The story of a how a scratch golfer from the coalfields of Northern England got to play Augusta National and made a hole-in-one….
Every April, I would lie on my back staring up at clouds.
The short fragrant grass of the practice ground was a comfortable place to dream about the coming days, when pictures of the greatest golf course on earth would be beamed onto our tiny television screen.
In my mind’s eye, I could see the flush azaleas, unbroken swathes of perfect green grass, caddies in white boiler suits and those bold yellow flags.
April was and always will be, Masters time, and I have dreamt about playing at Augusta National all my life.
Luckily, dreams come true and this blog tells the story of my journey from the not-so-famous golf courses of County Durham to the hallowed turf of Augusta National Golf Club.
Magnolia Drive – Augusta National Golf Club
I was meant to play Augusta – or so I’ve always told myself.
I learnt to play at Brancepeth Castle Golf Club, a classic English parkland course outside Durham City, designed by Harry Colt with help from Dr. Alistair Mackenzie – the same Dr. Mackenzie whom Bobby Jones hired to create Augusta National.
The lightning fast slopes at Brancepeth’s 9th green were my training for the day I would drive down Magnolia Drive and putt on those Augusta greens for real.
I didn’t wait long. I arrived in Augusta for the 2002 Masters, not as the world-beating professional golfer I’ve always dreamed I would be, but as a Student.
Addressing the King of Golf
I took up golf aged 12 and ten years later, I found myself stood outside the Butler Cabin addressing a crowd that included Sir. Michael Bonallack (Britain’s own Bobby Jones and a famous amateur golfer), Charlie Yates, Bobby Jones’ lifelong best friend, Arnold Palmer (The King of Golf) – who didn’t stay long – and several distinguished gentlemen in the green jackets worn by members of Augusta National Golf Club.
I was thanking them. Thanking them for my Bobby Jones Memorial Scholarship and the chance to study in the United States at Emory, the Atlanta University where Bobby Jones took the Georgia Bar exam.
Bobby Jones, and a lot of hard work at the University of St Andrews, opened the doors to Augusta National and The Masters for me.
Masters tickets are gold-dust
Looking back I’m so thankful, getting a Masters ticket is near on impossible.
I didn’t have to haggle with ticket touts outside the big wire gates on Washington Drive, or save for decades to afford the tour operator’s exorbitant Masters package, or even have to beg someone who knows someone who is related to someone special in the world of golf.
I was invited in and even had a job.
Yellow hard hats and perfect patrons
For four sun-kissed and splendid days I was to be a Gallery Guard at the 2002 Masters.
I wore a yellow construction worker’s hat and had to keep quiet order among the patrons (which is what fans are called at The Masters), while the Rolls Royces of golf competed for the green jacket.
What could be better than a front row seat at The Masters?
I’ll tell you.
It’s the moment you clock in for work and the Chief Gallery Guard, an anaesthetist called Gene, tells you “you have four days off, here’s your lunch passes, and don’t let me see you again until 8pm in the parking lot. Y’all hear me?”
From the minute I woke up, to the last words of Tiger Woods’ awkward winner’s speech, I soaked up The Masters like a limitless expanding sponge.
Every sight, every sound.
I spotted Jasper Carrot, Monty’s estranged wife and Tiger’s bonnet wearing and heavily protected Mum.
Amen Corner – everything you’d expect and more
I basked in the roar of the crowds around Amen Corner, marvelled at the steep rise and fall of the course and purred at the succulent soft texture of Piemento Cheese sandwiches.
Your overpriced Open Championship burgers are no match for Masters catering, $2.00 for a mouth-watering sandwich and chips (crisps).
Over those four days, I’d visited the smaller-than-you’d imagine Champions Locker room, climbed into the Crow’s nest – where the amateur competitors stay – and drank gin and tonic with members in the clubhouse.
The Butler Cabin – that venerable place where jackets are exchanged by companions and winning words are uttered – is a TV studio, and a small one at that.
Parking lot perks
When each day’s play was over we cracked open cold beers in the parking lot – from fridges kept in the trunks of BIG trucks – with our new friends among the gallery guards. There were Vietnam veterans, realtors, doctors, construction workers and dentists, and everyone a golf nut.
I even got some financial advice from Jimmy, who’d survived the rigours of combat in Vietnam. “Every time you want a coke, tell yourself No, and save that money. Pretty soon you are going to have a lot of money in your pocket.”
Vietnam veteran Jimmy at the first Tee: coke and coins!
Just being there watching was enough for me. But, as I said, dreams come true.
Two months later I returned to Augusta National for “play day,” the day when all the greens staff, marshalls, gallery guards and workers are invited back to play that famous course.
Driving down Magnolia Drive at Augusta National knowing that I would shortly tee it up felt like I’d been given an adrenaline shot straight into my bloodstream.
From bag drop, to locker room, to practice ground and putting green, I buzzed around like a hyperactive toddler.
Without crowds of patrons and room to breathe, Augusta National felt different and more like a golf club than an amphitheatre of major championship golf.
The 18th green stood alone in a sea of green, more solitary than surrounded, and the first tee and opening fairway basked in sunlight and swallowed the attention of the gathered golfers.
I signed in and was given my tee-time.
10.18am with S. Scott, R. Campbell and J.Livingstone, 10th tee. 16.24pm, tee 1.
The 10th tee? My heart sank ever so slightly when I realised I wouldn’t play that famous course on holes 1-18, as if I were competing in The Masters.
It sank a little more when I figured out we had a four hour break between our back nine and our front nine later in the day.
Every second counts
Disappointment doesn’t last long at Augusta National and with some 300 worthy golfers set to play the course that day, I resolved to make the most of every moment, whichever order they came in and at whatever time.
Major moment in reverse
So, we headed to Tee 10, Camellia, 495 yards of rolling, sweeping fairway to a green nestled in trees and surrounded by crystallised pure white grain sand.
My fourball that day was made up of Scooter Scott, an army chaplain from Fort Jennings, Georgia, Bob, a golf membership sales manager from Cuscowilla and Jamie, my friend and fellow Jones scholar from Dunfermline, Scotland. Jess, a fellow scholar, came along to watch and caddie.
Jamie, Jess, Bob and Scooter in the Crow’s Nest between rounds
The tees were forward of The Masters tips and the course played shorter than you’d imagine. After years of watching televised coverage of the event I’d memorised the distances and clubs the professionals hit at each hole and it felt like I was playing a video game.
After 30 minutes, I’d parred 10 with a driver, wedge, chip and putt – and Bob had managed to six-putt the green and score double digits on his first hole.
We put it down to nerves and gave Bob some gentle encouragement moving to the tee at 11, White Dogwood – scene of Larry Mize’s famous chip-in against Greg Norman and Nick Faldo’s playoff win against Ray Floyd.
When Bob took four more to reach the spot we’d driven to, the penny dropped that Bob was a stone cold beginner.
He was a big man who’d looked like he’d enjoyed life and sweat was pouring off him faster than shots tallied up on his scorecard.
Divine intervention needed
Scooter looked like he was praying for God to intervene and send Bob a golf game down to earth for the next 9 hours.
I steeled myself to stay calm and not let Bob’s flailing spoil my life long dream.
A good drive and a solid mid-iron into 11 were ruined by a three-putt and my first taste of the irrepressible speed of Augusta’s greens.
12, Golden Bell
I’d longed to play this shot. This was a special moment. No crowds, no TV cameras, just me, some turtles, Bob’s sweat soaked panting mass; and 155-yards of famous earth and water to cover.
Bottom groove, clean and straight, pitched front released forward – rolled over the left edge and settled 15 feet away on the back fringe. Wish I’d hit it better but happy to be dry.
Bob; swish, crunch, dummmpphhhh, “sh*t, c**p.”
On the green now, two putts, three – happy with a 3.
Rae’s creek, big draw, ball above the feet – Faldo’s 2-iron in 1996. Mind racing.
I drove right into the pine straw. Bob headed off left and nearly ended up at neighbouring Augusta County Club over the fence.
Relief, I can walk and enjoy the views.
Dunched it forward to 87 yards from the hole, pin up on the plateau back right. Heavy contact and 45 feet short left, inevitably, I three-putt. Bob emerged from the bushes looking like he was being hunted in the jungles of Belize, he was puffing and blowing hard.
14, Chinese Fir
With Scooter starting to worry that Bob might suffer cardiac arrest, God intervened and Bob called it a day – apologising – and realising that after 6 months of golf lessons and a handful of rounds, it was probably not the wisest idea to take on Augusta National.
I found myself in a moral dilemma.
I felt ashamed for being secretly pleased that Bob had cleared off back to the Clubhouse bar and that the three of us were able to play the golf course without searching for balls, ducking for cover, and worse looking back at the other groups disbelievingly watching Bob cleave the precious Augusta turf.
Damn, drove behind the tree on the left, laid up. Downhill pitch – terrifyingly tight lie – find the green, two putt but only just.
Putting for birdie at Firethorn #15 at Augusta National
Like the 12th, my heart raced with expectation. 9-iron again, flag right over the bunker, straight down the pipe, ran past the hole to 12-feet, two putted. Overjoyed.
Turtles and tap-in’s – making par at Redbud
Big drive, duffed my wedge into the front trap, two to escape and two putts for an ugly six.
Taking on “Ike’s tree” at Augusta’s 17th
Imagining myself in the final group of The Masters, four to win.
Ripped the drive, drew left and bounced into Sandy Lyle’s bunker.
18th tee Augusta National Golf Club “Holly”
I have 167 yards to the flag down breeze, lip rears up ahead of me. Same club as Sandy, the 7-iron, flushed and over the back of the green.
Sandy Lyle’s famous bunker shot at Augusta National
Only 20 feet from the flag but chipping. Good strike, checks and rolls before lipping the left edge. Agony & ecstasy infused.
Shake hands and walk the short distance to the clubhouse. Bob is having a beer and a big Southern barbecue pork hogie. We join him, he’s shaken but will be okay now he’s eating.
Three and a half hours till we tee off at Tea Olive, no.1.
We eat, tour the clubhouse and head off to the famous par-three course – scene of the famous Pre-Masters Par 3 Tournament where children and friends of the pros caddy and join in the fun.
Bob says he’ll come along and watch.
The 1st is 130 yards up hill, flag left, green sloping back to front steeply. I’ve come close with two 9-irons already at 12 and 16.
This one sails over the flag, flush out of the sweet spot and pitches long. Spin kicks in, ball goes into reverse rolling toward the flag like a putt. It drops in the back door. ACE!
I’m in the air for what feels like eternity, jumping, leaping, smiling. Back to front, side to side, it doesn’t matter how I played Augusta National that day, I’d holed in one at that famous Masters shrine – the short version at least.
I’m so nervous I can hardly hit it 70 yards at the next, it’s clean and long and I make four, birdie the third and par everything else bar one for a round of 27 (level par).
We get back to the clubhouse and tell the other gallery guards.
The beers arrive and the talk starts of the Hole-in-One trophy in the pro-shop. It’s $150 and they mount the ball. I umm and arr, I’m a student with five years of student debt. It has to be done, plastic emerges from the wallet and the trophy is bought.
Augusta Ace: Holing in one at Augusta National Par-Three Course
We play the par-three course again, I can’t remember anything second time round. I’m too heady and just a little drunk from the beer.
Time to go again
Scooter, Jamie and I are joined by Joe, a senior VP in an Atlanta financial firm who takes annual leave every year to work as a gallery guard during The Masters. He swaps his pin stripes for a yellow hard hat and is one of the guys drinking cold ones in the parking lot after play finishes.
Tee-time at Augusta
Bob is nowhere to be seen.
The first hole is so tight. The bunker right is a magnet and the trees like prison walls.
Pink Dogwood, the par-five second is simple if you drive it straight and stay left with your lay-up and wedge shot. I two-putt for a par.
At Flowering Peach, the 350-yard 3rd, I hit a long-iron and a pitch long over the green. I have to chip to a tiny plateau around 10 feet in diameter to have a chance for a par. Good strike but the ball rolls and rolls and rolls. I have 50 feet back and two putt for a bogey.
Flowering Crab Apple, the 205-yard par three 4th. I crunch a 4-iron long and am faced with 60 feet downhill, down grain, and down wind. I hit the putt like a two footer and watch it trundle, gathering pace relentlessly, until I’m 20-feet by. Two putts for a bogey.
The greens are just like they are on TV, fast, undulating, punishing, but perfectly true. Hit the putt well it finds the cup, too fast it spins out, too soft it dies away.
The 5th, Magnolia, was a great hole but is rarely seen on TV.
I’ve played golf only once, at Augusta National
My friend Jess doesn’t play golf and in this quiet corner of the course, struck a ball just to say she had played golf at Augusta National.
Juniper, the par-three 6th at 180-yards, was a personal highlight. The hole fit my eye and with a flag right at the back, I ripped a 5-iron straight down the pipe to 15 feet and dribbled the putt down slope for a three.
As I did at the 17th, I drove long and straight down the 7th and dumped a wedge into the front trap, duffed it out and three putted for an ugly six. I made up for it slightly by making my only birdie of the round at Yellow Jasmine, the par-five 8th hole with an up and down from 65 yards.
I hadn’t expected it to be but my finishing hole at Augusta was Carolina Cherry, the 460-yard 9th hole, which sits directly in front of the white Southern plantation style clubhouse at Augusta National.
I drove the ball beautifully at Augusta and again I was in the heart of the fairway with only a 53 degree wedge left into the green.
Careful not to overload it with spin and have the ball return spinning down the shaven apron to my footprints, I made sure I went long of the pin and stayed on the green.
Reluctantly, I drew back the putter twice more and holed out for a round of 79, seven-over-par.
Dusky orange glow over Augusta
Dusk had begun to set in the Augusta sky as we walked back to the sea of green and white umbrella’s and play day golf bags. A warm orangey glow illuminated the first tee and there was spirituality all around us.
I’ve remarked so many times since, that if this was the last golf I’d ever play, I’d happily hang up the clubs fulfilled.
Back with Charlie, Jimmy, Joe and Gene and the other gallery guards, I collected my hole-in-one trophy. We celebrated our day at Augusta southern style – with fried shrimp, grits and beers at a down at heel but charming restaurant off Washington Boulevard.
If there is one golf dream I’d happily let recur it’s my journey to Augusta.