In normal times this is one of my favorite weeks of the year, one I look forward to each April.
As a diehard golf fan and player, The Masters’ golf tournament gets my juices flowing unlike any other sporting event.
Not this year.
The second week in April is usually when the players from all over the world descend on Augusta, Georgia, to battle for the prestigious green jacket on one of the hardest and most unique golf courses ever built.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus has derailed this year’s tournament, along with every other sporting event, putting a dagger in the hearts of all golf fans. (The tournament has been tentatively rescheduled for November 9-15).
So, what do we do this week?
For me, I have a very fond memory of Augusta that helps get me past the disappointment of no tournament this week – I was able to attend The Masters in 2004.
What a treat!
Ok, full disclosure. I only observed a practice round. But I still wear that opportunity like a badge of honor. I was there. I got to walk the hallowed grounds and experience Augusta National at its peak.
It didn’t disappoint.
A buddy of mine called me in February of 2004 and said he had a connection in the Bay area who had two tickets to the Tuesday practice round and included two nights at a hotel. Not sure if I was his first choice, but I didn’t care.
We flew from Seattle to Atlanta on the Monday before, rented a car, and drove the two hours to Augusta. Having never been to Georgia, let alone anywhere in the South, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The drive was pretty but flat with not a lot to see. It didn’t matter. We were too excited to get there.
The only way to describe driving into Augusta is … “Meh.”
I was expecting a spectacular but small, southern town with charming mansions and plantations. Instead it looks exactly like any small town – strip malls and not much else. To be honest, a little disappointing.
Just a heads up, if you plan to drive by/through Augusta in hopes of seeing the course from the outside, don’t. We drove by the entrance to the golf course, hoping to get a glimpse of what was to come for us the next day. No dice. You learn quickly; the golf course itself is a completely different entity from the town. It is its own little island that just happens to be surrounded by a town. Don’t expect much from Augusta itself.
Our first night in town, the biggest happening that Monday night was an autograph signing event from PGA and British Open champion John Daly at the local Hooters restaurant. You read that right. Hooters and John Daly, a combo we couldn’t pass up.
A huge trailer outside the restaurant had Daly’s face plastered on the side, and the line was a hundred deep. This for a $150 autographed picture. No thanks.
It was fun to see Daly in his element, surrounded by adoring fans (lots of southern women), drinking cheap beer, and doing his thing. The restaurant was packed with guys, of course, on their boys’ trip, so we fit right in.
Tuesday morning came early and we caught a shuttle directly from our hotel to the course, which was nice. We were dropped off in a parking lot a short walk away from the course, and this is where the real experience began.
We were funneled through security while being repeatedly reminded that cell phones were not allowed. They didn’t care about bombs or guns; they really, really didn’t want people using cell phones to take pictures or conversations that might disrupt the golfers.
Remember this; it comes into play later in my story.
One of my biggest takeaways from the entire day involved walking onto the course for the very first time. It hits you like a ton of bricks. Everything is so green. The greenest grass I had ever seen. The place was immaculate from the concession stands, to the bathrooms, to the course itself. There wasn’t a blade of grass out of place. It is truly amazing.
We decided to head straight for the farthest reaches of the property and work our way back to the clubhouse, so we could see the entire course.
During a practice round the groups of players are slated very haphazardly with random groups teeing off at different times. Some guys only play nine holes, and some spend more time on certain holes. It is very casual as players interact with fans and with their playing partners, stuff you don’t usually see during the competitive rounds. It was refreshing to see these world-class players in a more relaxed setting.
We found ourselves in the stands at the par 3, 16th hole, which is surrounded by a pond. It requires each player to execute a shot over the water to a very tight green. It is a hole we’ve seen Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, among others, use to catapult them to victory.
But on this day the 16th hole was all about entertainment. Each player coming through hit a few tee shots from various angles, using different clubs. However, as they made their way to the green each player stopped at the edge of the water, threw down a ball or two, and tried to skip a shot on the water to the green.
It made for quite a spectacle. Some couldn’t come close to skipping their ball, while others nearly holed out their shots much to the delight of the crowd, referred to as “patrons.” That action was very fun to watch, and it was tough to leave.
We spent the rest of the day, wandering the grounds and made a point to visit every hole as we knew we might very well never be able to come back.
Here are three things at The Masters that you can only see in person and that TV can’t do justice to:
1. There isn’t a flat green on the course. Every single one is undulating, bumpy, hilly, or whatever word you want to use to describe them. It is a wonder each player doesn’t take five putts on each hole. It really shows how experience plays a huge part in success on this course. You have to know where to land your ball on those greens, or you risk adding unwanted strokes.
2. Just as I described the greens, the fairways are just as hilly, and there are no flat lies. On top of that, each hole is extremely long and narrow, a hacker’s nightmare.
3. The beauty of the grounds. The course was originally an arboretum before it was turned into a golf course in 1932. The trees, flowers, and other plants are incredibly beautiful and really punctuate the uniqueness of this course.
After getting our fill of the course, we decided to get some food, hit the gift shop, and head for dinner as the day was coming to an end.
We marveled at the food and, of course, the prices: $1.50 for a sandwich, $3 for a beer and $1 for snacks. You don’t find that anywhere else in the world.
As we sat and enjoyed our food, my buddy felt his phone vibrating in his pocket for about the 15th time. He casually eyeballed it under the table and noted that one of our very good friends was calling to see how our day was progressing.
So, he took his phone over to the bank of pay phones (it was 2004 remember?) and called our friend back.
He never got to make the call.
Before he dialed one number, security was on top of him and quickly escorted him away. It happened so fast I barely noticed until I saw him disappear into another room. OMG!
As he told me later, they shuffled him into a room with several other offenders and reminded them cell phones were not allowed and that they needed to leave the grounds immediately.
He said his main concern was about his ticket and whether they were going to confiscate it. That would mean the person we got our tickets from would not be able to attend the rest of the tournament if they took his ticket and cancelled it. He said he was shaking, thinking about his business contact getting ready to fly to Georgia for a great weekend but unable to attend.
Luckily, security was kind and only kicked him off the grounds but didn’t take his ticket. This did mean, however, no souvenirs. Shortly before he got busted we were talking about what we had planned to buy, so I was able to secure him a shirt and hat. But nothing compared to what he had planned to buy for family and friends. Tough luck.
Overall, it was an experience of a lifetime despite my partner getting kicked out and creating something he will never live down.
It was just one round, a practice one at that, but it is something I will never forget. Augusta at Masters’ time is a magical place, not only for me, but for all those who hold the game of golf sacred. It is definitely the Holy Grail of golf.
If you love golf and have a chance to attend The Masters, don’t pass it up. You won’t regret it.
I hold dear my memories, ones that will get me through this year’s Masters’ week with no golf.
I’ll see you again in November for the rescheduled event. It won’t be the same, but it should be interesting.