JUST below the bridge that carries Route 1 across the Savannah River into South Carolina here, there's a stretch of water -- wide, deep, and slow moving -- whose significance this easy-paced Georgia town is only beginning to appreciate. In its own way it could do as much for the town in the years ahead as the famous Augusta National Golf Club has for the past half-century.
Just as the club, host for decades to the Masters tournament, has made Augusta, Ga., a golfing mecca, so this stretch of the Savannah, no more than a tee shot from downtown, promises to make the city a drawing card on the world water-sports circuit.
Last week Great Britain's Oxford University rowing crew came to town, the first overseas crew to compete in a regatta on the river. The same stretch of water has also just been included in the European Formula 1 powerboat racing circuit -- one of only two venues outside Europe. Water skiing and drag-boat racing have also asked for their share of the spacious river -- all this in a mere three years since its sporting potential was tapped for the first time.
The remarkable worldwide reputation of a relatively obscure metropolitan region (Greater Augusta ranks 113th in the United States) would never have occurred but for legendary golfer Bobby Jones. In 1930 he decided to leave his mark on golf-course architecture. Augusta earned a nod of approval over Jones's hometown of Atlanta because of its particularly benign climate. Together with Scottish golf-course architect Alister MacKenzie, he turned a one-time indigo plantation into a course that ranks among the most beautiful in the world, and one that was in advance of almost all others at the time.
The annual tournament, now called the Masters, began in 1934. Only one year later the incredible feat of golfer Gene Sarazen brought enduring fame to the tournament and this hitherto little-known Southern town. Trailing by three strokes with four holes to go, Sarazen sank his second shot on the par-five 15th hole from an incredible 235 yards out to draw even, then went on to take the title in a playoff.
Soon people who hadn't even heard of Georgia knew of the golfing town called Augusta. US TV coverage came in 1956, and in 1967 the BBC broadcast the first live telecast of the Masters via satellite to Europe. Through television, a world that had long linked golf and Augusta came to appreciate the exquisite beauty of the Augusta National course.
In contrast, the Savannah River, so recently discovered as a world-class water-sports venue, is not yet beautiful. That is expected to come in a few short years, if the plans now under way for the waterfront are carried out on schedule.
Augusta was founded where an Indian trading path crossed the Savannah just below the rapids (from this point on, the river offers easy navigation to the seacoast). But a decade ago all commercial traffic on the river ceased, and the Augusta Port Authority became almost obsolete. The authority was retained on a part-time basis, however, with the vague mandate to ``redirect activity'' on the river, though at the time there was little activity of any kind beyond pole fishing from the banks.
Searching for uses of the river, authority members invited several rowing officials to view the Savannah. The officials' response was universal approval. Norton Schlachter, chairman of the US Olympic Rowing Committee, declared the river to be ``one of the best sites in the world.''
Sparked by such praise, the Augusta Rowing Club came into being. Not long thereafter collegiate clubs were invited to compete in the city's first (1984) annual regatta to be held the weekend before the Masters. Largely through word of mouth advertising, the crowd swelled to 10,000 for the second event last year. Last week's regatta was expected to draw at least 12,000 to watch leading US collegiate crews and ``the boys from Oxford,'' as advance publicity dubbed them, in a day-long series of events.
When word reached powerboat enthusiasts, they approached Augusta's Port Authority with the request to ``do the same thing for us.'' The first Formula 1 powerboat event was staged on the river last year and was considered so successful that this year's televised event (June 21-22) will count in points scoring for the European circuit.
The International (Water) Ski Tour (40 US states and seven European countries) was also drawn to the river for the first time last year. So when the power boat drag racers, who burn as much as $700 fuel on a single quarter mile run, also came seeking annual rights to this stretch of the Savannah, Augusta suddenly found itself an unexpected claimant to the title ``water sports center of the US.'' (Other cities put on bigger individual events, concedes Duncan Wheel of the Augusta Port Authority, but ``no one else has put them all together the way we have.''
Historically, Augusta has been a trading town. It was laid out in 1736 and named after the Princess of Wales. By the early 1750s well over 300,000 furs and skins a year were being shipped from the port down river to Savannah, and thence to the fashion houses of Europe. Later tobacco, cotton, and textiles were the principal cargoes on the river. Only in recent decades has a more diversified economy taken hold.
Few Americans today think of Augusta as a place to take a vacation. But up until World War II it was a major resort for Northerners wishing to escape winter's chill. Then came the age of airlines and heavy promotion of Florida. Augusta, sitting inland on a largely undeveloped river, lost everything but its golfing image. In that, it still reigns supreme through the fame of the Masters tournament, the upgrading of its other courses, and the recent opening of another marvel of golf-course design -- the $6.5 million Jones Creek public course. (In contrast, Augusta National, home of the Masters, cost little more than $100,000 to complete in the early 1930s.)
While golf, and more recently the Savannah River, have brought attention, a group called Augusta Tomorrow Inc., using both public and private funding, is making an effort to develop the city further. Augusta is already a nice place to visit, contends Dayton Sherrouse, who heads Augusta Tomorrow. But in the future it will become a ``great place'' for both tourists and business visitors, he says. The key? The town's recognition that its riverfront is an impressive and largely untapped resource.
Back in 1918 a levee solved the problem of frequent flooding that had plagued the town throughout its history. But the levee, an impressive Dutch-style dike stretching 11 miles upstream from the town, became a barrier, both physical and psychological, between the people and their river.
The effect has been for townspeople to nearly ignore the river, a fact now viewed as a blessing. The lack of development means that ``the river has not been destroyed by overdevelopment,'' says Mr. Sherrouse. ``We can learn from other cities with similar river frontages, see what they've done well or where they've screwed up, and take it from there.''
Initially, the levee will be breached in two places. One opening at Eighth Street is now under construction and is a mere four-minute walk from the heart of downtown. Floodgates will enable the city to close the gap in the event that floodwaters cannot be handled by dams upstream.
Plans for the four miles of downtown riverfront include a floating restaurant; amphitheater; aquarium; a replica of the original Fort Augusta, which dominated the scene in early colonial days; and Oglethorpe Park, named after Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, the town's founder. Linking all these attractions will be cycling, jogging, and strolling paths. Much of the construction will be under way when the town begins the official celebrations for its 250th birthday later this year. Significantly, the op posite river bank will be left untouched. Woods along the waters edge will provide a pleasing contrast to Augusta's man-made landscape.
Meanwhile, Augusta is rehabilitating and restoring its historically significant buildings. There is more restoration work in Augusta, says James Clarke, who runs Augusta Tours here, ``than in any other US city of comparable size.''
In 1972 Peter Knox began rehabilitating old homes dating from 1860 until he now has purchased 175 houses. The effect from this undertaking has been the transformation of a once near-slum area of the city into an elegant residential area, renamed ``Olde Towne,'' within walking distance of downtown offices. A feature of this area is Telfair Inns, an entire block of old Victorian houses that has become an Augusta tourist attraction in its own right.
Meanwhile, James Clark will point out an investment opportunity or two to anyone who will listen. There's no commission in it for him; he just has a good eye for architecture worth saving. ``See that,'' he says, pointing to a one-time cotton storage shed -- a heavy-beamed, red-bricked, slightly Tudor structure with overhanging roofline. He notes that it dates back to the mid-1800s and has stood empty now for more than a decade. It's three minutes on foot from downtown banks and offices, he says, and no more than 50 feet from the river. ``What a place for a restaurant,'' he points out, ``with space left over for some interesting boutiques and specialty shops.''
Does he think a tourist boom is coming? Oh yes, he says. ``With the river project, this city is about to take off. It's ready to explode.''
For a related story on how one enterprising resident developed ``golf trivia,'' see Page 22.