I had the distinct privilege of attending a practice round at The Masters golf tournament in Augusta, GA on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. The following is my recollection of everything I experienced that day.
We woke at 5:10am and left the Baymont Covington motel at 5:30 for the 1 hour and 40 minute drive to Augusta. The electronic traffic signs on I-20 East led us to one of the sprawling parking lots as the earliest arrivals joined us in the lot. No less than 20 attendants directed us to our spot (in section labeled C3 with white and green sign). We checked in one last time on FourSquare, etc. since there are no cell phones permitted anywhere in the facility at any time. Left the phone in the golve compartment and grabbed the ancient digital camera and sunblock.
As we walked about 1/4 mile to the lower (Gate 9) entrance, we were greeted warmly by every last parking attendant, security worker, restroom attendant, and about 100 other staff. We did a quick reconnaissance jaunt through the gift shop, and waited until 8:00 for the course to open to the public.
We walked out by the 15th green. We walked a bit up the 15th fairway and watched our long shadows cast toward Rae's Creek and the Sarazen Bridge to the green. We crossed the 15th fairway, trying to fathom that long downhill iron to cross the hazard to reach the creek in two, but not too far to go in the water just over the green at the 16th. We made our way back down to #13, walking past the spot where Phil Mickelson squeezed a 6-iron between two trees from the pine straw for victory in 2010. We sat on the bleachers behind #12 tee in Amen Corner. while Steve and Scott went off to grab their first pimento cheese sandwich from the nearby concession stand. We contemplated for a while the spot from which Larry Mize chipped in to beat Norman in the playoff in 1987.
We spotted the first player - the amateur Cameron Smith and hit caddie were going around by themselves. He chipped a few balls to different parts of the 11th green, and then played a nice shot into #12 and crossed the Hogan Bridge. We never realized that the tee for #13 was tucked away just behind #12. Off in the distance, we saw the bench by #12 tee where later in the day Tom Watson would leave an egg salad sandwich in memory of Bruce Edwards.
We walked up along #11, past the spot where Tiger snapped his 4-iron on the follow through in 2007, all the way back to the impossible tee shot to such a narrow fairway. Headed over to the small elevated 10th green, and down the hill to the spot in the right rough from which Bubba Watson hooked a wedge on to the green in 2012 to beat Louis Oosthuizen in the playoff. Up the steep hill to the 10th tee. Joined a mob watching Charl Schwartzel and Jordan Spieth tee off on #1.
Walked around the clubhouse, by the par-3 course, and over to the short line waiting to see Founder's Circle. Took a picture down Magnolia Lane and of the three of us in front of the iconic floral map in Founder's Circle. Walked back around to the practice area. Saw Sergio Garcia practicing his putting. (It would be the chips up to #9 on Friday afternoon, however, that would be his ultimate undoing.) Watched Billy Horschel practice his chipping. Walked up to the front gate, and then back around, past the long line snaking into the main gift shop. Walked past the legendary "big oak tree", "wisteria vine", and the huge scoreboard all prepped for tomorrow's par 3 contest. Up along the 1st fairway, behind #1 green, and past #2 tee box. Watched Mark O'Meara (playing by himself) hit two drives from #9 tee. Crossed over #9 and walked backwards down the hill of #8. Watched Rory McIlroy, Brandt Snedeker, Harris English, and Justin Thomas hit second shots up the hill on #8. Saw the next group come through and play their second shots to the same blind green - Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Keegan Bradley, and Dustin Johnson. Watched Mickelson and DeChambeau walking up the fairway, chatting loudly about club design philosophy. DJ ambled up the right side by himself, with Bradley skipping behind on the left.
Saw several players play up toward the green on #2 - the very same where Oosthuizen recorded a double-eagle in 2012 from 253 yards out. Watched Bernd Wiesberger, Derek Bard, Jamie Donaldson, and Steven Bowditch spend quite some time playing bunker shots and chipping to all parts of the green.
Found a spot where we could watch some players hit up to #7, and some others teeing off on #3. Saw Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, and Jimmy Walker approach and putt to the center pin location on #7. Walked down along #7 fairway to see the intimidating angle over the bunker that seemed to take up all of the green. Saw Spieth and Schwartzel again, and watched them play their second shots into #7. Watched a few groups play the green on #6. First Mike Weir, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, and Emiliano Grillo tried many attempts to get anything to stop near the pin from the apron behind the green. Next we saw Victor Dubuisson and fellow countryman Romain Langasque play the steep angles of the green. We climbed the steep hill past #6 tee and up to #5 green.
We saw Vijay Singh and Horschel play their second shots to the green. Singh dropped quite a few balls and played to back locations on the green. Unfortunately, this would not help him make the cut. Walked down along #5 to the tee. Saw Garcia and Jim Herman each hit two balls off the tee. (Herman had won his first career tournament after 16 years on tour the week before at the Shell Houston Open.) Shuffled over to the green of the long #4, to watch Sammy Schmitz, Danny Lee, and Soren Kjeldsen. Lee hit a bunch of balls from the mammoth front bunker, a popular spot that day as always.
Headed over to #3 green. Saw Smylie Kaufman getting a lot of advice about the green from Bill Haas. They waved Russell Knox up to play his shot to the green. He made a 30-foot snaking putt and then joined then for a threesome on the 4th tee. Kaufman's tee shot landed about 4 feet right of the pin, but then rolled all the way back down into the fairway.
We hadn't seen #9 or #18 yet, so we walked back down #3, across #2 and #8, and to the landing area below #9 green where Norman had started his collapse in 1996 when his wedge approach rolled back down off the steep green front and into the fairway. Walked past the 18th green and through the big open area in the center of the course that you do not see on TV.
Standing behind the 17th, we saw Mickelson hit his approach over the green and right. We scampered down close to his ball as Bones came through and pushed the crowd back to allow Phil to play the shot. He had to play it, since he had a serious match going on (unlike the other groups we saw that day). He hit a great pitch to 3 feet and sank the putt for par. (Unfortunately, he missed the cut after a number of uncharacteristic mistakes on the back 9 Friday.) DJ, DeChambeau, and Bradley practiced putting for quite a while. We watched them walk over and tee of on the ridiculously long chute of #18, all landing near the right side of the fairway. Some jerk yelled out as they walked by "Hey Phil, my wife said you wouldn't wave". But Phil did not hear it.
We saw Ben Crenshaw and Carl Jackson cross the 17th fairway, shaking hands with a few patrons and sneaking by hundreds of others who did not notice them. We walked back down #15 and watched Snedeker and English play long second shots toward the 15th green. Found a decent spot by the 16th tee to watch a few groups play. Snedeker and English hit tee shots, and then the crowd chanted for them to skip balls across the water. Snedeker actually skipped one on to the green, 15 feet from the pin, to thunderous applause and roars. The next group was Thongchai Jaydee and Kiradech Aphibararat. After their tee shots, they also skipped a few balls (unsuccessfully) from the drop area into the water.
We grabbed a chicken sandwich in a green bag, some Masters chips, and a diet coke in a collectible Masters cup, and brought it up to the bleacher seating along the right side of the breathtaking 13th hole. The sun was strong now, so we took off our white sweatshirt for the first time. We watched several groups play #13. First Singh and Horschel, then Ryan Moore, then Ian Poulter and Paul Casey, and finally Patrick Reed and Jim Herman. Poulter fished a bunch of balls out of Rae's Creek while Casey practiced shots from the lay-up area. Looking past the Nelson Bridge, there must have been thousands of azaleas and dogwoods on the far side, framing the picturesque green.
We walked by #16 one final time, and then up the hill to the gift shop. This shop on the southwestern part of the course was far less crowded than the main one - perhaps the best kept "secret" at Augusta National. With a bittersweet melancholy, we headed back toward the parking lot. On the final path, as we were again greeted warmly by everyone, Steve spotted a member and said to him: "Thank you sir for putting on the greatest tournament in the world." He said it was his pleasure.
In addition to the above narrative, these are some other memories and random observations that I took away from my visit to Augusta National Golf Club:
- Every square inch of the entire property was either grass, pine straw, or landscaping. There was not a single spot on the course of ground under repair, dirt, mud, trash, etc. It was absolutely immaculate. Even in the areas where the crowd was walking.
- There were no less than three attendants in every washroom. They wiped down the sinks and stalls after every use.
- After each group played the 16th green, a crew of three attendants would go out on the green and pick up every leaf, piece of pine straw, and grain of sand
- Even the camera cables ran underground, beneath the fairways.
- The food was cheap - $1.50 to $3 for the sandwiches. Entire lunch (with drink) was $6
- There was a very surreal feeling walking around that place. Scott said it felt like visiting the Grand Canyon. It reminded me of walking through the background imagery of the Mona Lisa.
- Steve checked his tracker at the end of the day, and we had walked 8.8 miles. To me, it did not feel like nearly that much. I just hadn't really thought about it