A Trip Unlike Any Other
As the years have gone by, my love for this spectacular tournament has only grown. Every year, I’ve religiously blocked out my time to make sure I caught every minute of TV coverage. Every year, I was mesmerized equally by the competitions that played out as by the course itself. Every year, I dreamt of someday being able to see the course in person. Just see it. I knew I’d never play Augusta National, and knew I never deserved to, but maybe I could one day be there myself to walk the grounds. So a few years ago, I entered The Masters ticket lottery, figuring it was a long shot, but worth the try. I was shocked last July when my name was selected.
I gobbled up two available tickets, made travel reservations, and began to envision my dream becoming reality. This time, as the calendar turned, as spring teased, as those first commercial clips aired images of the course accompanied by the famed Masters theme music, my heart beat a touch faster. I was going to The Masters! I would get the chance to watch approaches and tee shots at Amen Corner. I would see where Tiger hit his miraculous chip at 16 and where Phil launched his shot from the pine straw at 13. I would see the same view as Jack did before hitting the four-iron heard ’round the world in ’86. I would smell the azaleas and gaze up at the swaying pines. I would be there!
Finally, the time came. Monday, my dad and I boarded a jet in Milwaukee for Atlanta. We left snow and cold and arrived to sunshine and warmth. We drove the two hours to Augusta, checked into a motel, and took a quick tour of the city. It’s nothing out of the ordinary—a typical large Southern town. Augusta National is tucked away in a regular neighborhood surrounded by everyday restaurants and businesses, by homes and parks. If you didn’t know better, you’d have no idea that a national treasure was just behind the trees and fences. No idea, except for a brief tunnel of a driveway known as Magnolia Lane. In passing, we snapped a quick picture down the iconic drive and went to grab some dinner before returning to the motel and setting our alarms for bright and early Tuesday morning. The forecast called for abundant sunshine, the air a bit cool and touched by a breeze. In other words, practically perfect.
We woke at 5:30 and left the motel forty minutes later. The sky was still pitch black, but parking is at a premium at Augusta National, and we wanted to ensure a spot. Traffic was light, and we reached the course by 6:30, parking in an open grass lot adorned with 100-foot-tall Georgia pines. We joined the throng waiting outside the gates to the grounds. They were a mix of young and old, men and women, first-timers like Dad and me and veterans. At 7:00, the gates opened and we stepped onto the hallowed grounds of the Augusta National Golf Club. Patrons, as the crowd or gallery is called at The Masters, aren’t allowed onto the course until 8:00, so we browsed the gift shop (if you can imagine it, they sell it) and made a quick stop in the restrooms. (That’s right, there aren’t portable toilets at Augusta National; there are permanent restroom facilities, with friendly stewards directing “traffic.”) Then we ambled over to the practice range to see if anyone was warming up. As dawn lightened the eastern sky, we saw Phil Mickelson (my and many’s favorite golfer) warming up on the range. Then he came over to practice his putting stroke, mere yards from where we stood.
Finally, at 8:00, as the sun began to peek through the trees on a crisp, cloudless morning, we were allowed on the course. My goal was to see it all, every hole, every corner. I had it all mapped out in my head, our plan set, of how to walk the holes in sequential order, almost as if we were playing a round. So we started up the right-hand side of the first hole—“Tea Olive”—already marveling at the slope of the terrain. I had always heard that first-time spectators are shocked at the changes in elevation, and we were indeed. As we glimpsed the first green, I couldn’t believe the undulations, the ridges and bumps, just in the green. I snapped a few photos (cameras are allowed on practice rounds) and waited as the first group of players hit approach shots. And what do you know, Mickelson was one of them. We stood and watched him chip and putt, talk with his caddie, and banter with the others in his foursome. Then we watched him walk to the next tee, passing just feet from us.
For several holes, we loosely followed Phil’s group. We also took in the aroma of the azaleas and marveled at the towering pines. Augusta National is indeed immaculate. Were no golf tournament ever contested, it would be worth the price of admission simply to walk and admire the grounds. Eventually (after watching Rory McIlroy and his group play the ridiculous—with all respect—6th green), we camped out beside the 7th green, giving us views of shots on several holes. Bubba Watson, J.B. Holmes, Rickie Fowler, Brandt Snedeker, and Jordan Speith played through as we stood in the shadow of a pine and one of Augusta’s famed manually operated scoreboards. Then we journeyed alongside holes 8 and 9, climbing to the green just as a group was teeing off on 1 (the proximity of tees to greens at Augusta is amazing). We peeked through the crowd to catch a glimpse of Tom Watson, preparing to play his final Masters.
Dad and I took a break to have our picture taken in front of the iconic Founders Circle before heading over to 10 tee. They say The Masters doesn’t really begin until the starters reach the back nine on Sunday, and I felt like our tour of the grounds didn’t really begin until we started down the 10th fairway. In addition to sloping drastically downhill, the tenth curves from right to left, with approach shots playing in over the gigantic MacKenzie Bunker. We veered into the pine straw in an effort to determine from where Bubba hooked his incredible second to win a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen in 2012. (I have concluded Bubba is a wizard.)
It was shortly after noon, and we took a break to use the restrooms and buy some lunch. You’d never know it watching on TV, but in the trees between holes at Augusta, there exists a small community of restrooms, concession stands, and gift shops. The lines were long, but moved quickly. We had to try the famed pimento and cheese (an acquired taste, but one worth acquiring) and egg salad sandwiches, each sold for only $1.50. We took them to the viewing stands behind 12 tee, giving us a view of 11 green, the par-three 12th (Golden Bell), and 13 tee—an area known colloquially as Amen Corner. We ate basked in sunshine, and I had to remind myself that we were actually sitting where we were sitting. After eating, I compared the flagsticks at 11 and 12. The old adage is that before hitting a tee shot over Rae’s Creek, which fronts the green at 12, a player should check the flag at the 11th green, as it provides a more accurate barometer of the wind’s direction. The flag at 11 blew left to right; the flag at 12 right to left. You can’t make this stuff up.
From there, we ventured along the 13th hole—“Azalea”—my favorite at Augusta National, if one may have the audacity to favor one hole over another. The green at 13 is the most photographed at the course, and for good reason: Fronted by the tributary to Rae’s Creek, the green slopes from back to front, making both a tantalizing and terrifying target for approach shots. Four white-sand bunkers encircle the back half of the hole, also sloping downward. They are surrounded by an abundance of flowering pink azaleas, forming a scene unlike any in golf. And the entire panorama is framed by the majestic Georgia pines and—on this day—azure skies.
We spent a few minutes resting in the shaded stands overlooking 13 green and 14 tee, then walked up 14 to a green with a false front that has to be seen to be believed. On our way, we chatted with a tournament staffer who informed us there was a ball a little ways behind us in the pine straw. We stopped to see whose it was and waited to have an up-close view of someone’s shot. That someone turned out to be four-time major champion Ernie Els, known as The Big Easy. The affable South African came over, brushed away a few pine needles, and, after consulting with his caddy, clipped his shot off the pine straw and threaded it through the trees. And we stood less than ten feet away.
We circled the 14th green and headed down 15, pausing to admire the view of the green from the top of the hill, from whence it appears little more than a sliver between two ponds. We utilized the crosswalk midway down the hill, hit the concessions stands hidden in the trees, and took seats in the viewing stands above the Sarazen Bridge. While savoring Georgia peach ice cream sandwiches and lemonade, we watched approach shots fail to hold the green, rolling back the shaved bank into the pond, just as they’ve done in heartbreaking fashion at so many critical moments in tournaments past. From our vantage point, we could also see 16 green and players at the par-three skipping balls over the pond in front of it, a practice round tradition that educed “roars” evocative of those that will be heard come the weekend. Later, we circled around to view the green from every angle. All the while, I heard the voices of David Feherty and Verne Lundquist in my head, their legendary calls helping secure The Masters’ place in my heart.
Leaving “the hollow,” we walked up 17, guessing where the Eisenhower Tree had stood for so long. The only downside to our tour of the back nine was the absence of players, as most of them were finished for the day by the time we reached the last few holes. We did catch one final threesome and followed them back down 15, through 16, and up 17 to its open, wind-swept green that has tripped up so many players over the years.
Then we walked up 18, and I do mean up. As we climbed the left side of the fairway, I tried to imagine that I was a Masters champion greeted by the adoration of thousands of fans. But the natural spectator hill around green was almost vacant of patrons. Instead of holing out to rousing applause, the last group on the course hit several practice shots and rolled putts at imaginary holes in preparation for the coming tournament. Even so, as the sun dipped into the western sky, the rest of which was bathed in blue, with those incredible Georgia pines casting long shadows across the grounds, the scene was magical.
I took one last, sweeping, panoramic look down 10, across 18, down toward the hollow, over 7 green, across the 8th and 9th holes, and down the 1st fairway. Then Dad and I bid farewell to Augusta National. I don’t know that I’ll ever be back. I don’t know that I need to be. To paraphrase Julius Caesar, “I came, I saw, I appreciated.” Augusta National is indeed everything I had ever been told.
In fact, it was more. Having seen so much of the course on TV, I somewhat knew what to expect. I knew from years of viewing what the slopes on greens were like, where players should miss, how beautiful the flowers along the fairways were. Don’t get me wrong, it was still spectacular to see all that in person. But it didn’t blow me away, because I was prepared. However, I was blown away by the hospitality. There had to be thousands of men and women working the concession stands and gift shops, providing security, maintaining the course, and shepherding patrons. I’m guessing many were volunteers. And every one of them greeted me with a smile, with a warm welcome, with an invitation to enjoy my day. Even in the restrooms, where the gentlemen had the least desirable jobs imaginable—directing patrons to open urinals and stalls or cleaning said stalls after use—I was greeted with a “How are you doing today, sir?” I knew the course would be immaculate and beautiful. I knew the “golf” experience would be amazing. I didn’t know that I would be made to feel more welcome at The Masters than at any other place in my life. Of all that I witnessed on Tuesday—seeing my favorite player joke with the fans, eating lunch at Amen Corner, climbing the 18th, and so much more—my ultimate takeaway from this trip will likely be the incredible warmth and kindness of the people who make the tournament what it is.
No, let me correct that. The ultimate takeaway will be that I got to share the entire experience with my dad—with the man with whom I’ve shared so many sports memories—either playing or watching—in the past. The experience would have been spectacular with anyone, or even had I gone solo. But being with a friend who gets my love for The Masters and who appreciates my fascination with its nuances makes it that much sweeter.
We finished our day by dining at Golden Corral (a favorite) and watching a documentary on Jack Nicklaus’ remarkable victory at Augusta in 1986. Wednesday we flew home, with a connection in Washington, D.C.—the flight into which gave us glimpses of half a dozen iconic landmarks. Now it’s Thursday. I’ve just watched the first round of The Masters, marveling that “I was there!” or “I saw that!” a dozen times. The budding, building excitement I feel every year at this time has been amplified by my visit to Augusta, and I can’t wait to watch the rest of the 2016 competition play out. When it concludes Sunday, I’ll again be overcome with a bittersweet sentiment as I look forward to future Masters, and to the renewal of memories they will bring . . . memories of a trip unlike any other.