COLUMBIA — The world may descend on Augusta for the annual rite of spring known as The Masters golf tournament, but thousands of those visitors head to Columbia when the sun sets on Augusta National Golf Club.
Take Mark Hamilton of Roanoke, Va., and Scott Rodgers of Pittsburgh, who were enjoying the front deck of the Wild Hare sports bar in The Vista on Monday, the first of three days the two friends will spend in Columbia while going to one of golf's premier events.
“We looked around a little bit and decided this was the place to stay,” said Rodgers, a vice president of Norfolk Southern railroad, who is making his third pilgrimage to the Masters. “(Columbia) has the best hotels this side of Augusta, and it's only an hour away.”
Masters week, which began Monday, is the single busiest week of the year for Columbia-area restaurants, bars and hotels. While a University of South Carolina football game fills those establishments for a night or two, the Masters packs them in for seven.
After a couple of relatively down years because of the poor economy, Midlands hotels booked up fast for this year's tournament, and restaurateurs and club owners are adding cooks, wait staff and bartenders.
“Demand seems to be well above normal,” said Steve Graves, general manager of the Doubletree by Hilton.
The 238-room Doubletree, at Bush River Road and Interstate 20, is the closest full-service Columbia-area hotel to Augusta. This year it is sold out, compared to near-sellouts the past two years, Graves said.
“Maybe it's the Tiger Woods effect,” said Graves, referring to the golfer who is a favorite to win the Masters for the first time since a sex scandal derailed his career in 2009. “Maybe it's the change in economy.”
No one really knows how many people flood the region around Augusta for the Masters, said Katrina Selby, spokeswoman for the Augusta Convention and Visitors bureau. Augusta National doesn't release the number of tickets it issues, and even ballpark estimates are problematic.
“There never has been a true economic study,” Selby said. “We know the hotels are filled. But we don't know how many homes are rented out.”
The Augusta Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Aiken and Edgefield counties in South Carolina, has 557,000 people and about 6,000 hotel rooms. The Columbia metro area has more than 746,000 people and about 11,000 hotel rooms.