My name came out of the writers’ lottery to play Augusta National. The last time I took my clubs out of the garage, I was trying - unsuccessfully- to sell them at a yard sale. But I still needed, in no order, spikes, balls, tees, a glove, pants, a windbreaker, clean underwear (multiple pairs just in case) and a towel. To cry into. Steve Politi on his Masters disaster.
I am looking out at the most feared view in golf from the 12th tee box at Augusta National, praying quietly to the golf gods on a course that already had brought me to my knees.
Please. Let me have this. Just this.
The first three hours of my unexpected round have left me wondering if I killed an azalea in another life. I found the green from the sixth tee… the 16th green. I hit the lip of a sand trap on the seventh hole, catching the ball as it flew back at me, which was, come to think of it, the most athletic thing I did all day.
The 11th hole? We will never, ever speak of the 11th hole.
So, yeah, I wanted that tee shot on No 12 to reach the green. I needed that tee shot to clear Rae’s Creek so that one of the worst golfers to ever hack around this famous course could say he did something that even the best champions couldn’t do when it mattered in the Masters.
I had 155 yards to the pin and a chance to keep Bobby Jones himself from rising from the dead, grabbing me by the front of my $90 Masters shirt, and yelling, “GET OUT!”
I took a 5 iron, don’t judge me!, and gave it my best swing of the day.
“Oh be right,” I begged.
Let’s leave that ball in the air for now, because I’m sure you have some questions. How did a former New Jersey high school golfer who retired out of frustration and futility make Augusta Freakin’ National his first round in about 10 years?
Maybe we should start from the beginning. It was a lark, really. I have covered the Masters 16 times for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com without ever entering the press lottery, which gives 28 people covering the tournament a chance to tee it up the day after the Masters and shoot for the same pins as the champion.
I always came up a reason to skip it, flights to change, kids at home, the club’s exclusionary policies, blah blah blah, but the truth was obvious: I was scared the course would chew me up and spit out the bones.
But that started to feel silly. People wait their entire lives for this. They buy new clubs. They cry on Magnolia Lane. Getting on Augusta National is roughly as hard as it is to get on the moon. Would a NASA writer say “no thanks” to that trip?
This time, I was in.
Besides, it is widely accepted that the lottery isn’t exactly random. I’m the guy who comes here and writes about Waffle Houses and dry cleaners and Arnold Palmer ordering an Arnold Palmer. I once wore a $5.35 thrift shop green jacket around the course and, based on the looks I received, thought security might extract me from the grounds Osama bin Laden style.
Put it this way: I don’t treat this place like every single footstep requires soft piano music in the background.
“They’ll never let you win,” my colleague Dan Wetzel from Yahoo Sports said.
Well, they let me win.
I arrived back to the lavish media centre on Friday to find a note on my laptop. One of my friends had heard the news that I had won the lottery and wanted to offer his sincerest congratulations before anyone else.
“YOU BASTARD,” it read.
A mandatory meeting on Saturday morning outlined the rules. I was told to arrive at 10.20 am, a minute earlier and they would turn me away, for a 11.20 am tee time. I would warm up on the same driving range as the players. I would even use the sacred champions’ locker room. It all seemed too good to be true.
“The mantra we all take is that this is an opportunity for you to be a member for a day,” the club’s spokesman told us.
If that’s the case, I was going to need the key to the club’s wine cellar and a cork screw. Oh, and could I borrow a swing?
I actually did play golf, once upon a time, and did well enough to earn a couple varsity letters at Nutley High School. The details seem a bit foggy all these years later, so I called up my old coach, Carmine D’Aloia.
Was I as bad as I remember, a guy who couldn’t break 50 for nine holes?
“By the time you were a senior, you were… decent. That team had a winning record, believe it or not. And you guys won a very prestigious award from the state.”
Time to go shopping. The last time I took my clubs out of the garage, I was trying, unsuccessfully, to sell them at a yard sale. They didn’t make this trip. ESPN columnist Ian O’Connor offered to lend me his and even promised he wouldn’t be angry if I broke one.
But I still needed, in no order, spikes, balls, tees, a glove, pants, a windbreaker, clean underwear (multiple pairs just in case) and a towel. To cry into. The free round of golf was about to cost me $500. Now I know why they let me play.
To boost the Augusta economy.
I figured I needed some advice. Paul Casey had just finished his third round at the Masters and, despite being out of contention, was in a good mood. So I told him I was about to play my first round in 10 years on the same course he just battled through.
He laughed. He laughed a lot.
“Ten years? How did you play 10 years ago?”
Uh, not exceptionally well.
“Well, it’s not going to be much better here, now is it?”
I did not want my first round in 10 years to be at Augusta National so on Saturday night I went out looking for a tune-up. The only place open was the Putt-Putt Fun Center in Martinez, Georgia, which was illuminated by flickering halogens and the glow of the concession stand next to the arcade.
“I’m playing Augusta National on Monday,” I told the teenager behind the counter as she handed me a brightly painted green ball.
“Wow. Well, the red course is the hard one!” she replied, helpfully.
I used my borrowed putter and aced the first hole. Boom! I was back, baby. Nutley High in the House.
But Wetzel, my match-play opponent, took back the lead on the next hole and started piling on. I took an embarrassing 5 on a hole. The giant plastic giraffe was literally looking down on me. If CBS were covering this, they would have stopped showing my shots on the back nine. I lost by seven.
In mini golf.
I was in deep trouble.
A pep talk from a three-time Masters winner Nick Faldo, a three-time champion here and now a respected analyst, was walking briskly toward the Augusta National clubhouse. I knew I had an opening to lean on his expertise if I could catch up to him.
“Nick, I’m going to play this course on Monday and —
“— it’s going to be my first round in 10 years and —
“— I was wondering if you had any advice.”
“Don’t. Just … don’t. That’s the best thing I can tell you. Just walk around and enjoy the sights.”
He never broke stride.
No, I didn’t listen.
I sat in a Wendy’s parking lot for 20 minutes to make sure I didn’t arrive early. The guard lowered the three steel barriers to let me make the same drive as Jack, Arnie and the rest. I was driving up Magnolia Lane, both hands gripping the rental car’s steering wheel like it was my first day in driver’s ed.
I met my caddie, Allan, who had 17 years of experience working here, and apologised in advance. He later told me that he once caddied for Larry David, which probably was a good primer for the uncomfortable comedy he was about to witness.
In the champions’ locker room, I was assigned to the stall reserved for Zach Johnson and Billy Casper. We made our way to the first tee, where club pro J J Weaver noted the slight drizzle and told our foursome to stay dry.
It was too late. I had wet my pants.
The great fear, of course, was topping my drive with the club officials watching. Legend has it, an employee for a local newspaper once took two wild swipes at that tee shot, leaving huge gashes in the ground. When he tried for a third one, a green-jacket wearing member grabbed his club.
“Okay,” he said. “That’s enough.”
I didn’t want to get dragged off the premises already, so when I hit my borrowed Big Bertha about 220 yards into the centre of the fairway, I was giddy. I had hit a decent golf shot! Hey, maybe this wouldn’t be that bad after all.
Uh, yeah. It was that bad.
I three-putted for 8 on the opening hole, then knocked my drive on No. 2 into a magnolia bush and made 10, and then could have turned footage of my putting on the No. 3 green into a montage with Benny Hill music. I was +20 through five, which meant I was playing quadruple-bogey golf.
The downhill par-3 is one of the best places to watch the Masters because it also gives you a great view of the 16th green, which, thanks to a wild slice, is where my ball landed. The green was empty, at least. Perhaps the golf gods hadn’t forsaken me entirely after all.
“Hey, that’s a makeable putt!” Allan told me.
As I power walked to retrieve the ball before someone saw what happened, I found myself daydreaming about how the CBS crew would have narrated what unfolded next.
Jim Nantz: We have quite a situation developing here on six. A sportswriter from New Jersey appears to have gained access to the grounds. He has somehow hit his tee shot onto the 16th green and -- oh no. Is he pulling out a wedge?! Wait. Now he’s taking out the PUTTER. It looks like he is going to putt the ball onto the fringe and hit it from there! Nick, I’m not sure we’ve seen anything like this before.
Nick Faldo: This is unbelievable. He’s having a total meltdown. Even Greg Norman at least -- wait a minute, Jim. I recognize that guy. I saw him yesterday morning. I told him not to play here. He should have listened!
All things considered, I was pretty happy to make a seven.
This is where I gained a deeper appreciation of the PGA pros. I couldn’t begin to read the greens - Allan handled that - but figuring out the speed was next to impossible. Even the best player in our foursome, a Seton Hall grad named Bryan Georgiana with a 7 handicap, struggled with that.
I had a chance to get up and down for par on the ninth hole, but I chipped past the hole, then putted the ball off the green back to where I started, then chipped the ball back to the same spot past the cup again. After that disaster, I was scared to death to even touch an uphill putt on 10 and left it five feet short.
Forget what a guy like Dustin Johnson does off the tee. Watching Jordan Spieth make putt after putt out here, once you stand on these greens and try it yourself, seems nothing short of miraculous. But this course humbles the best, too.
Sergio Garcia had a 13 on the par-five 15th in the first round, hitting the ball into the water five times. I missed my only par putt of the day on that hole - my best of the round by a mile - and tapped in for a six. I beat the defending champ by seven strokes.
In your FACE, Sergio.
And then I crossed Hogan’s Bridge Look, by now, I’m sure you’ve figured out what happens to that ball we left hanging in the air on 12. It does not clear Rae’s Creek. It does not land in Rae’s Creek, either.
I popped it up.
“Tactical layup,” I announced.
Then I skulled my wedge shot into the water.
None of that mattered, though, when I made the walk across Hogan’s Bridge. For a decade and a half, I have stood on the other side of that 12th hole, wondering what it was the view was like on that green. Now I saw what Ben Hogan saw, and what Jack Nicklaus saw, and what Tiger Woods saw.
I even touched those azaleas behind that treacherous little green.
No one ever talks about the Nelson Bridge, which crosses on the other side of Rae’s Creek. As I walked across it after teeing off on No. 13, three turtles peeked their heads out of the water to say hello. I leaned over to appreciate the wonder of nature, and to ask them, gently, for a favor.
“Can you swim down and get my ball?”
The round ended, isn’t this how it always works? - with my best shot of the day, a solid 270-yard drive up the hill on the difficult 18th hole. A day earlier, Spieth hit the branch of a pine tree here, sabotaging his attempt to make the greatest comeback in golf history.
“Jordan would have killed for that drive!” one of the other caddies said.
We posed for photos on the green, laughing like old friends, and that’s when the stillness of the place struck me. Just 24 hours ago, fans were packed in 30 deep to watch the final groups come through. Now, it was just some hacker from New Jersey who finished with a (gulp) 135-ish and one story he’ll tell forever.
I lingered in the champions’ locker room, running my finger along the nameplate belonging to Nicklaus and Woods. I sat on the veranda, appreciating a view that only the winners see. I probably could have milked it a little longer.
But it was time to go.
I drove as slowly as I could down Magnolia Lane, the clubhouse getting smaller in the rearview mirror. The guard at the gate stopped me and asked me how I played.
“Horribly. Can I come back tomorrow and try again?”
He chortled as he walked back inside.
Those three steel barriers rose behind me as I pulled away.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved