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WWII veteran spends 90th birthday at Masters

By Bill Bengtson
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Tuesday was prime time for thousands of golf enthusiasts in and around one of the world's most famous golf courses, as Augusta National played host to this season's only full day of Masters practice rounds, and had exceptionally friendly weather in the wake of Monday's washout.

The sunny, warm day represented a milestone for North Augusta resident Don Barrett, a World War II veteran who moved to the CSRA in December from Witts Spring, Arkansas. Tuesday also was his 90th birthday.

"It's my birthday," he confirmed. "I can't think of a better birthday present than this."

Barrett, making his way around the premises with support from a walker, wore a black "World War II Veteran" cap and was stopped repeatedly by strangers who shook his hand and offered thanks or a greeting.

Among those was Aiken resident Andy Jones, who said that individuals such as Barrett are the reason why Americans are free today to enjoy such events as Augusta's massive annual celebration of golf.

"We had a great day. It was wonderful," said Barrett, a Navy aviation mechanic who served from 1945 until 1969. "I'll always remember it."

Barrett, whose service included the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, served his last tour aboard the USS Yorktown, which is now a tourist attraction docked in Charleston Harbor.

"My job was to maintain the helicopters that picked up the astronauts from Apollo 4 through 8," he said.

Exploring the grounds with Barrett were his daughter, Kathleen Franey, and family friend Dwayne Clark, both also from North Augusta.

Navy Reservist Larry Watkins, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was among those who met Barrett and expressed appreciation for the chance to meet a serviceman from decades earlier.

Watkins, experiencing The Masters for the second time, added, "It was an awesome day -- phenomenal weather, and it's great to see the course in such pristine condition.

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"Some of the flowers didn't make it, though. It looks like they had the earlier (warm) weather. Then the frost came in and killed it off, but the course was immaculate."

Rich Britt, a Charlotte resident originally from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was on the course with his brother and two lifelong friends, all from his hometown. They agreed on the adjectives "wonderful," "spectacular" and "fantastic" to describe the experience.

Britt, who was visiting the tournament for the third time, said the hospitality was particularly memorable. "It was just beautiful, to be able to move around and see all the players and get up close. All the weather ... Everything was great."

Among those with hospitality duty was Lauren James, 17, of Augusta, now in her third year. Referring to the overall experience, she said, "It's very diverse. People come literally from every part of the world. They have the accents and it's really cool to meet people from all over the world, and be able to speak with them and have them understand a little bit about where I'm from, and I can learn where they're from, as well."

Her Tuesday encounters, she said, included representatives of California, Canada, England and South Dakota, and her Monday contacts included one with a hitchhiker from California who is trying to visit all 50 states and still has Florida, Missouri, North Dakota and Kansas to go. He happened to catch a ride on Monday, she said, with a group that was heading for Augusta National and had an extra badge.

North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones, who has attended every Masters since 1964, was among Tuesday's crowd, with his wife, Christy.

"It's just weird to see so many people at a practice round," the mayor said. "There are more people at Masters practice rounds than there are at most golf tournaments. I mean, by far, and we got there at 10 o'clock and the parking was full."

A highlight of the day, he said, was a visit to Berckmans Place, a huge golf-oriented dining and entertainment complex described in a Los Angeles Times report as "a reported 90,000-square-foot patch of heaven," with an extraordinary level of exclusivity.

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In the mayor's words, it is "on par with nothing else in Augusta and on par with nothing else in terms of golf at a tournament venue."

Chad Edgar, from Nederland, Texas, is among this year's first-time Masters visitors. "It was awesome -- a great experience," he said.

Edgar, who is a sales manager with an industrial contracting company, said he particularly enjoyed "just walking around and being able to see how well put-together it is and all that planning that goes into putting together."

He also described himself as a fan of Rory McIlroy, one of the most highly-ranked golfers of the past several years, and Edgar was able to see McIlroy "up close and personal" during Tuesday's action, he confirmed.

Bill and Lisa Thweatt, of Evans, Georgia, also were among Tuesday's Masters masses. "I just enjoyed walking the course, seeing the new additions they put up, and shopping," Lisa said.

Bill described himself as a longtime fan of the late Arnold Palmer, one of the towering figures in the sport's history. He said Tuesday's highlights included going into a gift shop and seeing a series of commemorative coins marking Palmer's four victories in Augusta (1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964).

"I had to investigate it," he said. "I grabbed one. He was kind of my golf hero."

Another high point, he said, was having the chance to meet local standout golfer Scott Brown and his wife, Allison, who were guests Tuesday morning at an annual prayer breakfast held during Masters Week at Warren Baptist Church in Augusta.

This article is written by Bill Bengtson from Aiken Standard, S.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.