Meanderthals took a little break last week as I attended The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. There are a handful of athletic events that qualify as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Some that come to mind are The Olympics, The World Cup, The Superbowl, The NCAA Final Four. In my estimation The Masters is right there with that group. It may be one of the hardest tickets to obtain anywhere. The golf course itself is in a league of its own with its lush fairways and manicured greens, its towering pines and flowering azalea. The landscaping is simply stunning. It is the ultimate risk-reward course design. The long layout provides a tough, but fair, test of golf for the best players in the world… and they dream about qualifying for an invitation to this prestigious tournament. It is obvious immediately, as soon as you walk on the grounds, that this is a very special place.
Those who attend, patrons as they call us, are treated almost as well as the players. It was immediately apparent the members of Augusta National wanted me to be there. The staff and volunteers always greeted me with a smile and a welcome. Despite having patrons somewhat captive on the grounds, they don’t gouge you with outrageous concessions pricing. Sandwiches are all less than $3, snacks just $1, and non-alcoholic beverages below $2. Despite large crowds in the tens of thousands, restroom lines are almost non-existent, and there is rarely a wait at the concession buildings, except for an hour around noon. Efficiency is the order of the day, and always with that delightful southern charm and hospitality.
The tournament runs all week, Monday through Sunday, with practice rounds for the golfers and spectators Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; then the competitive play begins. The first two days, on Thursday and Friday, the entire field is competing. Play begins not long past 7:30AM and generally concludes with the final group about 7:00PM. The golf fan will not be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t… there was a lot of golf to see. There are a number of methods for observing play, and I tried them all. I followed individual players that I had an interest in. I found areas along the fairways to stand, or sit, and observe the groups of competitors as they played by. And, I spent some time in the grandstands where long distance views were available. All means of observation proved satisfying. On Friday night, they cut the field to the best 44 scores and ties, plus anyone who is within 10 strokes of the leader. Then the pressure really mounts on the weekend as these elite golfers take their best shot at the green jacket, one of the most coveted symbols of golf mastery.
Saturday it was hot. Not just Georgia hot, this was August in April hot. Patrons and players alike were wilting. Sweat and bogeys were in abundance. Behind water, the most popular liquid on this day was sunscreen. They call Saturday “moving day” at The Masters, but this particular Saturday in Augusta the players forgot to load the van. I was cooked at the end of the day. I lost count at nine 12-oz. bottles of water I drank. The weather forecast even called for occasional afternoon thunderstorms. There was to be no relief from rain, or wind, on this day.
Sunday was a brand new day. I slept well the night before and started the day refreshed. When I got to Augusta National, I walked the entire course. It was beautiful. The birds were singing, the dogwood and crabapple were brilliant in the morning sun, and the grass had a hint of overnight dew. I checked the pin placements the players would face. Some were easy, some were brutal, and some were in their traditional Sunday spot. I watched the greenskeepers with their Stimpmeters and green sweepers. I chatted with a few of the gallery marshals who were calm now, but would soon be managing the swarm of patrons that wished to move about the course. And I learned a lesson from the day before. I would stay in the shade as much as possible.
They said at the conclusion this was one of the most exciting Masters Sundays in recent memory. Yes, the forecast was for temps even higher than Saturday, and sun. Sun, sun, sun. But on this day, the golfers awakened as hot as the air. The old-timers will tell you the game within the game begins on the back nine on Sunday. There were nine different players who had the tournament lead at some time during the round. At one point on the back nine there were five players concurrently tied for the lead and another four players within two strokes. I saw the eventual winner sink an eagle two from the fairway on the third hole. The crowd went wild. I saw the former champion, recently struggling with his comeback, make a charge that culminated with an eagle on number 8. The crowd went even wilder. I followed the very young, up and coming star for four holes as he made the turn still clinging to the lead. Then I got ready for the shootout that would be the back nine on Sunday.
You hear them talk about the “Masters roar” on TV, but you just can’t imagine it until you’ve been seated in the grandstands somewhere on the back nine smack dab in the middle of it. Whether a birdie or eagle or spectacular par save, the Sunday crowd reaches a crescendo that can be heard clear out in the parking lots. This particular Sunday, the roar was happening seemingly every five minutes. It was unbelievable the number of birdies that were dropping on 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. The level of excitement made the hair on my arms stand on end. Even some of the players said afterward that this two hour period was the most exciting golf tournament they had ever been involved in. I am so fortunate. Not only did I get to attend one of the greatest sporting events on the planet, but I got to witness this exceptional, crowd-pleasing give and take… the competitive thrust and parry. The eventual champion was Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, but more than a dozen played brilliant golf. The biggest winners were the fans who got to see this remarkable Masters; and old, venerable Augusta National, one of this nation’s true treasures.