Callaway Gardens' Masters Water Ski and Wakeboard Tournament kicks off

Even though the official start of summer isn't for another month, summer kicks off this weekend at Callaway Gardens.

That means it's time for the 53rd annual Masters Water Ski and Wakeboard Tournament.

Because it's the 20th anniversary of the start of the Junior Masters, the younger skiers and wakeboarders are being spotlighted, rather than the Legends, the former winners.

As usual, the Masters will highlight the top slalom, trick and jump specialists as well as the top wakeboarders and wake skiers.

"It's an exclusive event," said Thomas Bates, director for events for Nautique Boats. "This is the most prestigious water ski event in the world. It's like the Masters in golf."

The skiers, wakeboarders and wake skiers are all invited to participate in the Masters.

While it is an exclusive event for the athletes, all spectators are welcome, Bates said. "We work hard to get as many people as we can to come."

But he admits that the sport can be expensive. In 2007, about 15,000 people bought new Nautique boats for about $30,000 each. Today's prices are anywhere between $80,000-$140,000, which means about 4,000 Nautique boats are sold a year.

Last year, about 8,000 spectators came for the weekend event.

The junior athletes compete Friday, while the Masters competitors hit Robin Lake on Saturday with the finals on Sunday.

"You can see the world's greatest water ski and wakeboard champions doing their very best to win the most prestigious event in the world," Bates said. "This is the one time of the year that you can see all the best athletes."

At the same time, you can play in the water, as long as you abide by the rules and stay behind the ropes.

Bates said Nautique Boats will have their full line of this year's models on display. Vendors will also be there.

"It's a great way to start off the summer and go shopping," he said.

What Callaway Gardens is doing

Andy Brown is Callaway Gardens' director of activities. He's been in the job about a year.

"We started planning this year's Masters right after last year's," he said.

In January, he held a short meeting, then started booking the vendors, bands and the car show.

Two months ago, he started holding weekly meetings.

Brown has a few new things this year, including bands and food vendors.

"We have a lot more barbecue vendors," he said. "We have some big festival vendors, including cotton candy, ice cream, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, cheesesteaks, all on the East Beach."

In fact, as spectators come through the Beach Entrance, they'll be directed to park, mostly on the overflow Fantasy in Lights area, which means guests walk through the Lowline Custom Car Show and then through the East Beach food vendors before going around to the Beach Pavilion area.

He's also really excited about the U.S. Army Silver Wings parachute team's pyrotechnic night jump on Sunday.

"They will land dead center, right in front of the Beach Pavilion," Brown said.

On Monday, the athletes will be gone, but the Florida State University Flying High Circus students will perform two sneak peek shows.

"The show is completely new and different," Brown said. "And the day show is different from the night show."

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