FOR THE PAST TWO DECADES, local seafood purveyor Crab King has held court at the intersection of Milledgeville and Olive roads on the inner fringe of South Augusta. One of their marketing strategies in the days of yore involved stationing a wizened old king on the well-traveled corner. He, like the crab on the wall behind him, was bedecked with a crown but also a full-length velvet robe trimmed in white faux fur. Day in and day out under the scorching Georgia sun, the King of Crab regally waved to his passing subjects, turning slightly to gesture at a sovereign proclamation: The Best Legs in Town. 

Other than a bucket of paint, what does it take to be the best? 

Confidence? Skill? Innate talent? A faster time? A higher jump? A longer drive? The largest number of voters jotting your name on a ballot? (Allow me to direct your attention to the Best Writer/Columnist category on the Best of Augusta ballot, included for your convenience in the pages of this issue.)

When I was in the fourth grade, I won a coloring contest my school held in conjunction with National Children’s Dental Health Week. We’ll attribute that victory (let’s call it Best at Following Rules) to my lifelong commitment to coloring inside the lines. 

In the sixth grade, I scored a second-place ribbon in the science fair for my project “How an Onion Grows.” That near best can only be explained by a field of competitors so weak that a haphazard gardening project was hailed as a scientific achievement. Best of the Worst. 

The following year, my classmates bestowed upon me the double honor of Most Likely To Succeed and the Studiest Girl in 7-D. You would think my teacher (obviously not the most studiest of her seventh grade class) would have caught that. Was it budding charm? The fact that I wore glasses? Who knows. I accepted the awards with an equal mix of grace and bewilderment.

Want to be the best? Better get your hustle on.

Last year, the readers of Augusta Magazine voted me third best writer in Augusta. That’s high praise for a scribbler and I thank you all for the honor. That accomplishment—more than coloring, more than inspiring early confidence in my grade school chums—speaks to Malcolm Gladwell’s “expert” theory. Gladwell, the author ofThe Tipping Point and other popular suppositions about modern life, contends that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice can turn anyone into an expert at anything. I have logged my requisite hours at the keyboard and then some. 

I like to think Augustans know a little something about The Best. They voted T’s as the best local spot for fried catfish and that’s not an opinion that anyone with any sense would take exception to around these parts. They raised the roof for Jennifer Shuford of Tastefully Yours as best caterer. If you’ve enjoyed her pecan crusted chicken and her irresistible comeback sauce, you’d have no comeback. The citizens of the Garden City also voted Augusta National Golf Club the best private golf club in the region. 

Every April approximately 100 of the world’s greatest golfers converge in our pleasant hamlet to compete in the Masters Golf Tournament at the Augusta National, 400 rolling acres that have witnessed some of the most memorable moments in the history of the game. Gene Sarazen firing a double eagle on number 15, a shot that helped lead him to victory in 1935. Jack Nicklaus donning the green jacket for the sixth time in 1986, positioning him as the oldest champion in the history of the tournament. A kid called Tiger staging an 18-under rout of the field in 1997; a tournament record tied in 2015 by another young man with a mighty swing, Jordan Spieth.  υ

Of these dozens of men who wage battle each year on an indigo plantation turned nursery turned dream course, only one emerges as The Best. Only one will have that three-button, single-breasted, center vent jacket—as green as the rye grass on the National’s fairways—slipped over his shoulders on Sunday evening, just as Sam Snead did for the first time in 1949. 

And as these incredibly skilled athletes make their pilgrimage to Augusta from all corners of the world, so too do the fans. Pardon me…the patrons. Tens of thousands of spectators gather to watch the giants of the game compete for the green jacket. They also gather to devour the club’s legendary pimento cheese sandwich—a dollar-and-a-half of creamy, cheesy goodness wrapped up in a little green jacket of its very own. 

Lets add a thick skin to our running list of what it takes to be The Best.

The National’s pimento cheese sandwich is an icon. Not since the mint julep of Churchill Downs has an ingestible item been so entwined with the identity of an event. Even the Almighty Wikipedia identifies the sandwich as the “signature item” of the tournament. Dare I say The Best Pimento Cheese Sandwich? Certainly the best known.

That didn’t happen with one sandwich. Or 100 sandwiches. Or even 10,000 sandwiches, Mr. Gladwell. As Lee Trevino, a player with 89 professional wins, said, “There is no such thing as natural touch. Touch is something you create by hitting millions of golf balls.” As with golf, so too with pimento cheese. 

Unlike winning a golf tournament, which is determined by an objective standard, i.e., fewest strokes to complete the course, nailing down The Best in other facets of life can be vexingly subjective, particularly in the world of food.

Take, for example, the prestigious Michelin Guide, “the only one that counts” according to legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. The influential red guides have been published since 1900, driven by the opinions of legions of anonymous reviewers. Chef Bocuse has held fast to three stars (the most a restaurant can be awarded) since 1965, dominating the leaderboard of international cuisine for more than a half-century.

What does that level of mastery take? Julien Vaché, a writer and self-described “cartographer of pleasures,” says it best: “There is nothing really specific you have to accomplish in order to get more Michelin stars except, of course, reach perfection every day, every meal, every dish, every prep, rinse and repeat, every single day of your life.”

The early Michelin guides were published to encourage readers to extend their dining range, which in turn would boost cars sales and consequently tire sales. Yes, that Michelin. The modern guides, however, have evolved into an industry in their own right with culinary careers rising and falling with the granting and retracting of stars. When one of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants lost a star in 2013, he wept like a baby. Compared it to losing a girlfriend. Ten years earlier, when food critics began speculating that Bernard Loiseau’s La Côte d’Or would be downgraded from exalted three-star status, the chef shot himself in the mouth with a hunting rifle. 

Let’s add a thick skin to our running list of what it takes to be The Best. 

I dare not imply that it is easier to be crowned best in a sport versus best in the world of food. It’s simply more definitive. Unless we’re talking about competitive eating. Acolytes of the activity promote their interest as Major League Eating and are governed by an international federation, but I’m still hard pressed to view gobbling down 68 hotdogs or 241 Hooters wings in 10 minutes as sport. 

Did you score more goals then the other team? Congratulations. You’re
the best. Did you knock out your opponent? You’re the best. Did you cross the finish line first? You, my friend, are the best. Critics may jabber about the arc of your backswing or the cut of your knickers, but that will never determine whether or not you depart Augusta as a
Masters champion. 

Tiger’s stars, Phil’s stars, Bubba’s stars? They shine forever. If the chairman of the Augusta National doesn’t fancy your menu for the Champions Dinner (think Vijay’s Thai feast and Schwartzel’s monkey gland sauce), he’s not allowed to take away your green jacket. 

As we venture out to the course or settle into our recliners to watch this year’s field of aspiring champions, remember this sage advice from legendary basketball coach John Wooden: “Nothing will work unless you do.” That quote has also been attributed to Maya Angelou. Choose your source; the message is the same. 

Want to be the best? Better get your hustle on.     

Deb Barshafsky earned the Le Cordon Bleu Master of Arts in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide. But she’s not a food snob. Really, she’s not. 

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.