AUGUSTA, Ga. — Business more than tripled with Fred Couples’ single statement soon after TBonz Steakhouse opened. Conveniently, Mark Cumins and Jerry Scheer had a restaurant on Washington Road less than a mile from the Augusta National Golf Club.
It was during a Masters practice round in 1986, the day after Couples, on his way to golf stardom, popped in for a steak dinner.
Couples spotted Cumins in the gallery on the ninth hole.
“Mark!” Couples shouted, strategically pausing long enough to draw a small crowd of fans taking pictures.
“I had a great meal over at your restaurant, TBonz, last night,” Couples said loudly. “I think I’m coming back tonight. Table for five?”
News spread as if a TBonz photo was suddenly added to the iconic Masters logo.
“Everybody started coming,” Cumins said.
Established tour players, rookies, sportscasters and caddies at first. Followed by baseball and football greats and music stars.
Longtime golf enthusiasts Darius Rucker and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills became regulars.
Cumins became famous as an Augusta native host obsessed with packaging Southern hospitality with yummy food.
But a coronavirus-postponed November edition of the Masters?
“We have no idea what to expect,” said Cumins, 63, who lives in a home aside the fourth hole at the Country Club of Charleston but works long hours in Augusta during the Masters. “I think we’ll be busy but nothing like usual.”
No need to order 6,000 pounds of beef this Masters as TBonz staff did over an eight-day golf stretch in 2019, Cumins said.
Serving 1,050 dinners a night for eight nights the week Tiger Woods won his fifth green jacket added up to some 4,000 baked potatoes.
Other businesses along Washington Road will feel the hit. Taco Bell. Krispy Kreme. Moe’s Southwest Grill.
It won’t be the same at Hooters, where popular golfer John Daly often set up shop to sell stuff and sign autographs in the parking lot.
There are no corporate tents or golf art displays this year, and no traffic jams.
And the TBonz in Augusta is just one of 23 restaurants Cumins and Scheer own. There are TBonz, Pearlz Oyster Bar, Liberty, Flying Fish, Rioz, Taco Mundo and Kaminsky’s locations in South Carolina and Georgia.
But this place is the heartbeat of Masters social dining when there isn’t social distancing.
Not long after Couples’ shout out to TBonz, recommendations came from fellow golfers Peter Jacobsen, Mark O’Meara and Brad Faxon. Soon, Masters-week lines meant hour-long waits.
“Fuzzy Zoeller,” Cumins said, mentioning the 1979 Masters champ. “He brought me so much business it was ridiculous.”
Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming legend, during his first Masters visit made sure he “Did everything … Went to TBonz, had the steak.”
A-Rod and the Admiral
Oh, the stories.
“Is there a statute of limitations?” Cumins asked.
Cumins still talks about the time Mills, baseball Hall of Famer George Brett and former tennis star Jim Courier wound up hanging out.
They combined for a bar tab of nearly $2,000.
Major League slugger Alex Rodriguez had a blast at TBonz and posed for photos with customers and staff.
When retired Admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen comes in, he insists on having a meal with Cumins.
These days, active players rarely visit TBonz during the tournament. They are cautious, as are most celebrities, of diners with cell phone cameras. Many top players travel with their own chefs and started doing that pre-COVID.
Still, Cumins expects the usual flow of caddies and people from CBS and ESPN — with some high-profile customers placing pickup orders.
“It’s great that they’re holding the tournament,” Cumins said. “But it’s kind of strange, just like any November in Augusta. Except there’s a Masters.”
Watson, party of 40
It’s a minor shame within a major pandemic, Cumins’ Georgia charm as muffled as the roar of an Augusta National crowd.
“We’re professional and we’re hospitable and we’ve been here for a long time,” Cumins said. “People come here from all over the world during Masters week. A lot of them have a perception that’s a misconception: they think we’re a bunch of bumpkins.
“So we go out of our way to make great food and be hospitable to show them what Augusta is.”
Tom Watson phoned Cumins a few weeks before the 2016 Masters. Watson had already announced it would be his last competitive trip to Augusta.
The 67-year-old winner of eight majors and two Masters wanted a reservation for 40.
“That meant a whole a side room at our busiest time,” Cumins said. “But Tom Watson? Sure. No problem. It was really cool, man.”
This is a tough week for many businesses along Washington Road in Augusta and almost everywhere else.
Cumins would rather emphasize a great life.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve been able to do some cool stuff and sit down with some people that are very interesting. And in a setting where they’re very happy.”
April of 2021 is right around the corner. But if it takes until the 2022 Masters for long lines to return, TBonz will have the beef and potatoes.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff