As we enjoy the early rounds, and anticipate an amazing weekend, at this year’s Masters, I am reminded that I once had the pleasure of playing Augusta National.
It was chilly the morning I played, in 2006, the day after Phil Mickelson won the second of his three green jackets, I hadn’t swung a club in months. And merely being on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National was enough to amp up my swing to dangerous warp-speeds.
But what a day. I can still remember just about every shot—and most of them were forgettable.
In case you’re wondering what it’s like, let me say that Augusta is as historic and majestic as you would expect. The only other course where I felt a similar combination of awe, excitement and humbleness is the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Another characteristic that Augusta National and the Old Course share is that they are playable, even for us bogey golfers. I have played many championship courses that strike fear, that reject average golfers. Augusta and the Old Course will gobble up messy golf, no doubt. But part of their greatness, along with their history and their perfect settings, is that they accept golfers with a wide variety of skill levels.
Here’s the column I wrote about it for the Chicago Sun-Times.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters, it often is said, begins on the back nine on Sunday afternoon. In my case, it began on the back nine on Monday morning.
There I stood on the 10th tee at Augusta National Golf Club with three other giddy members of the media, awaiting our 8:37 a.m. date with destiny by alternating between practice swings and tourist photos.
“It’s just another golf course,” I kept mumbling through my mind.
“Yeah, right,” another voice said.
Please, just let me hit one good shot. And let it be on No. 12, I kept imploring the golfing fairy godmother, who had guided me through the media lottery to this tee time.
And then we were off.
Our first two holes were a blur. Real golfers bang a long drive on No. 10 and let the ball bound down the hill. I reverted to my usual game: three sprayed shots to the fringe, a good lag putt and a true stroke to the back of the cup from four feet for bogey.
The 11th was much the same. At least the putter, my one dependable club, hadn’t deserted me.
And then we were on to No. 12, perhaps the most famous par-3 in golf. Just a little 155-yard shot over Rae’s Creek to a narrow ribbon of green, surrounded by those glistening white-sand bunkers. On this hole, unlike most of the others at Augusta National, we humble media pilgrims were playing from the same tee as Phil and Tiger did just a day before.
I couldn’t help but think it was also the tee where Jack and Arnie, Ben and Byron before them and Gene and Bobby before them also had put a peg in the ground and taken a swing.
That is really the majesty of Augusta National.
Yes, the fairways are lush and immaculate, but so are the fairways at many posh clubs. No question, the greens are fast and rolling, and don’t try to do anything on or around them from the wrong places. But the same could be said for other courses with unfathomable greens, such as the River Course at Black Wolf Run in Wisconsin and the North Course at Eagle Ridge in Galena.
The breathtaking beauty of Augusta also is a part of the sensory experience. Endless flower beds and stands of Georgia pines are perfectly placed on a terrain that is far more hilly than even the latest HDTV can convey.
For all its greenery, Augusta is surprisingly open. This not only allows you to stay in the game despite errant hits, but it also allows you to see, in many places, other groups as they make their way around this golf holy land.
It’s a feeling reminiscent of a Scottish or Irish links course, where you can look around and enjoy a larger view of golf. And where the openness in Scotland and Ireland gives a glimpse into adjacent towns, as well as fellow golfers immersed in our little game, the backdrop of the Masters course includes a vast greensward framed by the elegant white clubhouse of Augusta National.
I dare say I have little in common with Hootie Johnson. But what we do share — a game with endless possibilities set on inspired landscapes — bridges many gaps.
Mix these all together and add the rich history of the Masters, and you have a golf course that lives up to what I had imagined since watching Jack and Arnie duel on that snowy little black-and-white TV of my youth.
There was a bit of a backup on the 12th tee, allowing all of these emotions to bubble up. The backup, which meant a larger gallery, also built the tension.
The legendary swirling wind seemed to be in my face, so I took plenty of extra club, with the approval of my caddie, Patrick.
Somehow, the nerves steadied for a few seconds, and I managed to put up the high fading 5-iron I had planned. It landed on the back of the green — barely on, but on nonetheless — in front of the back-left bunker, some 20 feet from the hole.
Thank you. My work is done here.
After humbly accepting the approval of the others on the tee, I headed off for the Hogan Bridge and paused on it, taking in the splendor of the moment.
When it was time to run that putt in, I couldn’t quite finish the deal. It was quick, of course, but not as scary-quick as you might think. (They hadn’t cut the greens since Sunday morning.) But I hung it out to the left. It never had a chance, but it nestled in close enough for a tap-in par.
Fifteen holes to play.
Bring it on.
Sadly, while my putter remained steady the rest of the day, the rest of my game evaporated.
“Hey, we ought to be a scramble team,” said one of my partners, who was hitting the ball well but not putting it.
But that’s the maddening allure of golf. For all the backslapping, you are alone out there. Although at Augusta, you are consoled by the multitude of players who have known the horror of having their green-jacket dreams turn into nightmares with one swing.
So when that 7-iron found the creek on No. 13, the stab of pain was diminished by the knowledge that many Masters hopefuls had known the same pain.
When the chip on No. 16, from the same place where Tiger made birdie with the Nike ball, came up hideously short, at least I had had the opportunity to give it a try.
When the sand shot that landed on No. 18 decided to roll 10 yards off the green, knowing that many more skillful golfers had done that before me made it easier to bear.
In short, there were far more heartbreaks than jumps for joy. But I always will have No. 12.
Call it a round of 104. Humiliating, yes? A test of my first rule of golf: Never let a number, even three numbers, ruin your day. Unquestionably.
But there are few limits to what I would do to do it again.