AUGUSTA, Ga. — This year marks my 10th trip to the Masters — nine covering it for The Advocate, once as a fan.
This is the 80th Masters, which means I have been to one-eighth of them. Not a record that is going to set Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods quaking in fear, but I’ve loved every minute of them.
My apologies to Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium or a deliciously bitter tussle in the Superdome between the Saints and Falcons, but this is my favorite sports week of the year. And by now, I’ve accumulated a tidy pile of Masters memories.
Please allow me to share a few of them with you now:
-- I hope I never forget my first trip to the Masters in 2002. I pulled in off Washington Road through a gate cut out of a thicket of trees and into a wide field near the patrons’ (Masters-speak for fans) main entrance to the course. That area is now home of Augusta National Golf Club’s unrivaled practice facility — where they stock every brand of ball that every player in the field plays and have 350-yard fairways that curve left and right like the real ones on the course. Media parking is just a little farther out now. Can’t argue with a little exercise.
My first impression of driving onto the property was of being like Alice falling down the rabbit hole — if Alice were behind the wheel of a rented Monte Carlo. I’ve described Washington Road as Florida Boulevard with hills — lots of strip malls and fast-food joints, nothing special except that little white, green and yellow sign at the entrance to Magnolia Lane. Having watched the tournament for over 20 years, the feeling of being there was surreal.
-- Speaking of surreal, that first year I was having lunch in the grill room in the clubhouse with a fellow reporter, former Advocate news writer Pat Bonin, who was covering the Masters for his family’s radio station in New Iberia that year. Rain had turned the tournament schedule into a soggy mess, forcing one round to end that morning and another to start that afternoon. In between, the grill was packed.
The two of us were sitting at a table near the door when in came Phil Mickelson and his then-teaching pro, Rick Smith. One of them asked if the other two seats at our table were free. They sat down, and Lefty extended his left hand.
“Phil Mickelson,” he said.
Yes, Phil, I thought as shook his hand, I know who you are.
Mickelson proceeded to order three cheeseburgers with no bread and a Diet Coke. No kidding. It was like that scene in “The Blues Brothers” when John Belushi’s character ordered four fried chickens and a Coke.
Mickelson and Smith were there to talk business, so we let them have as much privacy as possible. A few weeks later, I was interviewing Phil at the Zurich Classic and asked him, “Do you remember sharing a table with me at the Masters?” His face brightened, and he said he did. If he was only being polite, it doesn’t matter. It’s been one of my favorite sports stories to tell for a long time now.
-- That same year, I did a phone interview with Dave Loggins, the singer/songwriter who wrote “Augusta,” the lilting Masters theme music CBS has played for more than 30 years. Dave Loggins, by the way, is the second cousin of Kenny Loggins, who sang “I’m Alright,” the theme song from “Caddyshack.” Dave Loggins’ other claim to fame is “Please Come to Boston,” a personal favorite.
That year I read in Dave’s bio on the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame website (yes, there is such a thing) that he was an LSU graduate. I thought, “Perfect. This will be a nice off-the-beaten-path nugget I have for Masters week that no one else will have.” As Dave quickly but politely informed me, he didn’t attend LSU and yes, he was aware of the error in his bio. (It’s since been amended.) I still did the story. CBS only plays an instrumental version of “Augusta” these days, but there are lyrics. You can easily find Dave Loggins singing them on YouTube.
He’s a master of his game, that’s for sure.
-- In 2004, my dad accompanied me to the Wednesday practice round and the first two rounds of the tournament. It also happened to be the 50th and final Masters for four-time champion Arnold Palmer.
My dad is the man who is most responsible for getting me hooked on this impossible game, the man I watched the Masters with growing up. We took a picture at Amen Corner together that Wednesday, and we stood in the rain Friday next to the first fairway as Palmer teed off to begin his final competitive round.
You can’t buy a moment like that, folks. A tradition unlike any other isn’t just some sappy TV slogan. It’s me and my dad and Arnie in the rain, making a lifetime memory.
-- Yes, they let you bring cameras for the practice rounds, but no cell phones. Ever. Us media types are allowed to have them, but we are forbidden from using them outside the media center. I don’t even like to risk making a quick call to the office on the cart ride back to the media parking lot.
PGA Tour events like the Zurich Classic have long given up the fight, allowing fans — er, patrons, er, fans — to bring in cell phones while encouraging them to limit conversations to designated zones well away from the playing areas.
The men who rule the Masters have none of that. What they do as compensation is have banks of phones available at several spots around the course. Free phones. You can call anywhere in the country and, as far as I know, anywhere in the world at no charge. It’s one of those nice things the Masters does for its patrons that it rarely gets credit for doing.
The same goes for the still relatively low face value of a four-day tournament badge ($325, though ticket brokers are asking over $6,000 for them) and the fact you can buy a Chick-fil-A-like chicken sandwich, bag of chips and a bottled water for $6.
Souvenirs are a little pricier each year. They let the media shop in the tiny pro shop where, most of the stuff is pretty high-end. I go in every year and run my hands through the cashmere sweaters and think one day I’m going to spring for one. Maybe when a rich uncle expires.
-- As most golf fans know, Augusta National has hardly any rough to speak of. The fairways are, as a rule, generous, though David Toms once complained to me that they mow the grass so it lays toward the tees to reduce roll.
The course’s main defense is its greens. How tough are they? Here’s a thought: Paint the floor of your carport green, designated one spot as a cup and try to putt a ball within a couple of feet of it. It looks like they buried elephants under the green at 14. The front third of the ninth green falls off like Meg Ryan’s acting career — a rather mean line I wrote in 2015 but, sorry, I couldn’t resist.
On the par-3 16th, I once saw Toms hit his tee shot to the right side of the green. The pin was on the left, near the pond. Toms putted his ball up near the back of the green, in the general vicinity of where Tiger Woods chipped in from in 2006. The ball trundled down to about 3 feet, and he made the putt for par.
It was the damndest two-putt I’ve ever seen. He had to have played 30 feet of break.
-- No, I don’t believe they ice the azaleas to get them to bloom on time for the tournament. There are 1,500 azaleas alone on the par-5 13th. That’s a lot of ice. I’ve seen the course full of color some years and simply emerald green (also nice) in others. But colorful is better. When you see the blooms of purple wisteria hanging from the trees like you do this year, you know it’s going to be a really beautiful tournament week.
But how do they do their best to get it that way? Two words: obsession and fertilizer. It’s said Augusta National’s maintenance budget is no budget. They spend whatever it costs to produce perfection. After play goes through a hole, you’ll see a guy trimming the grass around the lip of a bunker, not with a weed trimmer, but on his hands and knees with a pair of scissors. As for the fertilizer, it makes everything lush — trust me, you’ve never seen grass like this in your life. But when it rains, let’s say The National (which is what Augusta natives call the club) takes on an aroma unlike any other.
-- Driving down Augusta National’s fabled Magnolia Lane is an honor reserved during Masters week for members and participants. But I got to do it once — sort of.
Remember how I told you the media used to park in a field that is now the practice facility? The pros used to practice on a range that runs parallel to Magnolia Lane for about 250 yards. Even with huge nets at the end of it, some pros were still shelling passing cars on Washington Road with their drivers. Hence the new (much longer) practice facility.
Typically you went out a side gate onto Berckmans Road when leaving the parking lot. But in 2006, I noticed cars driving behind the big net at the end of the practice range toward the entrance to Magnolia Lane. So, after the final round that year, I slowly snaked in that direction, found that strip of asphalt, hung a left onto Magnolia Lane and went out the front gate like Bobby Jones himself.
Total distance covered: about 50 feet. But it was pretty cool nonetheless.
-- Jack Nicklaus is my all-time favorite athlete. He won six Masters and 18 majors overall. Considering Tiger Woods’ travails in recent years, both personal and physical, I don’t think the Golden Bear will ever be caught.
Two years ago, after Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hit their ceremonial Thursday tee shots to start the tournament, they came to the media center for a news conference. During the course, Nicklaus was asked by Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson to re-tell the story of his green jacket.
“You’ve heard this story,” said Nicklaus, mildly annoyed. “You want me to go through the story again?” Yes, please, was Ferguson’s reply.
So Nicklaus told the tale:
“In (19)63, when I won the Masters for the first time, they don’t know who is going to win the golf tournament. So they put a 46 long on me. I’m a 43 regular. It looked like an overcoat.
“When I came back the next year, there was no mention about getting a green jacket. So there was a jacket that was put in my locker; it was Tom Dewey’s jacket, former governor of New York (who lost to Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election). So I put that on, and I won a few more Masters and no mention has ever been mentioned of a green jacket. I kept putting Tom Dewey’s on.
“Finally Tom Dewey’s jacket was getting a little threadbare. I didn’t want to ask anybody, so I went to Hart, Schaffner and Marx, which I was working with at the time. I said, ‘Could you make me a green jacket, please? I’m afraid to ask Augusta because they don’t want to give me one, I guess.’
“They made one, and it wasn’t quite the right material and color. It was close. I wore it for about a year, and I said, ‘Give me Tom Dewey’s jacket back.’ So I wore Tom Dewey’s jacket until 1998.
“In 1998, I was down here the week before the tournament with Jack Stevens (the former chairman of the club) and I told him the story that I had won six Masters and never been given a green jacket. He said, ‘You what?’
“Anyway, I came back the next week, there was a note in my locker that said, ‘You will go to the pro shop and you will be fitted for your green jacket.’ I didn’t even have to pay for it (laughter), I don’t think. I never did know whether I got the bill or not.
“But anyway,” Nicklaus said, tugging at the sleeve of his 43 regular, “this is the jacket.”
“Nothing’s changed,” Player interjected. “He doesn’t pay for anything today. Deep pockets and short arms.”
-- Believe me, I realize how fortunate I am to get to go to the tournament and have someone pay me to do it. I covered it for five years, didn’t go for five (that was painful), went back on a Monday practice round ticket in 2012 and have covered it the past four years again. But if you’re not so fortunate as me to get paid for the privilege, and you care one fig about golf, scrape up the money one year to make the pilgrimage. Even for a practice round. Nothing else in golf will be quite like it.
And try a pimento cheese sandwich. That or three cheeseburgers with no bread and a Diet Coke.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.