Dreams do come true. This is the story of the day I played Augusta National.
Every April of my teenage life, I lay down on the practice range, gazed at clouds and daydreamed about The Masters.
In my mind’s eye, I saw blooming azaleas, unbroken swathes of perfect green grass, caddies all in white and vivid yellow flags.
“I’m meant to play Augusta.”
That’s what I told myself.
I learnt to play at Brancepeth Castle Golf Club, Durham. It’s a beautiful parkland course designed by Harry Colt with tweaks from Dr. Alistair Mackenzie; the same Dr. Mackenzie that Bobby Jones hired to create Augusta National.
The lightning fast slopes of Brancepeth’s ninth green were my training ground for the day I’d drive down Magnolia Lane and putt the famous Augusta greens in person.
10 years in the making
I picked up my first golf club, a rusted Pinseeker 3-iron from my Dad’s ordered garage, aged 12.
Within a decade, I found myself standing outside the Butler Cabin addressing a crowd that included Arnold Palmer, Charlie Yates, Bobby Jones’ lifelong best friend, Sir. Michael Bonallack and several distinguished members of Augusta National Golf Club.
I was giving thanks.
Thanking them for a Bobby Jones Memorial Scholarship and the chance to study in the United States at Emory, the Atlanta University where Bobby Jones studied law.
Exclusive Augusta National Experience
In hindsight, I’m one of the truly fortunate few to have been granted an exclusive, all-access, VIP experience at Augusta National Golf Club and The Masters tournament.
There were no ticket touts or tour operators involved and my Masters experience came with privileged employment at Augusta National. Bobby Jones Memorial Scholars are invited to attend the tournament and join the 700 local volunteers who help stage the most perfectly run tournament in the world of golf.
Yellow Hard hats and Polite Patrons
I was a Gallery Guard at the 2002 Masters, wore a yellow construction worker’s hat and kept order among patrons whilst my heroes walked by inside the ropes.
There are few better things in life than a front row seat at The Masters.
Having marshaled the 18th green grandstand at four Open Championships, with the University of St Andrews Golf Club, I was highly qualified for the role. Even with all that experience, I was let go, not long into the job.
I’ll be forever grateful to the Chief Gallery Guard, Gene, a hospital anaesthetist who caught up with our group of four on that giddy Thursday and said: “you have four days off, here’s your lunch passes, don’t let me see you again until 8pm in the parking lot. Y’all hear me?”
From that moment to the last words of Tiger Woods’ slightly awkward winner’s speech, I soaked up The Masters like a limitless sponge. Every sight, every sound.
I spotted Jasper Carrot, a comedian from the British small screen, Colin Montgomerie’s estranged wife (three back) and Tiger’s bonnet wearing and heavily protected mom Kultida.
Amen Corner – everything you’d expect and more
I basked in the roar of the crowds around Amen Corner, marveled at the steep rise and fall of the course and purred at the succulent soft texture of Piemento Cheese sandwiches.
Masters catering is world famous, for value and quality and we paid $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.
As I said, dreams come true.
Two months later, I returned to Augusta National for “play day,” the day when all the greens staff, marshals, gallery guards and workers are invited back to play that famous course.
Driving down Magnolia Lane knowing that I would tee it up, I felt flooded with adrenaline.
From bag drop, to locker room, to practice ground and putting green, I flitted around like a sugar-rushed 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. 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?
Admittedly, my heart sank a little. I’d always imagined I’d play this legendary course from 1-18, as if I were a competitor in The Masters.
It sank a touch more when I figured out we had a four hour break between our back nine and our front nine later that day. Then I reminded myself where I was, checked my privilege and resolved to make the most of every moment, whichever order they came in and at whatever time.
With 300 worthy golfers and Masters volunteers set to play the course that day, I realised I was part of a celebration of life and golf and one of the lucky few.
Major moment in reverse
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 caddie.
The tees were forward of The Masters tips and the course was set up to accommodate all abilities. After years of watching TV coverage of The Masters, I had a virtual map in my mind and felt as if I was playing in a simulated reality. I knew the contours, shapes and landmarks, but I was seeing and feeling in beautiful Georgia high definition.
After 30 minutes, I’d parred 10 with a driver, wedge, chip and putt. Bob six-putted the 10th green for a double digit opener.
We put it down to nerves and gave Bob some gentle encouragement moving to the tee at 11, White Dogwood.
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 boned gentleman and sweat was pouring off him faster than shots tallied 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 nine hours. I steeled myself to stay calm and not let Bob’s troubles affect my own play.
A good drive and a solid mid-iron into 11 were soured 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, turtles, Bob panting, 155-yards of glorious emerald turf plus Rae’s Creek to cover.
Bottom groove, clean and straight, pitched front, released forward – rolled on – settled 15 feet away on the back fringe. Wish I’d struck it better but happy to be dry.
Bob steps up. If there had been cameras, the director would have cut away.
Up and over Hogan’s Bridge, on the green, two putts, three. Happy with par.
Rae’s creek, need a big draw, Faldo’s 2-iron in 1996. Mind racing.
I drove right into the pine straw. Bob goes left, nearly into Augusta County Club over the fence. Relief, I can walk and enjoy the views.
I lay up to 87 yards from the hole, pin up on the plateau back right. Heavy contact and 45 feet short left. I three-putt. The greens are so taxing.
Bob emerges from the bushes, blowing hard.
14. Chinese Fir
Bob recognises he’s swimming in deep waters and retires from play.
I found myself morally conflicted. On the one hand, I’m sad for Bob, he may never have another chance. On the other, we’re able to gain some flow and focus on playing one of the world’s truly revered courses.
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. It has to be done, out comes the already maxed out credit card.
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.