AMEN Corner? Amen to southern hospitality, more like it.
There I was, standing out the front of my hotel in Augusta, Georgia, anxiously waiting for the taxi I had phoned 20 minutes earlier. Sweat was dripping from my forehead and a sick feeling came over me as my worst fears gathered momentum. I can’t be late for this. I simply cannot be late, I lectured myself, frantically strolling back and forth, glaring at my watch with golf bag in tow. The stakes were high … really high. My name had been drawn out in the annual media lottery at this year’s Masters Tournament and I had a tee time to play Augusta National the morning after Englishman Danny Willett donned the famed green jacket.
“This will be the greatest day of golf you will ever experience,” said the club’s director of communications before handing me a card with a strict arrival time on it.
“It’s very important that you are neither late or early for your arrival time.”
To be safe, I allowed plenty of time to get there. But the cab I expected would turn into the hotel driveway never showed up, and after 30 minutes I was in a state of despair. Why is this happening today – of all the days?
Just as I made a beeline for the hotel reception, a rusty, old mini-van pulled up with an elderly lady behind the wheel.
“Are you here for a pick-up?” I asked – the urgency in my voice obvious.
“No, sweetheart … but I can be,” replied the lady leaning out the window, puffing cigarette smoke thicker than her southern accent. “Where are you heading?”
They say beggars can’t be choosers and I was certainly in no position to be selective. So I thought, Oh what the hell – it’s got four wheels. “Augusta National Golf Club, Magnolia Lane, Gate 3 entry. I’ve got 10 minutes to get there but it’s just down the road. Have you heard of it?
“Have I heard of it?” she replied. “It’ll be my third drop-off there this week. Jump in, honey!”
I couldn’t believe my luck. My golfing dream was alive, albeit not quite how I imagined it.
OFF we went, rattling down Washington Road at about 30 kilometres an hour, but I didn’t care. I figured I’d rather be a few minutes late for my bucket-list moment than not have it at all.
“My name is Shirley.”
“I’m Brad. Thank you so much for this.”
“Oh, you’re Australian?” Shirley asks. She knew everything. Turns out Shirley was a local who had been doing Masters shuttle runs for decades. She had a great knowledge of the game, the history of The Masters and even knew of the only Australian-based member of Augusta National. She took the opportunity to point out places I should visit while in town, but it was hard to concentrate. I only had one thing on my mind.
“So what are you doing at Augusta National today? Didn’t the tournament finish yesterday?” she asked.
“Believe it or not, Shirley, I’m actually playing the course,” I replied with a grin.
“You’re what?! Oh, my Lord.”
We arrived at Magnolia Lane – the official entrance reserved for players during The Masters – and after a security check, chugged up the most famous driveway in golf in a beat-up, old bus with my new mate, Shirl. I later learnt this was a registered road so secure, even the Google Maps car was chased away from it. “This will be 20 bucks, sweetie,” she said of what would have been no more than a $5 cab fare.
“Take $30, Shirl,” I replied, knowing I couldn’t put a price on the most important ride of my life.
We pulled up right outside the front of the club, flowers in full bloom. I’d finally made it.
First-Class To A Tee
WAITING for me at the end of Magnolia Lane were half a dozen welcoming Augusta National staff members. One took my clubs while another whisked me into the clubhouse and upstairs to the Champions Locker Room.
“Today you will be using Byron Nelson’s locker, Mr Clifton,” I was told.
“I’m honoured, thank you very much,” I replied, before looking around to see the names of Jack, Arnie, Hogan, Tiger, Player, Mickelson and more recently, Adam Scott, engraved on closets nearby. Here I was, standing in a room most US PGA Tour players will never get to see. In front of me sits a glass cabinet showcasing a green jacket and old Masters trophy, while over in the corner is a bathroom housing a toilet, shower and tiny sink. Nothing extravagant, barely room for two people in fact, but impressive all the same. “So this is where Tiger and Jack brush their teeth?” I asked the locker room attendant. “It sure is, sir” he replied. I pinched myself, before cracking open one of the disposable toothbrushes on offer because, well, I could.
“Your caddie is waiting for you on the range, sir. Follow me when you’re ready.” And out we went, where a man named ‘Gibby’ greeted me with a smile in those iconic, white overalls and green cap before passing me a wedge to limber up.
“Another Aussie, hey?” Gibby asks. “I carried Marc Leishman’s bag a while back. He’s a lovely guy.”
I knew I was in for a good day, and after (surprisingly) crushing a few Augusta National Golf Club-logoed Pro V1s and gauging the speed of the practice green, it was time to head to the first tee.
“It’s actually happening,” I said to my three playing partners, all American golf writers who were feeling equally as giddy about what lay ahead.
With a small gallery of club officials watching on from the members tee, we all got our first drives away straight down the middle to settle the nerves. We barely spoke a word walking up the first fairway. The look on our faces said it all. How good is this?
The Best Advice I Never Took
IN the excitement of seeing my name drawn out to play Augusta, I immediately told two people. First, I phoned my wife back in Australia to break the news from the media centre. Next, and I still don’t know why, but I had the audacity to contact Jack Nicklaus – the six-time Masters champion – for some tips to avoid making a fool of myself. Jack being the gentleman he is, responded in kind. “Brad, you can’t hurt yourself from the middle of the green. On almost every hole, that should be your target around here.”
It was great advice from the greatest ever, but I couldn’t help visualising Jack’s near-hole-out at 16 en route to his famous 1986 Masters triumph. He didn’t always play it safe around this joint. Still, as I approached my tee shot on the opening hole, I thought about Jack’s words of wisdom and decided to not attack the pin, all of which were left untouched from their tricky Sunday positions. Instead, I took aim at the heart of the putting surface, put a good swing on it and successfully airmailed the green with a wedge, finishing right up against the grandstand behind. A chip and three putts later and my philosophy went from Nicklaus’ cautious approach to all-out attack, Bubba-style. I guess it could have been worse, right Ernie? If only we had asked the Golden Bear for some putting tips … After a driver and 5-iron had me lining up an eagle putt on the second, the flatstick failed me again, three-putting for a par that even had Gibby feeling my pain. “Hang in there, bud, the putts will come,” he said. Gibby was right, the putts did come … 41 of them to be precise, on what was an otherwise solid display of ballstriking from this occasional 3-marker.
“Listen to your caddie,” I was warned by a fellow Aussie scribe who had played Augusta a few years earlier. “He will have you aiming for spots on the green that will freak you out but just hit it where he says.”
Gibby had me lining up 90 degrees left and right of the hole. I thought he was losing his mind, if not his eyesight. But I obeyed his instructions and hit it exactly where he told me to, except I hit it 10 feet past on almost every hole. Whack! Put me down for another three putts. But geez it was fun. In fact, I will never have a more enjoyable 41 putts, ever.
Because It’s Augusta National
PEOPLE have asked me what it was like to play Augusta National and it’s difficult to elaborate on the obvious. “Yeah, not bad,” I’d joke. “Couple of good holes here and there” and, “It’s in pretty good nick”.
Truth be known, it was hard enough to find the superlatives having walked it as a spectator. Now, having experienced it as a player the day after The Masters, in tournament condition, has only made that task more difficult. Nick Faldo’s take on it is probably still the best summation I’ve heard. “It’s got the beauty, it’s got the colour, it’s got the sound and the breezes. Everything together makes this place special.” It’s all true.
The stories I’ll share with friends moving forward will be about the little intricacies I picked up along the way, like how much shorter the course plays off the members tees (about 1,000 yards), or how the thick jungle to the right of the fourth green has become its own legend with locals.
“We call this place Little Saigon,” Gibby reveals as we send out a search party for my ball.
I also couldn’t believe just how small the 12th green was, or why Jordan Spieth chose to drop his ball where he did (I walked off with a 4, not 7!), or just how surreal it was standing on the 13th tee knowing the only people who have graced this turf are club members and their guests or The Masters participants.
“How many pieces of land on the planet can you say that about?” said my equally awestruck playing partner.
Then there are the 80-year-old turtles lurking in Rae’s Creek under the Hogan and Nelson bridges that wait patiently for caddies to drop them crackers for nibbles.
Another thing I learnt was the 13th really is the prettiest hole in world golf, hands down, and should be left alone. So what if Bubba can get there with a driver and wedge? I hit driver, 8-iron and walked off with, you guessed it, a three-putt 5.
I kept the roll going at the par-5 15th – a driver and 6-iron flew the green and left me with work to do for my par. Hey, at least I was consistent.
You’re probably wondering and yes, I did drop a couple of balls to the front left of the 16th green and re-enacted Tiger’s famous chip-in from 2005, without the same result. That green complex is ridiculous in the most sensible way. I hit an 8-iron to the middle of the green and watched it suck back towards the pin. Jack would have been proud.
As I tapped in on 18 it triggered feelings from my childhood. I immediately recalled growing up on the oily sand greens of Hay, NSW, dreaming of one day playing the back nine at Augusta National on a Sunday afternoon. And here I was, doing it on a Monday afternoon. Oh well, close enough.
I had organised for my good mate, a professional golfer who also hosts his own Masters Tour, to pick me up from the front of the clubhouse. As we drove out down Magnolia Lane, he took a moment to let it sink in. “Next time I’m driving through here it will be as a player,” he said with conviction in his voice.
“And I’ll be your caddie,” I replied. “You know, a wise man once told me you can’t hurt yourself from the middle of the green. On almost every hole, that should be your target around here. Remember that, mate.”
Augusta National – it’s the stuff dreams are made of.