Apr 7

INSIDE THE ROPES: OUR SUNDAY AT AUGUSTA

Posted By:Paul Elder - Charleston, SC  Tags:

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INSIDE THE ROPES: OUR SUNDAY AT AUGUSTA
Through some good connections, a little bit of luck, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, two fans25.com regulars spent Sunday afternoon with full access to the Augusta National Clubhouse.  Originally posted April, 2009.

Growing up in Aiken, SC, just over the Savannah River and about 30 minutes away from Augusta, GA, I’ve had quite a few chances to go watch The Masters Tournament at The Augusta National Golf Club.  For me and for many people that I grew up with, going to the tournament was a relatively common occurrence.  While I would never be so spoiled as to say that it was “no big deal,” as any trip to the beautiful, hallowed grounds of The Augusta National is indeed a special event, I will say that some trips are more memorable than others.

For instance, I remember watching Fred Couples make a hole-in-one at #16 during a practice round one year in the early nineties.  And I remember the time at the Wednesday par three tournament when David Robinson (yes, that David Robinson) was caddying for his buddy Corey Pavin.  When my friend stuck out his hand to high-five Robinson his entire arm was engulfed by Robinson’s massive paw.  And I remember the time I saw Mike Tirico hanging out by the practice green.  When we got up the nerve to say, “Hello Mr. Tirico,” he responded, “call me Mike,” before immediately forgetting who we were and walking out of our lives forever.

Yes indeed, some trips to Augusta are certainly more memorable than others, but I think my most recent trip on Sunday, April 12, 2009 will forever live in my memory as my favorite Masters of all time.

It all started last Monday, when my good friend Dana called me and said that one of his old boarding school friends had a couple of extra badges for Sunday’s round and that the friend wasn’t going to be able to make the trip.  Having both been on Sunday in previous years, we agreed that going to Augusta on Sunday is normally the worst day to go if you actually want to see any golf.  But we also agreed that it is usually a pretty stupid idea to turn down Masters badges because you never know when you’re going to stumble across them again, and you never know what, or who you might see.

So, we decided to make the trip.  The plan would be to leave Aiken early Sunday morning, get to the course in time to walk around and take it all in.  Then, about the time the leaders made the turn at #10 we could rush back to Aiken in time to watch the last few holes on TV and not miss any of the real action.  So Dana called his old friend Trey to let him know that we would like to accept his offer and take the tickets.  And that’s when things got interesting.

It turns out that Trey is family friends with a certain former Masters champion (I won’t reveal whom, because I don’t want anyone to get in trouble and I’m not exactly sure what the rules are about players sharing their badges), and that the badges we would be using would actually be this former champion’s personal badges, including full clubhouse access.

Now, as I’ve said, Dana and I had both been to The Augusta National any number of times, but neither of us had ever known anyone who had even sniffed getting into the inner sanctum of the Clubhouse.  It is the kind of access that money can’t buy.  Many times I’ve stood on the other side of the ropes and looked at the people inside that had, somehow or another, gotten there and I’ve wondered to myself, “how in the world did they get in?”

Now it would be our turn.  To be honest, I really liked the idea of people standing on the other side of the rope, looking at me, and wondering, “how in the world did he get in there?”  For all they knew I could be some hotshot young corporate executive, or a member of the club, or maybe I was one of the lesser known amateur players who didn’t make the cut but stayed around for the weekend to soak it all in.  It didn’t really matter who we were.  The point was, Dana and I would no longer be on the outside with the little people.  We would be inside the ropes.  Walking in and out of the clubhouse.  On Sunday.  At Augusta.

To say that last week drug on forever would be an understatement to say the least.  I just couldn’t wait to have all of my questions answered.  Who would we see?  What would the inside of the clubhouse be like?  Would we be hanging out with Tiger and Phil?  Or maybe their wives?

Dana and I talked several times a day throughout the week, formulating, re-formulating, and finalizing our plans.  When we found out that we had to go to a house in Augusta to pick up the badges from the guys that had used them the day before, we decided to leave Aiken around 8:45.  This would give us plenty of time to track down the badges, get parked, get to the course, and walk around a bit before any of the real action started later in the day.

Finally it was Saturday, only one day to go.  My week of waiting was almost over.  And that’s when I started to get nervous.  What if it isn’t as cool as I’ve built it up to be in my head?  What if these magic badges only got us access to some kind of little room off to the side and we were stuck in there with all the other dreamers and hangers on?  Or, God forbid, what if these guys we were supposed to get the badges from didn’t come through?  What if it was all part of some kind of elaborate joke and Dana and I were about to get Punk’d worse than anyone in history?  Visions of Ashton Kutcher danced through my head as I envisioned having to tell all of my friends that I was wrong, and that I hadn’t really gotten to hang out in the clubhouse.

Saturday evening, after dropping our stuff off at our respective parents’ houses, Dana and I both decided to go out in downtown Aiken and have a few beers with some friends from home.  I knew I had an early morning coming up, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to run into a few more people and let them know just exactly what I had on tap for the next day.  I was going to have clubhouse access badges and I was going to make damn sure everybody knew it. 

Unfortunately, as I have been known to do, I may have slightly overdone it.  I was out bragging/drinking until almost 2:00 in the morning.  When my alarm went off at 7:30 on Sunday, the first thought through my throbbing head had a distinctly Masters ring to it.  “What a stupid I am!”  (See: De Vicenzo, Roberto).

Yes, my head was pounding and my stomach was churning, but the day had finally arrived.  It was Sunday, and I was heading to Augusta to watch the final round of The Masters from the clubhouse.  I took a long shower to try and shake some of the cobwebs out of my head and got dressed.  I apologized to my parents one last time for having to miss church on Easter Sunday and sent Dana a quick text message letting him know that I was on my way out the door.

A few minutes later I picked Dana up at his mother’s house and we were on our way.  The drive to Augusta was pretty uneventful, except for the old man at the gas station who made a rather crude joke to the girl behind the counter suggesting that he always kept two special Easter Eggs hidden and that she was welcome to hunt for them.  I laughed out loud and knew right then that it was going to be a great day.

My Garmin GPS worked its magic and led us right to the house where we were supposed to pick up our badges.  As we pulled in the driveway, Dana quickly phoned our contact to let him know we were almost there.  We were met at the door by a scraggly looking Englishman who looked (and smelled) like he had partied a lot harder than I had the night before.  He reached into his rental car, pulled out two badges, and handed them to us.  And that’s when I got nervous again.  The badge he handed to me did indeed say “CLUBHOUSE” in big letters across the top, but it also had a name printed on it…a woman’s name…a woman with the same last name as the former champion who had provided the badges. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I can pass for a lot of people--Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, HRH William, Prince of Wales--but I knew I’d have a pretty difficult time pulling off that I was a player’s wife at The Masters.

Dana’s badge had its own set of problems.  Instead of saying “CLUBHOUSE” across the top it said “CADDIE”.  It also had a name printed on it, but at least it was a man’s name.  But his badge also had a drivers license sized picture of the caddie in question.  Was there still a chance this could all blow up in our faces?  Our contact assured us there would be no problems, that he and his friend had used the same badges on Saturday.  We thanked him, and were on our way.

Augusta’s Washington Road is a suburban strip-mall nightmare with bad enough traffic even on its best day.  During Masters week the traffic problems are only exacerbated.  As the crow flies we were about three miles from the course, but the next 30 minutes seemed like an eternity as we crept along in bumper to bumper traffic.  Finally, we were able to park in an old lady’s yard near the course for the low, low, price of $20.  As we knew we were easily within walking distance of Gate 6 (where we were told to enter), we gladly handed the lady a crisp green picture of Andrew Jackson, wished her a Happy Easter, parked the car, and started walking.

And walking.  And walking.  What very few people who have never been there realize is that the terrain at and around the Augusta National is extremely hilly.  My Saturday night escapades were starting to get the best of me when, mercifully, we saw the gate.  We were almost there.

This would be the first test of our badges.  Although we knew the badges weren’t stolen, and we knew that the Former-Champion-Who-Will-Remain-Nameless was well aware that Trey’s friends would be using them, and that we had all the right in the world to use the badges that were given to us, it still felt a little shady to be using badges that blatantly had other people’s names printed on them.  We walked through the turnstile without incident and were approaching the main gate with the metal detector where they physically scan the barcode on your badges.  Just then a young man about our age stopped us and said, “excuse me, can I ask you guys something?”

“Oh crap,” I thought, “we’re toast!”

We stopped and looked at him until he finally blurted out, “I’ve got these three chairs that I’m supposed to take in to my wife and sister-in-law, but they’ll only let you carry one through the gate.  Would you mind each taking one in for me?  I’d really appreciate it.”

“You mean you’re not here to bust us for having clubhouse access badges that don’t belong to us?”  I almost blurted out.

“Of course man, no problem,” Dana quickly said.

So we each grabbed a chair and headed up to the metal detectors.  I fumbled through my pockets trying to get everything out, my hands shaking the whole time.  Dana, I must admit, seemed to be playing it much cooler than me, as I was certain that any one of these security guards was going to see the name on my badge and know that I was not who I portended to be.

We made it through the metal detector without any issues and both handed our badges to the lady working the barcode scanner.  I felt like I was 19 again trying to buy beer with a fake ID.  My palms were sweaty, my knees were week, and then I heard it…the tell-tale “beep” of a successful scan.  The guard handed me back my badge, looked up and said, “have a great day.”  We were in.  Well, at least we were on the grounds.  We still had the big test in front of us.  Would we actually be able to get in the clubhouse?

Our confidence buoyed by having passed through the first rounds of security unscathed, we coolly traveled down the walkway and past the concession stands.  We made a left at the big scoreboard, and looked to our right just in time to see Miguel Angel Jiminez and Rocco “Fishtits” Mediate walking up the #1 fairway getting ready to play their second shots.  We were there.  Almost.

We kept walking, with #1 on our right and the first few outbuildings of the clubhouse on our left.  We were getting closer and closer to the moment of truth, when we would know for sure just how cool the day was going to be.  As we approached the break in the ropes that allowed those select few access to the clubhouse lawn we paused under the outer branches of the famous big oak tree.  We looked up at a few people hanging out on the second story veranda of the clubhouse, knowing that in a few minutes we would either be joining them, or walking back to the car with our tails tucked firmly between our legs.

We watched the security guard manning the ropes and quickly ascertained that he was not paying close attention to the names on the badges.  As long as the badge had the right color-coded stripe, you were good to go.  So we did it.  We walked up to the rope, flashed our badges at the security guard, he smiled, nodded, and we were in.  Inside the ropes, on the back lawn of the Augusta National Clubhouse.  On Masters Sunday.  Oh.  My.  Lord.

We hung around the back lawn for just a few minutes to catch our breath and collect our thoughts.  And there were many thoughts.  Just a few feet way stood three-time Masters Champion Nick Faldo, deep in conversation with someone.  I’m not afraid to say that Nick Faldo is one big, good-looking dude.  He’s 6’4” if he’s an inch, with big, wide, strapping shoulders.  Up close you could certainly see why, in his prime, he would have been a very intimidating opponent to stand across the tee box from.

Just then, Sandy Lyle’s caddie, resplendent in his white Masters caddie uniform, placed Lyle’s bag not two feet from where Dana and I were standing.  We waited a few more minutes to see if Lyle was coming out for an interview or to head out to the putting green, but he never showed up.

So, after another few minutes of people watching on the lawn (and, admittedly, hoping that people were watching me), we decided to walk in and see the inside.  Another guard checked our badges as we strode through the back door of the clubhouse.  No problem.  I finally started to get the sense that, not only were we not going to get in trouble, but that we weren’t doing anything that could get us in trouble.  We were perfectly within our rights to be right where we were.  Where we were, if I forgot to mention, was walking through the back door of the Augusta National clubhouse.

The first room you see, like the rest of the clubhouse, is gorgeous.  Very understated in its elegance, which to me, is what makes it so nice.  Nothing gaudy or fancy, just a 50 foot wide room with fireplaces at both ends and some nice couches and chairs.  The walls were adorned with old golf pictures and bookshelves.  Very classy, just as I expected it to be.

As we walked through the clubhouse hallway towards the spiral staircase, Dana turned to me and said, “I wonder when Sandy Lyle is going to be walking out?”

I had to smirk because I looked up and saw that as Dana was facing me and talking, Lyle was passing by his other shoulder just as the question was coming out of his mouth.  I gave it another second as we approached the spiral staircase and replied, “you just missed him.”  We had just passed shoulder to shoulder with a former Masters champion on his way out of the clubhouse to play his Sunday round.  Yes sir, this day was turning out alright.

We ascended the old spiral staircase and approached a landing area.  Directly in front was a small bar, to our left were restrooms and a big wooden door (we’ll get to that in a few minutes), and to our right it opened up into a dining room.  We walked through the dining room and out onto the famous veranda that wraps around the second story of the clubhouse.  We had made it.  We were all the way inside.  So far inside that we were actually back outside.  And the day was just beginning.

After hearing the bartender say that they didn’t start serving drinks until 12:00 noon (it was by now about 11:00 a.m.), we put our Bloody Mary thoughts on hold and decided to walk back downstairs and go out to the practice range for a little while.  At the bottom of the stairs, instead of turning right the way we came in, we turned left and headed through the foyer, out the front door and into Founders Circle, the small driveway that pulls right up to the front of the clubhouse. 

As we looked out towards Magnolia Lane and started walking towards the range, the security guard manning the rope in front of the clubhouse stopped the foot traffic and allowed us to walk through.  I’m certain the few people who got held up right there were staring holes through Dana and me and wondering just who in the world we were.

We got to the edge of the range and saw former Clemson golfer D.J. Trahan, decked out in his bright orange Clemson pants, hitting practice shots.  With Dana and I both being Clemson graduates, it was cool to see Trahan showing some school spirit.  I think Dana summed it up best when he looked and me and just said, “Nice!”

Stuart Appleby, Rory McIlroy, and a few others were out on the range as well.  The stands at the range were already packed, so we couldn’t get up there, but we both wondered for a second if our magic badges might allow us to go up and simply take somebody else’s seats.  After all, we were special.  We decided not to press our luck, and after watching a few more shots from the side of the range we decided to walk back through the clubhouse and out to the course to get a couple of sandwiches.

The guard again stopped the parade of the less fortunate so that we could take our rightful place inside the clubhouse as we walked back towards the front door.  The guard at the door saw the blue stripe on my badge and began to open the door for us, when suddenly he looked down at Dana’s badge and began shaking his head…uh-oh, our first hiccup of the day.  What was going on?

“Can’t come in here,” he sternly said to Dana.

“I just walked out of here ten minutes ago,” Dana replied, holding his badge for emphasis.

I started to get nervous.  Really nervous.

“You’ve got a caddie badge.  Caddies can’t come in the clubhouse.  You’ll have to go around through the breezeway to get to the back lawn.”

Phew.  I breathed a big sigh of relief.  We weren’t in trouble; we had just met a minor obstacle, nothing that couldn’t be worked around.  From then on, we would only hang out on the back lawn and try and enter the clubhouse from the back, where the earlier guard had let Dana in without any problems.

So we walked around, under the breezeway between the clubhouse and the locker room, and headed towards the back lawn.  We went back outside of the ropes through another exit towards the par 3 course.  Dana, wisely, took a few minutes to chat up the young, female security guard working this particular exit just in case there were any more problems later.  There wouldn’t be, but I thought it was a damn smart move on his part.

As we passed the Eisenhower cabin and walked towards the par 3 course, we both marveled at how perfect the grounds were.  Even though we’d both been out on the course before, it is still amazing just how indescribably beautiful it is.  The grass looks like a green carpet that has been rolled out just for you.  Even with hundreds of thousands of patrons traversing the grounds throughout the week, the course somehow always manages to look even more lush, even more green, and even more perfect on Sunday than it had on the preceding Monday.  It is truly a testament to the unknown men and women on the grounds crew that keep it in such amazing shape.

There is a somewhat famous story of what Bobby Jones said the first time he and Clifford Roberts walked the grounds of the Fruitland Nursery, which they were in the process of buying to build this now famous golf course.  Through the rolling hills of eastern Georgia, with pines, and streams, and flora of all kinds, Jones, with his unparalleled mind for the beauty of the game looked out and said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Just think, this land has been here all this time just waiting for someone to come and put a golf course on it.”

Truer words may have never been spoken.

We spent a few more minutes marveling at the empty par 3 course, dreaming of one day having the opportunity to chip and putt around such a magnificent piece of real estate.  Dana was getting a little hungry, so we decided to grab a sandwich before heading back to the clubhouse and grabbing our obligatory 12:00 Bloody Mary (I mean, we had to have a liquor drink in the clubhouse before heading out to the course where it is beer only, right?)

After a couple of the famous Augusta pimento cheese sandwiches, we walked back towards the clubhouse and through the ropes.  We still had a few minutes to kill before they started serving drinks, so we decided to walk back inside trying our luck again through the backdoor.  It worked, and once again Dana wisely stopped to chat with the security guard.  Just to make sure he remembered his face when we needed to get back in later.  Again, there would be no more problems on that end, but it was a still a good move on Dana’s part to spend a few minutes just talking and being nice to the guy.  Some of those guards have probably worked there for years, and they’re probably used to people walking right past them and paying them no attention.  Who knows if Dana’s talking to the guy is why he was allowed back in?  But it certainly didn’t hurt.

Our confidence restored, we went back upstairs just to see what was going on.  At the landing at the top of the stairs Dana went towards the restroom on the left, and I grabbed a comfortable seat just outside of the big wooden door that I had mentioned earlier.  Another young guy, probably in his teens or early twenties, sat down in another chair right next to me.  We nodded hello and I went back to staring at the door and waiting on Dana.

There was a big, brass plaque on the door that read “Club Room, Restricted Access.”  As I sat there I could hear people cutting up and laughing on the other side of the door.  I was wondering to myself just who it might be.  Just then, the door swung open.  Not 10 feet away from me was Phil Mickelson, all decked out and ready to go, sitting in a nice leather chair.  Holy crap, it was the Champions Locker Room!!!  Right at that point, Dana came out of the restroom and saw the same thing I saw.  I made eye contact with Phil, or at least I think I did, and gave him a little nod right as the door was shutting.

Dana glanced at me with this look in his eye that, without even having to open his mouth, said, “yeah, that just happened.”  This had already been a great day, and it just kept getting better.

We were just about to start jumping up and down when Dana looked down at the young man who had been sitting next to me.  On his badge it very clearly read, “Bob Jones, IV.”  Good grief, this kid has seen it all.  The last thing we needed to do is dance around like idiots in front of him.  So, we calmed ourselves down and headed back downstairs.

After taking a few minutes to look at some of the pictures hanging on the walls, we walked out the back door onto the clubhouse lawn right around noon.  We walked up to the outside bar and ordered our Bloody Marys.  We tapped our cups together and gave what would be the first of many “cheers” of the day.

On Saturday, we had made plans to meet up with some friends at the tournament by the putting green at about 12:30 on Sunday.  Although we still had about 20 minutes before we were supposed to meet them, we went up to the edge of the rope closest to the putting green, with high hopes that they would see us inside the ropes and taste just a hint of the jealousy that they had due.  After all, they were out there with the rest of the world.  And we were inside, with the people that counted.  What kind of friends would we be if we didn’t rub that in, at least a little bit?

Sure enough, at about 12:15 our friends David and Jason came around the corner.  I spotted them before they spotted us, and I could just see them peering in and around the clubhouse crowd to see if we were actually in there.  I let them wonder for a few more seconds before calling out to them.  They walked up, jaws agape, and you could tell they couldn’t believe that we had actually made it inside.  I had officially made somebody I knew jealous.  My day could have ended right there and it would have been more than complete.

Dana and I, remembering what it was like back when we were just regular patrons, graciously let them each have a sip of our drinks.  Just then the other two people we were meeting, Ryan and Charles walked up behind David and Jason.  We said our hello’s and began to give them the rundown of everything we had seen so far.

We told them about Faldo.  About me speaking briefly with two-time U.S. Open Champ Andy North in the dining room.  About sitting on a lawn chair next to Steve Melnyk.  About ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, decked out in his Sunday best, collecting his thoughts before doing a live SportsCenter remote.  About Dana’s brush with Sandy Lyle.  About standing next to Sam Torrance as he talked to a buddy about the Ryder Cup.  About the security guards stopping traffic so that we could cross the street.  And of course we told them about Phil and the Champions Locker room.

David was about to explode.  He started hinting at the possibility of trading badges, just for a few minutes, just so he could go in and quickly look around.  I wasn’t so sure, as I knew that if anyone saw us swapping badges we could and most likely would both be thrown out.  We decided that if anyone were going to trade it would have to be me.  First, because Dana had been the one that actually gotten the badges and second, because of the slight hiccup we had had earlier with his caddie badge at the front door.  We knew my blue stripe made it a lot easier to walk in and out.

David had just about given up when, in a fit of generosity I have not shown before or am likely to ever show again, I acquiesced.  “Five minutes.  Dana will show you around, give you the highlights, and then back out.  I’m gonna wait right here by the putting green.  David, I’ve known you 29 years.  I was in your wedding.  In a month I’m going to watch your daughter get baptized.  But if you screw me on this and I don’t get that badge back, so help me God I’m going to burn down your house.”

So I walked outside the ropes and into the crowd by the putting green where would be less likely to be spotted making the swap.  The trade went off without a hitch and Dana and David were back inside in a flash.

Ryan and Jason, who had never been to the course before, wanted to go look around, so Charles left with them and we all agreed to meet at the concession stand by the 16th tee in a few minutes once David and Dana came back out.

Five minutes pass, they still haven't shown up, and I was starting to get a little bit nervous.  What I didn't realize is that I happened to be standing right by the opening where the players walk through to get on the practice green.  I am standing there, and all of the sudden a security guard walks right past me making a path to the green.  I look up, and there's Tiger, a foot away from me, walking onto the green.  He is so focused.  Almost like a wax statue with moving parts.  Unreal.

I started thinking to myself, “What a cool day this has already been.  I was 10 feet from Phil and made eye contact with him in the Champions Locker Room.  Then Tiger passed within a foot of me.  I sure am glad I didn't go back inside.  David and Dana are gonna be upset that they didn't get to see Tiger with me.”

Two minutes (that felt like 30 minutes) later I finally saw David and Dana walking back out of the Clubhouse, through the ropes, and towards me.  I looked up and smiled, “Hey ya'll, you just missed Tiger,” hoping that a little needling would cause another hint of jealousy. 

The two of them just looked at each other and grinned and looked back at me and said, “No, we didn't.”  It turns out that a few minutes before they had been standing at the same landing at the top of the stairs outside of the Champions Locker Room.  Dana had his back to the door facing out towards the dining room, where he saw Fuzzy Zoeller sitting with his daughter.  He was telling David, who was facing Dana and hence, the door, that it was the door behind him was where we had seen Phil earlier, and that it must be the Champions locker room.

Right at that moment, according to Dana, David’s eyes got as big as saucers.  Dana was still watching Fuzzy, trying to think of a way to approach him, when David mumbled through his lips one simple word, “Tiger…”  Dana turned around and there he was.  Tiger Woods was walking out of the locker room on his way down the stairs to play his Sunday round at Augusta.  In his full Sunday garb.  Red shirt, black hat, black sweater vest, black pants, black shoes.  The greatest golfer on the planet was walking right towards them, and there was nobody else around.

David somehow managed to blurt out, “Play good today, Tiger.”

Tiger looked him in the eye and said, “Thanks a lot, I appreciate it.”

Dana followed up with, “Get ‘em, Tiger.”

And again he responded, “Thanks a lot man, I really appreciate it.”

Unbelievable.  According to Dana, as soon as he walked down the stairs the two of them acted like a couple of 10-year-olds who had just met Superman.  They were still giggling like school girls when they caught up with me five minutes later.  As jealous as I was, I couldn’t help but be happy for them.

After all, we had been on our way out to the course, so it’s not as if I would’ve seen Tiger up there anyway.  The only reason they were back inside was because I gave David the chance to use my badge for a few minutes.  If I hadn’t agreed to give David my badge, we would have been halfway down the 10th fairway.  I wouldn’t have even seen him at the putting green, and none of us would have seen him upstairs.  Man, what a thrill.

At this point David and I traded badges back and I declared that the swapping of the badges was officially over for the day.  We walked around to the back side of the putting green over towards the 10th tee, where we watched Jiminez and Mediate tee off.  We then said hey to a couple of other friends that we ran into and took off down number 10 towards 16, where we had agreed to meet up with everyone earlier.

I begged David and Dana not to tell the Tiger story to anyone else until the day was over, because I didn’t want anyone else to ask me for the opportunity to swap badges.  But even I knew that was too much to ask.  We met up with the rest of the guys and David and Dana gave them the full run down.  The only thing cooler than hearing the story was watching the gamut of emotions on everyone else’s faces. 

Envy quickly gave way to awe, which quietly gave way to an appreciation of the fact that two of our friends had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime moment.  Everybody was happy for them and, surprisingly, nobody bothered me about the badge.  I think it was just sort of understood that there was absolutely no way that badge was coming un-pinned from my hip for the rest of the day.  Nobody said a word.

We all listened happily as Jason and Ryan gave us a run-down of their first impressions of the course.  It is truly a thrill, at least to me, to see how amazing The Augusta National is to someone who has never been there before.  I know it is cliché to say that “TV doesn’t do it justice.”  But, quite frankly, TV doesn’t do it justice.

We walked through concession line, got some sandwiches and beers and walked over to find seats at 16th tee bleachers.  It was only about 1:00, so the first groups wouldn’t be there for another 45 minutes or an hour, and we had our choice of seats.  We got a prime spot where we could see the players’ second (or third) shots into the 15th green, and then watch them play all of the par three 16th.

We laid down some ground rules for the dollar closest-to-the-pin bets we would be making once they started coming through 16, and spent the next 45 minutes laughing and joking until finally the first group, Kevin Sutherland and Mike Wier came through.

The next several hours the six of us sat in those seats, making dollar bets, rotating in and out for trips to the restroom, the concession stand, and to get a look at a few other holes.  I quietly started hoping that Dana would want to abandon our earlier plan to leave early and watch the end back home in Aiken.  I didn’t want the day to end.

As we watched the players on 16, Phil Mickelson slowly crept his way up the leaderboard.  Dana and I started discussing our plans for the rest of the day, and although he still was leaning towards heading home, he could tell that I had other plans.

When I reminded him that we could watch Phil and Tiger come and play 16 live, and then walk back up to the clubhouse to watch the end on TV, he finally gave in.  We were staying.  Thank God we did.

After watching the two best players in the world play #16, we quickly said our goodbyes to the rest of the group and headed back towards the clubhouse.  There was some great golf being played, and we didn’t want to miss a second of it, so we marched straight back upstairs to the dining room where about 25 people, many of them wearing green jackets, were crowded around a corner TV.  We checked the scores and saw that Tiger and Phil had both bogeyed 18, essentially taking themselves out of it, so we walked back down to see if we could catch them walking back into the clubhouse.

Tiger Woods’ wife, the stunning Elin, was standing just a few feet away from us when Tiger walked through the ropes and right past us back towards the clubhouse.  You could tell from the look on his face that he was disappointed with the way his round ended after playing so brilliantly most of the back nine.  But it was that same look that made me realize why I respect him so much as a competitor.  There are no moral victories for Tiger Woods.  He comes to Augusta (or any other golf course) to win.  Anything else is, to him, unacceptable.

About that time Hank Haney, Tiger’s (and Charles Barkley’s) swing coach walked by with a lovely young woman who looked young enough to be his daughter.  But, based on the way they were holding hands (among other things), I certainly hope that it wasn’t his daughter.  Man, it must be nice to have money.

We assumed Phil would be right behind Tiger, as we saw his wife, the equally stunning Amy waiting near the back door talking to someone.  He must have walked in a different way, because we never saw him, but we did see his caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay walk up and set his bag down right next to us.  We inched our way closer as the working press gathered around the bag waiting to pick Mackay’s brain about the round.  And again, we were right there.  If I had been holding a notepad I could have asked a question and nobody would have thought a thing of it.  “So cool,” I thought.

At one point one of the reporters asked Mackay if they had felt any of the crowd’s energy throughout the day.  I thought his answer was classic, and very telling.  “Look,” he said, “we’re out there on the most beautiful course in the world, it’s 75 and sunny and we’re playing the final round of The Masters in the same group with the greatest player of all time.  My guy shoots 30 on the front to get right in the mix and you ask if we could feel the crowd’s energy?  What do you think?”

All the reporters laughed a little bit and Dana and I continued to stand there in awe of what we were witnessing.  Then we decided to go back inside to where the TV was so we could see the end of the tournament.  Again, there were about 25-30 people in the room crowded around the TV.  I couldn’t begin to tell you who all of them were.  Some were wearing Green Jackets, some were obviously distinguished, powerful people.  One happened to be Amy Mickelson, once again just a few feet away from me.  But I can tell you that two of the people in that room were myself and Dana Mitchell.  Standing in the Augusta National clubhouse, drinking vodka & tonics, and watching on TV as the leaders came up the 18 fairway, trying to avoid a playoff.  Just trying to soak it all in.

I won’t get into the details of the playoff, as I’m sure most of you watched it and know that Argentinean Angel Cabrera won the tournament over Americans Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell by saving par on the second playoff hole.  What I will tell you is that for the 20 or so minutes that the playoff lasted, everybody in that room--whether they were the CEO of some Fortune 500 company and a member of The Augusta National, or if they were just two lucky friends from Aiken, SC who happened to know somebody who knew somebody—everybody in that room for those 20 minutes were all the same, we were all simply golf fans.

We were strangers brought together by a mutual love of a great sport being played on a great stage by great players.  Cheering, high-fiving, laughing, hoping their guy would win.  It was truly the essence of sport.  I was so enthralled by what I was witnessing that I barely noticed that for the last 10 minutes or so I had been leaning against a unique memorabilia cabinet.  Inside the glass case were books by, pictures of, and a bronze bust of golf’s original superstar, Bobby Jones.  These were The Augusta National’s priceless mementos of its founding member, and I was leaning up against them watching it all unfold.  It still seems unreal.

As the playoff wound down, defending champion Trevor Immelman walked out of the Champions Locker Room, escorted by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, among others, past Dana and me, down the stairs towards the dais that was set up outside for the awards ceremony.  What a wonderful, last little thrill it was to get to see a great champion in his final walk down the stairs as defending champion, on his way down to welcome another new champion into their exclusive fraternity.

We stepped out onto the balcony and gave each other one last little toast as we looked out over the beautiful grounds of The Augusta National.  We walked back downstairs and stood out under the Big Oak Tree and chatted golf with our new Irish friend, John O’Malley, who was there as a guest of former Walker Cup player Eughan (pronounced Owen) O’Connell, whom we also met.  Dana talked with them about the courses he had played in Ireland, and I just stood there, soaking in the last few moments of one of the greatest, most memorable days of my life.

As Cabrera finished up his acceptance speech, or as his translator finished up his acceptance speech, we said our goodbyes to our new friends, took one last little peak inside the clubhouse, stepped outside of the ropes and walked back into reality.  If only they allowed cameras…I guess our memories will have to do.

Growing up in Aiken, SC, just over the Savannah River and about 30 minutes away from Augusta, GA, I’ve had quite a few chances to go watch The Masters Tournament at The Augusta National Golf Club.  For me and for many people that I grew up with, going to the tournament was a relatively common occurrence.  While I would never be so spoiled as to say that it was “no big deal,” as any trip to the beautiful, hallowed grounds of The Augusta National is indeed a special event, I will say that some trips are more memorable than others.



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Games for Week 13

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Here comes the Hawkeyes
Iowa @ Iowa State 2015
My niece, Halle! -- The Top Fan
Herky Arrives
Justin Time 22 & Valley Girl with Darius Hamilton...Watch him!!