As we approach the eve of the 2015 tournament, I have come to the conclusion that there will never be an appropriate opening sentence to explain the euphoric feeling I had when stepping foot onto The Augusta National Golf Club for the first time.
My first conscious Masters memory of The Masters was watching Ian Woosnam’s victory in the 1991 tournament over Tom Watson on the television. I was 12 years old with no interest or awareness of the great game. My Grandmother, who we would loose a few years later, sat on an old recliner with me sprawled out on the floor. The floor seats offered a perfect voyeur vantage point to catch not only the live golf coverage, but of Grandma’s raw emotional reactions to what played out on screen.
I vividly remember her every emotion with each twist and turn of that back nine. At the time, I’m not sure I grasped what was really happening, apart from when a player was playing well and when a player was imploding. When Watson would make what the commentators were calling an “Eagle” she was overcome with joy. Her face lit up like the fourth of July and she exuded what appeared to be a sense of pride. Most fascinating was, despite her bias pull for this Watson person, she wasn’t overly disappointed when another the player won. There weren’t cuss words or excuses made. It wasn’t the refs fault or a bad break. It was hats off to the winner and a “well played.” Until that point, life for me was competitive team sports where this gentlemanly behavior in defeat was not the norm. My love affair with golf began that day, thanks to my Grandma My First Masters.
Twenty two years later, I received the chance to experience The Masters live. Every year there is a lottery for practice round tickets and my mother who enters every year had finally won. Twenty years of longing to be a part of Masters week, to smell the azaleas and to walk the grounds was about to come true.
As we made our way down highway 20 en-route to Augusta, the neighboring Georgia counties laid silent. With a coffee in hand, the rising sun started to burn away the morning fog. The day had that look, the look where you know the weather was going to be perfect. As we got closer to the exit, I could barely focus on the road. My mind raced as if I had a million things to do but in reality, there was only one.
I’ve been to my share of large events and festivals to know that you don’t have the luxury of parking anywhere close to the venue. The Masters is different with the expansion of the parking lot to the east of the property. As you come off your exit you are herded into one lane marked by bright orange cones into the open lots. We ended up parking about a 7 iron away from the hallowed grounds. Parking is free of course.
There was a level of uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. It’s was an equal feeling of the need to behave, a feeling this will only happen once, and a feeling of I’ve been waiting you whole life for this. There was nervousness that this experience best live up to it hype I’ve created in my mind all these years.
We made our way to the main gates where the air had become heavy and saturated with excitement. Through all the adult giddiness there was a remarkable order and calmness to the entry procedure. It’s as if all of us have done this a thousand times and no one is in a hurry. I anticipated people charging the gates like a Wal-Mart on black Friday but there’s seemed to be an unwritten etiquette that maintained public order. Security guards were kind and say “welcome to the masters”.
The rules said you could bring a camera on practice days, however not on tournament days. You can bring your own chair with you but it must not have arms. We were told to leave cell phones in the car, if for no better reason than you’ve waited your whole life to be so focus! The etiquette of the patrons was on full display. No one was stealing people’s chairs or moving them when they were gone. Patrons left their shoes on and refrained from yelling “you’re the man” or “mashed potato.” Everyone was courteous and acted like the patrons of years past and no one ran.
The tip we had going in was to wait until you’re in the gates and buy the armless Masters chair with carrying case. It’s the best souvenir you can buy and will use for years to come. So once through security, the first order of business was to grab our chairs, along with an official cap and head to a place on the course to set up. We had made the decision that the 16th green would act as our home base. The exact location was the low point to the left of the green where Tiger made that amazing chip in to eventually win the 2005 Masters over Chris Dimarco. You remember the one where the Nike logo hung out for a second then dropped into the cup to announcer Verne Lundquist yelling “IN YOUR LIFE… have you ever seen anything like that!”
We parked our four chairs next to a large tree to provide us with some afternoon shade later in the day as well as provided us a perfect vantage point for tee shots into the 16th green. The added bonus to this spot was the Masters tradition of players attempting to skip a second ball across the pond and onto the green.
I took a deep breath and become present with the moment. Looking around I took in every tree, every blade of grass, every ray of sun that trickles through the tall Georgia Pines. I seized the moment with intense clarity as my feet touch the grounds of the August National Golf Club. My brain went to thoughts of Bobby Jones building this place with Alister MacKenzie. My head is filled with visuals of grainy TV highlights of Jack in 85’. I thought of the recent moments of Tiger and Phil, Angel and Zach. Then I thought of my old living room floor, with Grandma and the 91 Masters. I could feel the moments of that day, the coarseness of the living room carpet, the texture of the wallpaper and the large wooden TV set. I became overwhelmed with the feeling that she might have made the trip with us.
I grew up in the era where we was used to only seeing the back nine of Augusta on TV, the front nine was a secret reserved for photographs and highlights only. For this reason I didn’t associate nostalgic feelings with the front nine. My memories start on the 10th tee through amen corner and past the Eisenhower tree on 17 (god rest it’s sole). They are with the big breaking putt to the Sunday pin on the 16th green and with that front left hole placement on the 18th tucked just over the front bunker. With that in mind, we pull out the course map and made the decision quite quickly. We would forgo asserting any efforts on the front nine and concentrate on the back nine and the 16th hole today. We knew some sacrifices had to be made and you’d be better off in seeing what you came to see, as opposed to trying to take everything in.
Our first stop after claiming the spot for our chairs was to head to the famous concession stands. Like having a hot dog at Fenway, or popcorn at the movies, we needed to have a Pimento Cheese sandwich at Augusta. The Augusta concessions are famous for keeping the prices at pre-1980’s level. In an era of sports entertainment where you can break the bank at the concessions, it’s mind numbing that sandwiches at Augusta are just $1.50. Domestic beer is $2 and the cups are durable keepsakes that we got to take home with us. We entered in one end of a barn like structure and were filtered through a sophisticated cafeteria line fairly quickly. There is an absence of long lines and when we came out the other end, and we still had cash in our pockets.
We immediately made our way to see amen corner and to spend some time in the grandstand behind the 12th tee. From here we enjoyed our beer and sandwiches while watching approaches to the 11th green and playing of the entire 12th hole.
After about a half hour at Amen we grabbed another sandwich and beer and walk up the 13th hole. A small flag was stuck in the ground where Phil hit his famous approach from the pine straw in his 2010 victory.
From 13, we headed over to the 15th where we try to imagine what it would have been like in 1935 where Gene Sarazen made his “shot heard round the world” double eagle from 235 yards out.
From the 15th green we made our way up the the 10th. We paused about half way up and realize why there were a load of people huddled about 20 yards into the trees on the right. It was the spot where Bubba hit his huge hooking winning shot from 2012. We stood in that spot, and it instantly put his talent into perspective. I wondered how did his ball even end up here? Then how did he curve it with a wedge? All of us were left in amazement.
When we finally made it up the 10th tee we realized we were at the heart of the course and one of the best views at Augusta. There was a vantage point at the top of the 10th where we saw the 1st, 9th, 10th and 18th holes along with the clubhouse, practice green and some of the cabins. Much like the 16th green and Amen Corner, this spot proved to be a great place to simply stop and take in Augusta.
Desperate to try and see Magnolia lane, we headed around the clubhouse where after a 20 minute wait in line, there was a photo opportunity to have our picture taken in front of the club house. We took our place on the front lawn of the clubhouse and stared down Magnolia Lane. The gravity of the moment overtook me as I stared stupidly down what is just a driveway. I knew better though, I knew it wasn’t just a road, that’s Magnolia Lane.
The day seemed to be over before it began as the shadows became longer and longer across the perfect fairways. The final piece of the day was to hit the merchandise tent located between the driving range and the 1st tee. This gave us a a chance to check out some players on the practice facilities.
As we headed over to the merchandise tents I glanced over to the putting green and saw a few pros milling about. Nick Whatney was there with Keegan Bradley and a bunch of golf industry looking guys. I was starstruck of course but then I heard a very recognizable middle-America voice coming from my right. Hunched over a 12 foot putt within speaking distance to me was the great Tom Watson. He was right there! No coach, no trainer, no agent, just Tom. Just Tom and an endless evening of 12 footers. I crouched low enough with my camera to catch a shot. He looked straight at my lens and gave a little smirk. Unlike the modern day pro who doesn’t recognize anyone in the crowd, Tom knew what that moment meant to me. He knew it wasn’t about him and his preparation. It’s was about the game of golf. It was about the fans. It was about Grandma.
Departing from the grounds of Augusta National was like being a child at Christmas once all the present had been opened. There was 20 years of build up leading to that moment. I was filled with a happy satisfaction along with a sadness that the day was over. It was very bitter sweet emotion.
I took with me the memories of the course and those moments that took me out of my body for a minute. I lnow look forward to watching future Masters knowing that I was once a small part of it. I know that Grandma and I were reunited with Mr. Watson on that afternoon which will make viewing at home that much more special.