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Tour Championship: Haute cuisine, baby gators, sports bar vibe and, oh, yeah, golf 

This week at the East Lake Golf Club, they are inviting the paying public to come and enjoy a beer that hasn’t just been brewed, but rather “crafted.” Maybe, too, take a hack on a swing simulator, get up close with a baby alligator, watch a little football on a big screen. And that’s before moving on to the Bloody Mary and grilled oysters part of the program. 

The next-level paying public might even take in a parade of cooks who have been elevated to celebrity status, while enjoying the pig roast or the South African braai.

Oh, yes, there’s golf, too. Lest we forget that between the hospitality zones and the great stretches of bright white tenting at East Lake there lies a golf course. On which will be decided the Tour Championship and the season-ending FedEx Cup champion.

» Tee times: When does Tiger tee off at East Lake

With play beginning Thursday, a select field of 30 players will be snaking between the diversions. One of these players in particular has created a bit of a fuss. Tiger Woods making his return to the Tour Championship after a four-year absence has been very good for business. He alone can account for a 40 percent rise in ticket sales, estimated Allison Fillmore, the Tour Championship’s executive director. Overall, she said, sales have been up a whopping 90 percent over last year’s pace. 

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“Atlanta is such a diverse community that bringing Tiger back, we’ll see people who haven’t attended the Tour Championship in a long time because of the hype,” Fillmore said.

Even given the indisputable Woods bump, this year’s tournament more than any of its predecessors will feature a lot of stuff that has little to do with Woods’ comeback or Bryson DeChambeau’s quest for both the FedEx Cup and the Nobel Prize in Physics or Phil Mickelson’s brave crusade against the gravitational pull of aging.

They just keep adding layers and layers of distractions to the landscape here, making it entirely possible to spend a day at the Tour Championship and actually witness about as much golf as you would while hunting truffles in Tuscany. 

Take, for example, the so-called 1904 Club, this year’s big new thing at the Tour Championship. The lovely Tudor clubhouse will be made-over into an exclusive tournament-week enclave where for $4,000 one might sample five days-worth of celebrity chef dining and the kind of non-stop assembly line of food and drink that usually requires a cruise ship ticket.

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Why ever go outside? You might get sweat on your cravat.

Is there really a market for that kind of upscale experience at a golf tournament? “(Ticket sales) are doing very well,” Fillmore reported.

So, pretty much this week at East Lake, they’re staging a big golf tournament and the toniest county fair you’ve ever seen will break out.

What in the name of Bobby Jones is going on around here?

“We’re trying to create experience for fans who aren’t a huge fan of golf, to get everybody out here and realize this tournament is inclusive of everybody,” Fillmore said. “We got something for the foodies. We got something for your core golf fans. We got something for families. Got something for drama seekers and sports socialites.”

“We understand,” she added, “it’s not just the core golf fan who wants to come out and watch golf. There is a whole array of folks who want to come out, so you have to have these amenities to keep people happy.”

You’ve seen it at SunTrust Park. You’ve seen it at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The game is but a portion of the experience. This is no country for old men who grump that the entire focus should be on the competition – like in the day.

Golf, too, keeps seeking ways to lure people from the comfort of their couches and the convenience of television coverage in high definition. If that means enlisting the Georgia Aquarium to bring in some of its more amenable reptiles for the day, so be it. 

“As we continue to grow, we need to provide an atmosphere and experience for all fans, whether they’re die-hard golf fans or casual golf fans or just people here who appreciate a true Atlanta experience,” Martin Stephenson, the tournament director, said.

“That’s critical not only to our success and to continue to grow, but to become an Atlanta staple event. You need to have more than what’s happening inside the ropes,” he said. 

Ever helpful, Stephenson suggested a couple different Tour Championship tours, according to tastes.

For the families (children 18 and under are admitted free): Go to The Deck, a shaded area to watch players on the practice tee. Move on to the SO Cool Zone behind the 15th green where you can check out the aquarium exhibit and the barbeque. Try out the three-hole putting experience after 1 p.m. On the weekend, check out the football on the big screen. Wander over to the front nine to sample a couple other gathering places, like the Peachtree Porch and the new Coca-Cola Lounge.

For the urban hipster: Start at Back Nine Brews (off 17th fairway) for a beer and a taco. Get another cocktail at The Deck. On the front nine, try out the swing simulator and the oysters at the Coca Cola Lounge, and perhaps a glass of dry white at the William Hill Estate Wine and Dine off the 8th fairway. Make your way to the Grey Goose Lounge near the 12th green for another libation. And here, the idea of ride-sharing to and from the course can’t be stressed enough.

Actual itineraries and maps for fans of varied interests – foodie, golf fan, social butterfly – are available at Tourchampionship.com. A mere course map isn’t enough anymore.

And, if there is a little unclaimed time in your day, you may want to venture out and hike a couple holes to actually watch a little golf.  

That’s still your best shot at seeing a certain cultural touchstone player, until the Virtual Tiger Woods Holographic Experience and Creperie tent surely opens some day in the near future.  

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