Life is a hangout. If you don't have one, you're lost." My
mentor, Frank Chirkinian, swirled the ice cubes in his Scotch
and water and let me ponder his words. I was the student, he was
the teacher, and we were embarked on a tutorial that I hope
someday to develop into a book called Tuesdays with Frank. He
sat on a bar stool with a window view of the Winn-Dixie parking
lot. I sat on the other side of a tall cocktail table, my left
elbow on the sill of an ice table filled with gray oysters, pink
shrimp and bright red crayfish.
I knew that Frank was testing me. "When you say, 'If you don't
have one,'"--I lifted my gaze to the ceiling fans, spinning
listlessly over the crowded dining room--"do you mean a hangout?
Or a life?"
Frank didn't seem to hear the question. His eyes tracked a
couple crossing the parking lot, a couple I recognized as CBS
golf analyst and former Ryder Cupper Peter Oosterhuis and his
"Nobody really parties anymore," Frank said over the din of the
bar patrons. "Those days are gone."
By nobody Frank apparently meant no Tour players, media folk and
celebrities--the colorful characters he chronicled for 38 years
as producer of the Masters telecast on CBS. But on this Masters
Tuesday, the French Market Grill (West) had its share of golf
people, including former U.S. Open champ and CBS analyst Ken
Venturi, seated with friends near the bar, and three-time
Masters runner-up Greg Norman, trying to be inconspicuous in a
corner booth. Joe Phillips, an accomplished saxophone player and
longtime Tour rep for Wilson Sporting Goods, stopped by to tell
Frank that Gene Sarazen's daughter was at a table. Frank said,
"Joe, my man!"
I asked Frank if he behaved like a host when he was at the
restaurant, which he co-owns with retired businessman Carl
Swanson and restaurateur Chuck Baldwin, owner of the
long-established French Market Grill on Berkman's Road, near
Augusta National. "Like a host?" He looked almost as perplexed
as he did in the movie Tin Cup, in which he played a television
"Yeah," I said. "Greeting people at the door, going from table
to table." Frank shook his leonine head and said, "I don't greet
or mix with any of them." He then hurried off to welcome some
friends who had just come in.
I didn't tell Frank the whole truth: that I had already decided
to make his restaurant my Masters hangout, the place where print
acolytes and other media chums will find me when I'm not
hammering out stories on my old, battered laptop. I already had
rejected several notable Augusta nightspots: the pricey
Calvert's because it has white linen tablecloths; the Red Lion
Pub because the music is too loud for conversation; Hooters
because--well, I hadn't actually ruled out Hooters. The
Partridge Inn and the Surrey Tavern, of course, are too closely
identified with writer Dan Jenkins and the late golfer-TV
commentator Dave Marr, who swapped stories and bar tabs in them
Some of my colleagues made recommendations that were borderline
facetious. Joe Posnanski, the columnist for my hometown Kansas
City Star, mentioned the Sports Center, a downtown joint once
favored by the staff of The Augusta Chronicle. "It's a
biker-type place. A lot of tattoos," he said, "but really good
hamburgers." Bill Lyon, sports columnist for The Philadelphia
Inquirer, waxed nostalgic over an old roadhouse called the Rub
It In Again Inn, where the sign outside once advertised AMATEUR
JELL-O WRESTLING ON THURSDAY NIGHTS.
Back at the French Market Grill, Chirkinian made a distinction
between the hangouts themselves--many of which were still
around--and the characters who did the hanging out. "The kind of
people who frequented those places are no longer with us," he
said. "It was a harder-drinking group. They were iconoclastic,
not trying to impress anybody. People today are more concerned
with their images."
I wasn't sure that image consciousness explained the change, but
I couldn't deny the change itself. My own reputation as a bon
vivant suffers because I don't drink, smoke, cuss, dance or eat
mayonnaise, onions or cooked tomatoes. I am not unlike most
younger journalists--I'm 52--who drink tea, call home every
night and wash their own shirts in the hotel's coin laundry.
Lyon, who is 61, expressed my misgivings about this trend when
he asked, "Where are the future reprobates coming from?"
Frank, whose eyes never quit scanning the room, suddenly
stiffened. A TV camera crew led by a nicely coiffed young woman
with a microphone had come in through the canopied entrance,
"What's that? What's that?" He turned to me. "That's scary.
We're always in bars with people we shouldn't be with." At
Frank's insistence an employee hustled over to question the
intruders and came back with the sobering news that they were
from Channel 12--a CBS affiliate.
"Should I tell them to leave?" she asked.
Frank sighed. "No, they can stay."
A choice had to be made: Sit or stand. When Jenkins held court
at the Partridge Inn, he usually stood by the island bar, his
hands occupied with a drink and a cigarette. I thought I might
be more comfortable with the head-of-the-table approach of SI's
Ron Fimrite, the urbane San Franciscan who made Scottsdale's
Pink Pony steak house an Arizona spring training landmark.
Fimrite's table was actually three or four tables pushed
together, and his regular guests included New Yorker writer
Roger Angell, former National League president Chub Feeney,
California Angels owner Gene Autry and the occasional Hall of
Fame ballplayer. Fimrite, a man of great charm and warmth, liked
the inclusive nature of the long table, which allowed more
people to converse face-to-face.
Another choice: permanent or floating table? The French Mixed
Grill already has a reserved nook called the Yacht Club, where a
retired nuclear power plant worker named Yacht Mitchell hangs
with his pals every afternoon. "How Yacht got his name," Swanson
told me, "was his father was getting ready to buy a boat when
Yacht's mother got pregnant. So his father said, 'There's my
Swanson, a big, Burl Ives sort of man with a beard and glasses,
is retired from Club Car Corporation, the golf cart company he
cofounded. Swanson said he got into the restaurant business
because his old Augusta hangout, the American Diner, closed
three years ago, "and Frank and I didn't have a place to drink."
Unable to keep the place open any other way, they bought it and
persuaded Baldwin to turn it into another French Market Grill.
"It's not my first restaurant," Frank told me. In 1986, the year
he had the more recent of his two open-heart surgeries,
Chirkinian opened a fast-food Italian place called Hello Pasta
on Washington Road. "Three hundred thousand dollars later,"
Frank said, "Hello Pasta became Arrivederci Pasta." Length of
run: six months.
Frank said, "I prove every day that impetuosity knows no age."
Thursday night was my maiden voyage. I invited a few veteran
newspapermen, and they trickled into Frank's place between 8:30
and 9:30, detouring to the pay phone to see what their
respective sports desks were doing to their first-round copy. We
started with drinks at the bar, and Marino Parascenzo of the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette got us off to a Fimritian gallop by
telling a Winston Churchill story and by asking a question with
the word cartilaginous in it. Mike Kern of the Philadelphia
Daily News then pulled us back to Jenkinsville by rhapsodizing
over out-of-town meals past.
On a signal from the reservationist, I led my entourage over to
the assigned booth and ordered us a pound of boiled shrimp and
assorted appetizers. The Oosterhuises were at a neighboring
table, so I told our waitress that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED wanted to
pick up their tab, as well. "Any players come in tonight?" I
asked, ready to wave my corporate Amex at anyone's tab.
"Tom Lehman was here last night," a waitress replied.
"If he comes back," I said, "bring me his check."
Our booth was positioned for maximum visibility, close to the
entrance and on the center aisle. That made it easy for
recipients of my largesse to stop by to express their thanks.
For ambience, however, I would have preferred a table along the
east wall, under the mural depicting a New Orleans streetscape.
Not that ambience mattered, once the food began arriving. Dave
Hackenburg of The Toledo Blade gave everybody a taste of his
spicy jambalaya appetizer, and Joe Juliano of The Philadelphia
Inquirer chewed thoughtfully on a marinated shrimp before
proclaiming it, "Not hot, but very, very good." Our entrees
included a stuffed trout, sesame-crusted tuna, steak and
lobster, crab chop a la Charles and honey-pecan chicken, all of
which received thumbs up from the scribes. I called our waitress
over and said, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would like to buy drinks
for"--I shrugged--"for the next table to buy drinks."
She said, "No matter who it is?"
I said, "Absolutely," and she went off laughing. (The recipients
of that bit of largesse never stopped by to express their thanks.
The waitress confided that they were already "pretty blitzed"
when she delivered the freebies.)
I was lost and now I'm found; that is to say, I finally have a
Masters hangout. But when I told Frank that I would henceforth
spend thousands of SI's entertainment dollars in his restaurant,
his face expressed a certain ambivalence. I thought it was
because our Tuesday tutorials on nightlife were about to end,
but I later decided that he was simply worried that he might not
have enough space for my boisterous entourage.
Frank said, "I'm the first guy to put a camera in a blimp, you
know. Orange Bowl, 1960. Now they've got blimps at every f------
event you can think of--blimps at tennis matches, blimps at
baseball games. They even have blimps above closed stadiums.
They're taking pictures of a roof! At night! Does that make any
f------ sense to you?"
I guess that was Frank's way of saying that the lessons were
over and I was ready to go out on my own.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTOR JUHASZ Charge! With a wave of his corporate credit card, the author quickly won the hearts and minds of the other scribes, and was soon regaling a tableful of acolytes.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTOR JUHASZ Live at five Chirkinian wasn't happy to see a TV crew at his joint because "we're always in bars with people we shouldn't be with."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY VICTOR JUHASZ Low profile Norman, a three-time Masters runner-up, tried to be inconspicuous when he visited the French Market Grill.
I told our waitress, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would like to buy drinks
for"--I shrugged--"for the next table to buy drinks."
Chirkinian said the old gang "was a harder-drinking group. They
were iconoclastic, not trying to impress anybody."