It’s on every golfer’s Bucket List.
For most of us, playing the course that hosts the Masters every year is about as realistic an ambition as climbing Mount Everest. Or winning a green jacket. But for members of the press lucky enough to cover the Masters every year, there’s a faint glimmer of hope in the shape of the press ballot.
This year would be my year.
At around midday on Sunday, when the leaders are calming their butterflies and making their preparations for the final round of the Masters, around 28 names are drawn from amongst the hundreds of members of the press who have entered the annual draw for the ultimate prize of a round at Augusta National on Monday morning. Ticket No 260 had come up trumps.
I was handed a plain white envelope containing a thin card, edged in Masters green with the Augusta National Golf Club logo, my name, an arrival time (10:10 am), a tee time (11:10am) and instructions to present myself and my card at the Main Gate (Gate #3) “for entrance to the Club grounds and the tee.” Photo ID was required.
The word “and” was underlined, as if to remind you that it really wasn’t a dream and that I really was about to step out onto the world’s most exclusive golf course where Bobby Jones and the rest of the game’s legendary figures had strode like gods.
For most of my life Augusta National was a mythical piece of golfing perfection, as elusive to me as the moon. The back nine revealed itself in a blaze of colour on BBC over many years before modern coverage showed us the delights of the front nine, arguably the most difficult of the two.
When I finally got to cover the Masters for the first time in 2009, it was a special experience to walk onto the grounds for the first time and marvel and the sheer perfection of it all and the draconian rules that govern all patrons and guests: no running, no cell phones (except within the confines of the press building), no lying on the grass, no sleeping, no photographs except on practice days, no-one inside the ropes except players and their caddies. The list goes on.
I’d walked every hole dozens of times and witnessed all manner of disasters, imagining how a 10 handicapper would cope with the sheer difficulty of it all. Last Monday, I found out.
The answer was there in black and white before my eyes as I changed back into my street shoes in the Champions locker room, another privilege, as I retrieved my belongings from the small cupboard bearing a brass plaque with the name Bernhard Langer engraved and the years 1985 - 1993. I’d shot 92 and I was happy as I snuck into the Crow’s Nest afterwards to see where the amateurs stay during Masters week.
When I finally left Augusta National at 11.30pm on Sunday night and Adam Scott was floating home with his green jacket, I was in a reverie of my own having fielded dozens of messages of congratulations from envious friends and colleagues.
“You’ll feel like you’re floating on air when you walk over that hill at the 11th into Amen Corner,” said Reuters’ Larry Fine, who had played the course himself some years earlier. He was right.
My biggest worry was finding clubs and shoes but the band of brothers that is the press corp rallied round. The Augusta Chronicle’s Scott Michaux provided the sticks and PA’s Phil Casey came up with the shoes. All I needed now was enough medication to stave off the supraspinatus tendonitis that had prevented me from playing my usual bad golf since December.
“Here, take these,” said Martha Wallace, the charming matriarch of the press room, proffering an assortment of pills - Motrin, Advil, Tylenol - that are on hand for journalists that may be suffering from headaches — or hangovers.
Stuffing enough drugs into my pockets to tranquillise a horse, I turned up at the top of Magnolia Lane at 9:55am.
“You’re 15 minutes early,” growled the head of security, complete with Smokey Bear hat, whistle and gun, as he eyed my card suspiciously. “You’ll mess up the whole parking system up there. Turn around there and come back at 10:10am.”
At Augusta, it’s all about the rules. And the details.
My much anticipated drive up Magnolia Lane became a three-point turn. Sheepishly I drove out the gates and parked across the street to begin the countdown. Fearing that I would overdo it and arrive late, I turned up early again. Mercifully, the gate man grunted and waved me on my way.
Slowly I motored up the most famous stretch of road in golf, rounded Founders Circle and pulled up in outside of the clubhouse.
“Good morning, sir,” said a young man with a clipboard. “We’ll take your car and your clubs. Where are you from?”
“Ireland,” I replied.
“Really. My parents are from Terenure and Rathfarnham,” replied David Wilson. “Dick Cusack (from the Leinster Branch of the GUI) is my uncle.”
I made my way to the Champions Locker room (another special privilege for the day), and gaped at the names. Nicklaus, Watson, Woods, Sarazen, Hogan. A piece of paper with 11:10 was sello—taped to Bernhard Langer’s locker. I had to share it with the other members of my fourball, a Japanese reporter, a Canadian TV presenter and a French Canadian magazine writer from Quebec.
Another Japanese reporter had failed to make it — banned by security and ejected from the crowds after mistakenly believing the that the no cell-phone policy only applied during Masters week.
Patting myself down for any illicit electronics, I decided it was time to head for the driving range that had been off-limits to me all week.
My borrowed clubs — a state of the art set of TaylorMade irons complete with the hot R11 driver and a smattering of fairway woods and hybrids — were waiting for next to a pyramid of pearly white Pro V1s.
“I’m Hank,” said a man in a white boiler-suit, my yardage consultant for the day. “Wanna hit some balls, sir?”
As it turned out, Hank was an ex-pro with a claim to fame that few apart from Gene Sarazen could match. But more of that later.
Four Motrin can do wonders but I limited myself to around 20 balls, a few half-swing punches with a nine iron to a flag 60 yards away, a handful of seven irons, two five irons and a half a dozen drivers on the world’s greatest driving range. So far so good, I’d only knocked down four or five shots. Time for a few putts.
Despite the heavy rain that had marred the play-off for the Masters the night before and threatened to send play into Monday, the greens still had some of their Sunday speed.
I dropped three balls on the practice greens, eyed a hole 20 feet away, caressed it gently down the slope and watched as it zoomed off to the right and ran 10 feet past. Speedy.
Uphill putts took off as if the ball was being pulled along by an invisible train. Five footers across the slope had to be hit deadweight to have any chance of catching a cup that looked to have been cut by laser. It was time to head for the first tee.
Handed a small scorecard that was the essence of simplicity we were lined up for our commemorative photograph. The photographer approached me and whispered in my ear. “Your zipper’s down sir!”
Whatever about my fly, my golfing inadequacies would be cruelly exposed by the most beautiful course in the world. Like a man enchanted by a great beauty only to discover later that she’s more “bunny boiler” than Jessica rabbit, Augusta slowly disarmed me.
We played from the forward members tees, at least 1,100 yards less than the full Masters course that measures 7,435 yards from the tips. But the Sunday pins were still there.
Teeing off an average of more than 60 yards ahead of the Masters tees, you are still overwhelmed by the great sense of space off the tee and the 80 acres of fairway at Augusta, which is spread out over 365 acres of hilly terrain lined with pine and magnolia trees.
Yet while the fairways are generous, placing the ball correctly is of paramount importance if you are to hit greens that are the Russian dolls of golf — greens within greens within greens.
More undulating than you can imagine from TV pictures, each has a myriad of small shelves and plateaus, giving the organisers pin placement options that range from difficult to the downright cruel.
I cracked a good drive away that nestled in the “first cut” on the left - the term used to describe grass cut at little more than an inch, preventing you generating backspin. My approach from just over 100 yards missed its intended target by a few yards and kicked off the green, down a slope from where I made a welcome bogey five.
Three more fives were to follow; a frightening two putt at cross the green to the Sunday pin at the second after finding fairway sand off the tee, a chip and putt at the third where I’d clattered my drive into a tree on the right, and a double bogey at the downhill fourth, where I went from the less penal trap on the left to the cavernous pit on the right.
Adjusting to the pace and slope of the greens leaves you in a constant state of stress, bringing home the true mental test that players face in the Masters. Like a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls, you are acutely aware that one slip is fatal.
That was brought home brutally at the fifth, which measures just 400 yards from the Member Tees. With the ball travelling up to 20 yards further than it does at home, I chose a nine iron for a 152 yard carry over the false front and watched in dismay as it took a flyer but caught the back trap rather than bounding into the bushes at the back. Short-sided to the back pin, my third ran off the front of the green from where I putted up successful to around 18 feet only to four-putt from there for an eight.
Inches separate a good shot from a poor one as I found out with bogeys at the next three holes before scrambling from the front of the ninth for a par and an outward nine of 47.
The back nine is everything you dream of and more as memories of Masters past flash in your imagination as you face the iconic shots that make Augusta so memorable - Faldo’s birdie at the 11th, Couples from the bank at the 12th, Faldo again on the 13th, Seve in the water at 15 in ‘86…
Deep in the bushes right of the 10th, I was glanced further right at the spot from where Bubba Watson had hit that snap hook wedge to set up his Masters victory the previous year concluded that it was impossible.
At the 11th, I crowned the hill a surveyed Amen Corner, eerily silent now on a post-Masters Monday and made a bogey from the right trap, nervously splashing out towards the pond as my ball trundled to the edge of the green but stayed dry.
At the 12th I had 152 yards and chose a nine iron, finding the green before three-putting from 60 feet. At the sharp dogleg left 13th my normally reliable snap hook failed me and I careered into the trees, ricocheting even further right. A friendly bounce out of Rae’s Creek allowed me to escape with a par five.
One of my Canadian playing partners was having a fine round, made all the more irritating by the fact that, bizarrely, he appeared to know nothing at all about the course. “
Is there water in front of the green here?” he asked in the 13th fairway. “Is this a par-five,” he said on the 15th tee.
I’d already decided before the round that I would go for broke at the slightest opportunity, and having take six at the 14th, where I three-putted from the apron, I had 225 to the pin at the 15th.
“I’m going for it Hank,” I informed my faithful bagman.
And I went for glory, taking my swing to the speed of light before topping the ball 100 yards down the fairway. Even after hitting my best shot to the day to around eight feet, my dreams of a birdie came to naught as the slippery putt missed the right edge, sped eight feet past and the return stayed above ground. Drat.
Another three putt from the top tier at the 16th was a prelude to a six at the 17th, where I forgot my new yardages and ripped a seven iron at the pin only to watch in horror as it was still rising as it cleared the green and finished on the edge of the 18th tee. Dead.
A sand-save par at the last, courtesy of a 12 foot putt that lipped-in Adam Scott style, meant as much as any birdie. My playing parters, all three of them five handicappers, had played very well with the Japanese reporter, who had once harboured ambitions to become professional, shooting a superb 77.
While Augusta National had provided the caddies “on a gratis basis”, I turned to tip my man only to discover that he had hot-footed it. I set off in pursuit, eventually finding him peeling off his boilersuit in the “caddyshack” at the practice ground.
Returning on foot to the clubhouse, an Augusta official stopped to ask me if I needed help.
Explaining what I’d been doing, he said: “Oh, that’s Hank Lefter, one of our best, sir. He was a good pro and he’s one of just a couple of people ever to make a double eagle on No 15. He holed a four iron from 215 yards.”
No wonder that Hank, who had toiled on mini tours before turning to caddying in his autumn years, hadn’t stopped me having a wind at glory on the same hole 45 minutes earlier.
Then, moving in closer as if to impart some precious secret, my Augusta host added politely: “Just to let you know, sir, you’re fly is undone.”
Right to the end, it was all about the details.
Augusta is peopled my the entire golfing world during Masters week but on Monday with no green jackets in sight, no partons, no buzz, it is peopled by ghosts.
They were there in the Crow’s Nest when I was given the nod by the Champions locker room attendant Mr Germany to pop up for a peak around at the cramped quarters the amateurs share during the Masters.
They were in the main dining room - the Trophy Room - where a couple of waiters were removing the salt and pepper shakers and the silver sugar bowls from the tables. I’d long ago missed lunch on the lawn and sat with a Diet Coke, drinking in the surroundings.
A man from Turkey, the dining room manager I assumed, struck up a conversation. He explained that the portraits of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, the club’s founders, had been taken down to make room for TV minotors.
“The members like to watch the last few holes,” he said.
A portrait of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower still stared down from the mantelpiece. To its right was a cabinet with a set of hickory shafted clubs, twelve in all, that Jones had used to win the Grand Slam in 1930. Calamity Jane, the putter he had used until 1924, was among them.
The truth is that Augusta National is more than the sums of its parts. It thrives on mystique, suggestion. In our mind’s eye, we’ve all played a round there. And done a damn sight better than 92.
You can see large versions of these photographs and more in this gallery.