back in 2008.

It’s funny. This neighborhood before it got to be hot and Augusta National was buying it, it was not one of the more sought after neighborhoods in Augusta,” Williams said. “It was a working-class neighborhood. There is nothing wrong with that, but it was a simple, working-class neighborhood. As many years as that tournament has gone on and this was a thriving neighborhood, nobody ever thought it would be what it is today.”

But Williams said he can’t complain about how Augusta National handled creating the patron parking.

I love the way that they have cleared this property. I will give them that,” Williams said. “They left trees. They didn’t just level it and pave it. It is a lot like what this area looked like before they put houses on it. From that standpoint, I do love that part of it.”

While he thinks it is somewhat sad that much of his father’s old neighborhood no longer exists, Williams said most of the homes in the Berckmans Road area were purchased for a substantial amount of money by Augusta National.

In fact, one of the homes that was most recently purchased by the golf course on the corner of Berckmans Road and Heath Drive sold for more than $3.6 million.

I hate that so many of those people were displaced, but none of those people are bitching about it,” Williams said, smiling. “I don’t know that you could find one person who sold to them that is saying, ‘Darn, I just wish I had my house back over there.’ People were well rewarded for moving and Augusta National has done as good a job as anybody to make the landscape here look as natural as it possibly can.”

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It feels like a green space that was never developed with the exception of our big old sore thumb that sticks out in the middle of it,” Williams added, chuckling. “So I don’t have any disdain for what they’ve done because they have done it in a tasteful way.”

Another addition that Augusta National constructed over the past few years is a 90,000- square-foot luxury VIP venue called Berckmans Place within the private golf club’s grounds at Gate 9, right across from The Lodge on Heath.

“As much as they are the powerful almighty Oz, they do take into consideration very much the perception that people who travel to Augusta have about Augusta,” Robert Williams said.

But Williams doesn’t consider it competition because, he’ll be the first admit, he can’t compete with a venue located onsite at Augusta National.

I think it represents the tournament in a very positive way because the level of hospitality that they are providing in those facilities is really second to none,” Williams said. “It is not anything that anybody else can compete with. We just can’t. They are onsite.”

However, Williams believes that there are more clients that want to have access to the course’s VIP venue than Augusta National can handle.

They are really targeting the upper echelon of those corporate clients. I think that is what their main goal is,” Williams said. “The onsite structures are more for those top Fortune 500 companies that have the resources to spend on that type of hospitality and want that level of hospitality provided for their guests.”

But not everyone is looking for that type of environment, Williams said.

Here is a more relaxed environment,” Williams said, referring to The Lodge on Heath. “I’ve been told that (at Berkmans Place) it wasn’t like you could kick your feet back and smoke a cigar and drink a drink. It was a lot more formal, but, of course, most country clubs are.”

There is no doubt that the onsite VIP venue has changed the atmosphere of Masters Week, Williams said.

Is it going to impact those of us who do hospitality on a weekly basis? It is going to,” Williams said. “But I think we are positioned as good as anybody to the extent that we are so close to a patron entrance. I think it will be harder and harder for those guys on the other side of the street as more and more hospitality is provided onsite.”

If Williams could ask the Augusta National for one thing, he said it would be for them to consider including more local people during Masters Week.

The one thing that, for me, would benefit everybody, and not that they are going to take into consideration us or anybody else who is competing against them, but I think it is important from them to keep locals involved in every way they can,” Williams said. “Most of us are local guys that own these hospitality houses, from Bobby Walker to Lewis Blanchard to us. We are local. I have lived here my whole life. And most all of us have. “We are all Augustans. This is our livelihood. We don’t do it for the sport of it. I do it because it is our business and Masters Week is a big part of our business.”

“I don’t know that you could find one person who sold to them that is saying, ‘Darn, I just wish I had my house back over there,’” Robert Williams said. “People were well rewarded for moving and Augusta National has done as good a job as anybody to make the landscape here look as natural as it possibly can.”

Having hospitality onsite is incredible, but Williams believes Augustans still should have a huge role in Masters Week.

My hope is that, over the years, as they do more and more onsite, that the locals can still somehow be a part of what is done,” he said, adding that includes still giving locals access to tickets and badges. “I sometimes feel like locals, who really put up with probably as much of the downside of Masters Week like the traffic and inconveniences of the day-to-day functioning of the tournament, sometimes maybe aren’t considered as much. I mean, I can remember when I was in college back in the early 1990s, you could still walk up to the gate and get a practice round ticket.

You had to stand in long lines, but from a local standpoint, we knew we could stand in line, get a ticket and go. Now, that is no longer an option.”

That’s a shame because locals have supported and enjoyed Masters Week for decades, Williams said.

It’s funny to me, you take something as big as what the Masters is and in most markets everything around it just booms because of it,” Williams said. “But now it is almost like an implosion that everything is just evaporating from around it. I mean, to have the resources that Augusta National has to buy neighborhoods, to buy whole apartment complexes and turn them into grass lots, it is mind blowing.”

But, again, Williams appreciates the manner in which Augusta National has transformed the area.

As much as they are the powerful almighty Oz, they do take into consideration very much the perception that people who travel to Augusta have about Augusta,” Williams said. “Whether it is from an aesthetics standpoint with how they’ve landscaped Washington Road to the grass lot over here, I think they have beautified it more ways than they’ve hurt it.”

For that reason, Williams looks forward to being Augusta National’s neighbor for many years to come.

I hope we are still here 10 years from now,” Williams said. “For us, it does get back to, this is our livelihood. I’m not an out-of-town caterer who flies in and generates money off of Augustans one week of the year and I’m gone. I built my life here. I was born and raised here. This is my home.”

There is no other place in the world Williams would rather run his business than Augusta, he said.

So I hope we can do this for as long as we are able to do it,” he said. “I think that we offer our clients a level of hospitality that is consistent to what Augusta National would want for their patrons that come in town and visit.

We want to be good neighbors with Augusta National and hopefully we can have a long-term relationship that can keep this little thing we have going for years and years to come.”

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