This week, the greatest golfers in the world will tee it up at the greatest venue in all of golf. This is Masters Week. Four rounds that make up a tournament draped in tradition and history. For me, Augusta National Golf Course is the Mecca of the game. In honor of this great tournament, I thought I’d share with you the story of my first (and only so far) trip to Augusta.
It was April of 2009. My father in law, let’s call him Chuck (you know…cuz that’s his name), offered me the chance to join him for the tournament. His brother, we’ll call him Rick (you know…cuz that’s his name), has the pleasure of living just a few miles from Augusta National and is on a very elite list. A list that people wait years, decades even, to get on. This is the list of people who get the option, year in and year out, of purchasing tickets at face value for the Masters. Despite not being a golf fanatic, Rick buys these tickets each year and offers them up to friends and family.
This wasn’t Chuck’s first time at this rodeo. He was there in 2001 when Tiger Woods won his 2nd Green Jacket and for about two months, held all four Major Championships; a feat no other golfer has ever achieved in the Masters Era. My brothers-in-law, obviously first on their father’s list of invitees, were unable to make the trip in ’09 so I was called up from the minors to fill in. It would go down as one of the best months of my life considering that about three weeks later, my daughter Isabella was born.
We made the drive to Rick’s house in about eight or nine hours, having left Baltimore around 1:00pm on Wednesday afternoon and arriving in Augusta close to 10:00pm that night. We made the usual small talk with Rick like, “How was your trip?” and “Nice weather you have down here.”, but then quickly turned in for the night. I could barely sleep a wink. It might as well have been Christmas Eve.
The night gave way to the cool, dewy morning and as the sun crept in through the blinds of the guest room, I was already up and getting ready. The forecast called for sun and warm temps all week but the chilly mornings required more than just shorts and a polo to stay comfortable. Chuck and I gathered our things; which is to say we grabbed wallets and car keys since Augusta has a strict policy that no cameras or cell phones are allowed inside the gates, and we headed to the course.
The town of Augusta essentially shuts down during Masters Week, so the only cars we passed along the way were those of other fans on their pilgrimage. The road that runs along the perimeter of the golf course looks like any other road you would see in your town. Some fast food restaurants. A department store here and there. Nothing about it would clue you in to the history that lies behind the thick wall of shrubbery lining the road.
Patrons of the tournament are directed to several different grass lots set up for parking, so with all the commotion of lot attendants directing traffic and trying to remember where we parked, I hardly even noticed that we were officially on Augusta National property. It wasn’t until we made our way through the turnstiles and security checkpoints, that the narrow walkways and huge leafy trees opened up and revealed a landscape I had come to know only through my television.
Colors truer than any I had ever seen before caught my eye from every possible angle. The greenest greens, the brightest reds and yellows; it was like being inside of a painting. I stepped onto the grass that made up the rough of the 1st fairway and reached down to run my hand across it. The blades of grass appeared to all be cut at the exact same length as if someone with a ruler and a pair of scissors had been out there that very morning. The grass of the fairways was so immaculate, you would think each blade had been painted and placed in its specific location like one big paint-by-numbers board.
It was early, maybe a little past 8:00am, but the fairways were already lined with thousands of spectators. Chuck, having visited these hallowed grounds before, served as tour guide for me as we moved from hole to hole. The perfectly manicured azalea bushes led me down each path, shaded by the giant magnolia and oak trees. We would stop briefly at certain holes to marvel at the landscape that made them so famous, or to watch a particular golfer (like Woods or Phil Mickelson) tee off or hole out. I don’t remember who I saw that day or what shots were hit. I’m not even sure I ate anything. We got back to Rick’s house around 6:30pm that night, ate a little something to satisfy our appetites and promptly hit the sack. It would be another early morning tomorrow.
Chuck recommended a different approach to our viewing plan for Friday. Rather than spend the day walking from hole to hole, we’d pick out some of our favorite spots and stay for a while as group after group would come through. After walking miles and miles of surprisingly hilly terrain the day before, I was in agreement with this idea. Some of the most famous holes in all of golf reside at Augusta so picking a spot to set up camp was more difficult than we thought.
Holes 11 through 13, known as Amen Corner, have decided many championships as the risk/reward ratio is extremely high. They are also home to some of the most famous landmarks in the game; Rae’s creek and Hogan Bridge. We sat for quite a while in the rough of the 13th hole on a bed of pine needles watching several groups negotiate the tricky par-5. On several occasions, an errant tee shot would bring a player over to our tree-lined viewing area and we would get a front row seat to some excellent recovery shots.
We spent some time over at the 16th hole, a par three over the water that has been the site of some incredible moments. Television simply does not do this vista justice. The water is so still and clear, it reflects everything above it like a mirror; making it hard to tell where the ground stops and the water begins.
But the most incredible moment of my time at Augusta came as we sat in the trees that separated the 7th and 8th holes. Chuck had recommended the spot as a great location for viewing both holes at once. It wasn’t as crowded with spectators as some of the more famous holes on the course, and the trees provided enough shade to cool us down from the blazing sun. From our spot in the pine straw, we watched several groups make their approach to the 7th green and hit their tee shots and 2nd shots on the 8th. Our timing could not have been better as we had settled in just in time to watch Tiger come through. As he reached the 8th hole, Chuck and I stood at the rope line waiting for his drive. He had struggled a bit that day so it should have come as no surprise to us when his tee shot hooked in our direction. We tracked it as it came our way and I watched it land just a few feet away.
If you’ve ever watched a golf tournament on television, you’ve probably seen fans racing to a wayward tee shot like someone just tossed them a winning lottery ticket. They run to the ball and try to be the closest to it in order to have an unobstructed view of the player’s next shot. Well, I’ve always thought it was a bit ridiculous…but that didn’t stop me from doing that exact same thing.
It only took about five steps, but I was the first person to the ball and quickly took a broad stance so as not to get pushed aside by the wave of fans running towards me. The course marshal came over to make room for Tiger when he arrived to his ball. I couldn’t see him approaching as people were scrambling around to get a better view but suddenly, as if appearing from thin air, he was there; standing three feet from me.
The first thing that struck me about Tiger was his size. We all know he works out and basically introduced fitness to the game, but I was surprised at the broadness of his shoulders and the way his arms were barely contained by his shirt sleeves. He and his caddie surveyed the situation, took a walk up the fairway a bit to get a better look at what was ahead, and then came back to the ball. They did not speak. Tiger knew exactly what shot he wanted to hit and exactly what he club he wanted to hit it with. His caddie stepped back and Tiger took several practice swings. The motion was exactly the same each time, like a machine. He settled over the ball, took one last look ahead, and hit a rocket out of the pine needles. The ball started out straight towards the trees that lined the other side of the fairway, then, as if he had instructed it to do so, made a left turn and set its sights on the green. With one hop, it landed and rolled within 15 feet or so of the flag. Tiger had already started walking away before the ball ever hit the ground and the flock of patrons followed.
I’m not sure what came over me in that instant, but I quickly reached down and gathered up a handful of the pine straw he had just disturbed with his strike. I stuffed them into my souvenir cup and looked around as if I had just stolen something priceless. No one was watching, I was safe. Chuck couldn’t help but chuckle as I must have looked like a kid in a candy store at that moment.
The rest of the week was full of more great shots, mental pictures (damn you Augusta and your no cameras rule), and memories that I will never forget. Standing on the same grass, the same dirt, that legends like Nicklaus, Hogan, Sarazen and Snead stood on, gave me the feeling that I was a part of that history. Any golf fan, or sports fan in general, would love to cross The Masters off of their bucket list, but many never get the chance. I will forever be grateful for those four days in Augusta and if I never make it back there, at least I was able to take a little piece of Augusta home with me.