AUGUSTA, Ga. — Last Friday, when I found out my name at long last was picked in the lottery for the Monday media round the day after the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, I felt like Charlie finding the golden ticket in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Appropriately, Charlie’s last name was Bucket. As in Bucket List. And this was my personal golden ticket. I was walking on air, until I heard a familiar voice.
“You’d better go (bleeping) practice,” said ESPN.com’s Wright Thompson, once upon a time LSU beat writer for The Times-Picayune.
Sage advice. I hustled off Saturday morning before the Masters’ third round to hit a few balls and stroke a few putts at Forest Hills Golf Club, a now-public course originally designed by Donald Ross where Masters co-founder Bobby Jones used to play.
The putting green at Forest Hills was so fast, I putted off of it twice. Definitely good training.
I almost wished they would tell you that you won a chance to play a round after next year’s Masters. That would give you a chance to practice, take lessons, vitamin supplements. As it was, I dragged my bedraggled game to perhaps the most famous course in the world and decided to give it my best while preparing for the worst.
The preamble to the round was mindblowing. Exactly one hour before my 11 a.m. tee time (not a minute earlier) I drove up Magnolia Lane, the legendary main entrance to the course. Very slowly. I was doing 5 mph, if that. At the clubhouse they took my clubs, told me where to park and shuttled me back to the clubhouse. Every club employee was gracious and welcoming, seeming to know what a big deal this was for us.
The 12 media members picked to play were allowed to use the Champions locker room upstairs. It’s clubby, cozy place, and because of that each Masters winner shares a locker. Our group was assigned to the locker for Charl Schwartzel and late two-time champion Seve Ballesteros. The escape artist himself. Come with me, Seve, I thought to myself, and help me extricate myself from the tree trouble I knew was to come.
They had breakfast for us in the adjacent library room, where the annual Champions Dinner is usually held Tuesday of Masters week. I grabbed a chicken biscuit and headed out to the veranda overlooking the course. A couple minutes later, CBS announcer Jim Nantz happened by on a golf cart. “Are you playing today, Jim?” someone asked. No, he said, he’d just come out to say goodbye to the course.
Of course, he did.
Soon it was downstairs to the gorgeous tournament practice facility to meet my caddie and warm up. I knew immediately I had no feel for my game, such as it is. A few bendy swings and a couple of practice putts and we were off to the first tee. The rest of my group volunteered me to tee off first. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” when they lower him into the cage (“I’ve got no spit!”).
We played the member’s tees, though it’s basically one tee box on several holes (3, 6, 12 and 16), and the players hit some from the forward tee at 4 we used. My first shot snapped left into the pines, a recurring theme. I also drove well left on No. 2, the place players used to call the Delta Ticket Counter, because if you hit it there you were missing the cut and buying an early plane ticket home. My game smoothed out a bit by No. 4 and I went on a modest, but to me satisfying, string of bogeys through 8 before making an absolute hash of 9. I even hit the fairway and green on No. 5, a stern Par-4, in regulation. Three-putted from the front of the green to a hole perched atop a ledge. I didn’t mind.
The fairways were practically perfect. The bunkers blindingly white. The greens, thankfully, hadn’t been cut since Sunday, taking a little speed off, but still fast and filled with lots of two-, three- and four-foot breaks.
On 11, I christened a string of visits to Augusta National’s water hazards by hooding a wedge into the pond left of the green and making a triple bogey. Then it was the short stroll to the 12th tee.
The 12th is iconic Par-3 at the heart of Amen Corner, probably the most photographed hole in the world. Naturally, I hit my tee shot into Rae’s Creek, but then I pitched on before we crossed the Hogan Bridge. This was maybe the biggest thrill of the round because only players, caddies, rules officials and CBS TV crews normally get back there. It was like walking into a watercolor painting. Almost putted into Rae’s Creek but I stayed dry and made a very easy 6.
The 13th hole is Augusta National’s most spectacular, with a rocky ribbon of Rae’s Creek and 1,500 azaleas running the length of the hole. This was my crowning moment. My middling-length drive cut the center of the fairway, and a quality 3-wood from a hanging lie above my feet left me 70 yards from the cup over the creek. I hit a gap wedge above the hole and watched the ball trickle back toward the cup to about 15 feet. Two-putted for par, but it felt like birdie.
I thudded a downhill wedge into the pond at 15, and went all Xander Schauffele on 16, hitting the bank short of the hole and watching it trundle into the drink. Like Xander on Sunday, just about 5 feet to the right and I would have been golden. Had a par putt on 18 but two-putted for a 107, a tidy 35-over par. Dreadful, I know, but I was there for the experience, not to break the course record of 63, a number I figure I majestically sailed past while putting on No. 11.
After the round there was a quick peek up to the Crow’s Nest at the top of the clubhouse where the amateurs stay, a quick visit to the Pro Shop (they sell Augusta National gear there, not just Masters stuff), then back, slowly again, down Magnolia Lane. Back into the real world.