I’m still in a cloud. You’re probably tired of me tweeting about this subject, but I’m still feeling a Masters hangover. You know that feeling: when you’ve looked forward to something for so long, then it’s over almost as quickly as it began. “Anticlimaticism.“
That’s me as I unravel from my first steps on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. It was everything I thought it would be….and more.
It began the moment I applied for the Masters ticket lottery for, I think, the 5th year; hit a crescendo when I was notified I won the right to buy tickets to the Wednesday practice round which included the entertaining Par 3 Contest for the players; and exploded in utter joy when the wheels of Kent’s leather-appointed, extended cab truck rolled south towards Augusta on Sunday morning’s dawn’s early light. Kent was precisely 6 minutes late picking me up, so we won’t let him live that down, will we?
For about six months, four of us planned this guy’s trip from our homes and watering holes in Cedar Rapids. Four guys in the prime of our lives decide this trip will be like no other. After all, we’re going to the dang Masters! Now, it’s a healthy drive to Augusta from Iowa, so we decided we’d make overnight stops and hit some golf courses and play along the way taking full advantage of Spring golf rates. Not to mention, hotels in and around Augusta are tight and the rooms that are available have inflated in price by 500%. So, we take it all in stride and decide to stay 2 nights in Nashville at Gaylord Opryland Hotel. After all, they have a huge sports bar on premise and it aligned perfectly with the NCAA Championship Final basketball game. I’ll never forget the deafening roar when Marcus Paige hit that last 3 pointer and the louder one for the Villanova buzzer beater.
On Monday in Nashville, we played 36 holes at The Hermitage Golf Club on the President’s Reserve links and the General’s Retreat course. Fun courses, for sure. I think I conveniently lost the score cards. Tuesday, we got up early for a round at Gaylord Springs before hitting the road to Athens, GA where we stayed economically friendly within 100 miles of Augusta. I was excited about Athens because I love the vibe of great college towns. Athens didn’t disappoint. Not only that, but we also scored a round at the University of Georgia Golf Course and saw where the likes of Bubba Watson honed his craft.
All that is great, but I’m really here to tell you about our Masters experience. Wow. Can we go again next year?
The gates to Augusta National open at 8 am. Since this was the whole reason for the trip (amplified by my crappy golf scores the 2 days prior) we knew we wanted to be on premise when the gates opened. At this moment we officially became “Patrons”! The first thing we had to do upon arrival was to vacate the full amount of coffee intake on the morning’s drive. OK, look, the bathrooms on the course are outfitted nicer than a southern plantation mansion. But at that moment of finishing your business and exiting the Utopeea, you realize one of the immediate pitfalls of Augusta’s rules: No cellphones on the premises. How do you reconnect with your buddies? Luckily, after 5 minutes of goose-necking we all found each other again. But, I knew this was trouble that would come back to haunt.
The first thing we saw past the concessions and merchandise store (more on that later) was the driving range. Well, it’s not just any old driving range. It’s the Augusta National driving range. Immaculate, beautiful, impeccably manicured golf-practice-heaven. I mean, I might even like the concept of practice here. Players were out on the range with their coaches and jumpsuit caddies fine-tuning their mechanics and going thru the regimen of drills, driving, chipping, putting, and simply looking as if they are living the life of golf rock stars.
But, I couldn’t stand it any longer. My anxiety of seeing the full bloom azaleas was overwhelming me. We huddled up outside the 1st fairway to try to define a gameplay for the day. Unfortunately we still missed on process for staying together without the use of cellphones. Nevertheless, just get me to Amen Corner!
As we walked down the 10th fairway, we caught up with Adam Scott, Davis Love III, Charley Hoffman and a few other players as they were re-familiarizing themselves with all the elevation changes and undulations that Augusta is so famous for. All I could keep thinking was I am in Heaven on Earth. It was more beautiful than my wildest imagination. I’ve always been fascinated with how the TV coverage of the Masters amplifies Augusta’s beauty, but being there and leaving my actual footprints in the grass and pine straw put this at a whole other level. Not to mention, getting there early when the sun casts the long shadows made a huge impact on how the course was experienced.
One thing I failed to mention is that cameras are only allowed during the practice rounds. So, when I was notified by the ticket lottery that I had won the right to buy tickets on a day I could bring my camera was nothing short of nirvana. For 6 months I dreamt about how I was going to shoot and make photographs of this place. How do you think I slept on Tuesday night? None.
We finally arrived at Amen Corner amidst throngs of people without their cellphones, too. Of course, we lost each other in the process, because Gary and I have cameras and know how to use them! We stayed along 12 and 13 for probably 90 minutes, me rapidly filling my SD card with photographs, being awestruck with the audible quality of the distant crowd roars happening all over the course and then somehow, the golf gods naturally reconnected us. We decided we would head back up the 9th fairway, so that we could hit the concession area, buy some of the Patron food we’d heard so much about (pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches) and head over to the Par 3 course to watch the players have some fun with each other and mingle with their adoring fans. That actually happened. A lot.
Upon arrival to the concession building, it’s unlike any other sports venue concession stand. You queue in a line that you think is going to take 30 minutes to go through, but magically it only takes 5. You grab your own food choices (I took 3 sandwiches) from the perfectly organized bins, grab a beer and a Georgia Peach ice cream sandwich, get waved over to an eager, happy and friendly cashier to take your 10 bucks for all that and find a place to devour it. That’s what we did, anyway. Now, these sandwiches spread between two slices of ordinary yet incredibly fresh white slices were simple with a capital S, yet so delicious. You just have to see and taste for yourself.
After the quick bite and brew, we head to the Par 3 course. We started on the 7th hole and I hung around there the majority of the time, because I wanted to see every player and make photographs of them doing their thing. Of course, again, my buddies got separated. Well, I got separated from them. I chose to stay at the par 3 for the rest of the day, and at some point they walked the first 9 of Augusta to take in more legendary scenery. I knew there was really only one way in to the course from our parking area, so I figured that would be the only way out. At 5:30 or so, I began my walk back that direction and decided it was time to hit the merchandise building. The only time you can buy Masters souvenirs and gear, clothing, hats, etc. is during Masters week. So off I went with my debit card. Yikes. When I was finished wth my shopping extravaganza, I exited the store and ran into my buddies, them toting their own shopping bags and reconnected for the 90 minute ride back to Athens.
What an awesome day. Reflecting back, I was stunned by how nice EVERYONE was, the sheer beauty of Augusta National, the treatment you get as a Patron, the fraternal-like fun the players have with one another, the appreciation they showed the fans who watched them, and the amazing crowd roars. There were 9 holes-in-one on the par 3 course this day. I saw 2. One by Gary Player, one by Zach Johnson, and I heard the other 7, loud and crystal clear surround all around sound.
I’ll see you again one day, Augusta National. I promise.