Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Augusta National Golf Club - A Cinderella Story


"I shall never forget my first visit to the property... The long lane of magnolias through which we approached was beautiful. The old manor house with its cupola and walls of masonry two feet thick was charming. The rare trees and shrubs of the old nursery were enchanting. But when I walked out on the grass terrace under the big trees behind the house and looked down over the property the experience was unforgettable."

Augusta Entry Drive

The quote leading off the post is not mine, but is from Bobby Jones. His recollection is from seeing the property before the course was built and it is still the perfect description of it to this day. My attempt to capture my day at Augusta is below. Lou Holtz once said, "I'm often asked to explain the mystique of Notre Dame. I reply, 'If you were there, no explanation in necessary. If you weren't, no explanation is satisfactory'." For those who haven't had the opportunity to play it, it is quite difficult for words to do it justice. For those who are among the lucky ones who have, no explanation is necessary.

Augusta National Golf Club (ranked #5 in the world) is the hardest course in the top 100 to get on. I probably have to qualify my prior sentence so I don't get bombarded with email from Down Under reminding me that Ellerston Golf Club is probably the hardest in the world to get on, but that's another story and wasn't on my to do list. It took me fifteen years to get invited to Augusta National, but I finally managed to do it in style. All the pictures on this post were happily taken with my camera, and as you can see, the conditions were perfect when I was there. It was 74 degrees and sunny with a slight wind.

What better circumstances are there to play Augusta National than when the azaleas are blooming, when the course is in tournament condition and with a Masters winner or two? Well, none.

I saved the best experience for last, and walking off the eighteenth green of Augusta National as the last hole to complete my quest is the only way to finish. I am one very lucky bastard.

After I was invited to play at Augusta National it was overwhelming, and it took several days for me to come back down to earth. Because I am just a little anal and clearly I like lists, I immediately began to keep three: 1) People who were previously my friends who told me they now hated me from jealousy; 2) People who offered to caddie for me if needed; and 3) People who wanted "Augusta National" and not "Masters" logo items that you can only buy in the pro shop in the clubhouse. Sleeping the night before playing at Augusta was restless at best, the sense of anticipation was crushing. Sitting in my hotel room prior to the round, I was a clinical example of adult ADHD and displayed all the symptoms in classic form: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. I was babbling, moving things around the room senselessly and not listening to a word my wife said.

What was it like?

Short answer: Wow!

Long answer: It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, if a bit overwhelming. Driving under the canopy of trees lining Magnolia Lane is something I never dreamed would happen to me, so the range of emotions that I felt when it happened were wide, as I was trying to comprehend my dream being realized. The most prevalent feelings were joy, fear, excitement, disbelief, exhilaration and anticipation.

As anyone who has ever been to the Masters knows, everything about the place is perfect. Walking through the door of the plantation-style antebellum clubhouse is as memorable an experience as riding down Magnolia Lane. Having previously been to the Masters twice, I had already experienced the jaw-dropping awe of the property and its rolling hills. Not that it ever gets old, because it doesn't. Being anywhere on the verdant Augusta grounds is special, no matter how many times you have been there. This time, being able to walk into the clubhouse, an act previously verboten, was truly amazing. I do believe I had the biggest smile of my life on my face when I entered.

As with everything else in this adult version of Disneyland, the interior of the stately clubhouse is flawless. It is the antithesis of glitz and ostentation; it is simple, but elegant; the ultimate embodiment of understated Southern charm. There are scores of little touches they get right, including a mounted display board in the entry foyer. The board has slots that hold the engraved names of members who are currently on the property. They slide little brass name plates in and out as members enter and leave the property. I did my best not to gawk at the board, but did recognize a couple of names, including a former Secretary of State who was present. The clubhouse, with a two-story veranda around the entire building was built in 1854; is a veritable museum; touring it is special, as it holds the permanent Masters trophy, special golf clubs donated to the club from past champions and a big oil painting of President Eisenhower. Ascending the winding stairway leads you to the second floor, which houses the dining room where they hold the champions dinner each year and the champions locker room. Starting with Bobby Jones, and thinking about all the great golfers who have been in the clubhouse and walked over these hallowed grounds over the last 80 years gives me goosebumps.

My warm-up was on the driving range used during the Masters instead of on the members driving range. I have obviously played a lot of good golf courses and have experienced teeing off at some famous locales that are pressure packed, such as the Old Course at St. Andrews and the first tee at Merion with lunch in progress. Hitting my first tee shot at Augusta was the most nerve-racking of all and shortened both my breath and my back swing. My palms were sweaty and my stomach full of butterflies. The first drive is over a big swale, and although the fairway is wide, the target area is not, since it narrows between the huge bunker on the right and the big Georgia pines on the left. In retrospect, it was one of the narrowest fairway landing areas on the course. Making contact with the ball on the first tee was special. Having the ball actually go my normal distance down the fairway was a bonus!

I played well on the first six holes, then the gravity of the situation hit me and I fell apart for two holes. It is really hard to comprehend that I was lucky enough to be able to actually play Augusta National. Many thanks to the caddies who helped me stay calm and in the present and enjoy the moment. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all golfers dream of the back nine at Augusta on a Sunday afternoon, and here I am in just such a spot.

The practice putting green is near the tenth tee at Augusta National. After we teed off on ten, a multiple-time winner and Ryder Cup captain walks up to the tee and says, "Do you guys mind if I join you on the back?" Hard to conceive of, right? My playing partner says, "No problem with me, John, is it ok if he joins us?" What am I going to say, "No, I'm sort of in a groove, why don't we continue as a two-some!" My fairy tale story continues...

Nelson Bridge #13 Augusta
Nelson Bridge over Rae's Creek from the 13th tee to the 13th fairway, as seen from Hogan Bridge

From tee to green there is no rough; so, truth be told, putting your ball in play is actually not that hard. The course plays 6,365 yards from the member tees. The fairways are generous, they look and feel like carpets, and every lie is perfect. The greens are also perfection, without question the best in the world.  The most difficult shots tee to green are those you have to hit off of the pine needles if you hit off the fairway. The real tests of Augusta National are chipping, holding your ball on the greens and putting. The greens are fast, as you would expect. They are significantly harder on the back nine, in my humble opinion. In particular, I found the thirteenth, fourteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth to be like putting on the top of a glass table.

I am an average golfer (15 handicap) and if there is one hope that I had going into the round it was to play Amen Corner well. A sense of calm and peace overtook me as I walked onto the eleventh tee. To be able to hit the same shots the professionals hit is a dream every golfer has. To be able to pull it off and not cease up was a treat. One of the highlights of my life was hitting the middle of the eleventh green in regulation (the hole plays 400 yards from the member tees) with a shot that got a "great shot" shout out from two former tournament winners. Luckily, my birdie putt was captured by my alert caddie who knew the gravity of the moment and took the camera out of my golf bag without being asked. I rolled it to within six inches. I was not disappointed with a tap in par to start Amen Corner. Walking over the Hogan Bridge is something that cannot be described; it is a solemn, spiritual experience.

Birdie Putt on #11 Augusta
Putting for birdie on #11 on a brilliant day with the azaleas in bloom

Standing on the twelfth tee I mentally blocked out the water, the ultra-shallow green, the bunkers in the front and in back, and everything else. I adjusted perfectly for the one club wind, visualized the shot, saw only the flag and took a very deep breath. I ended up hitting one of the best shots of my life, eight feet from the hole. This is the reason you stand on the range year after year and hit tens of thousands of practice balls; so that when you need to, you can pull off the shot of your life, and it was satisfying. On #12 the member tee and the pro tee are in the same place, so I had the exact same shot they hit during the Masters, a 155-yarder over Rae's Creek. My putt broke a good cup and a half and when it landed in the bottom of the hole for birdie, it was hard to absorb. I have had my ups and downs with my golf game over the years, but it was very satisfying to birdie what Jack Nicklaus calls, "the hardest hole in tournament golf." I was one under through two holes on Amen Corner, and hit a drive straight down the middle of the thirteenth fairway.  I didn't so much walk over Nelson Bridge as I did float over it.

#13 tee Augusta
The view from the back tee on the thirteenth

My luck ran out when my ball rolled back off the thirteenth green, but I was still overjoyed, having just lived every golfer's dream. When the legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind coined the phrase "Amen Corner," he described it as your second shot on the 11th, the entire 12th hole and your tee shot on 13. In the original true sense of Amen Corner, I played it to near perfection. My favorite hole was the thirteenth; it is just breathtaking and on a scale that most golf holes can never achieve. The back tee on the thirteenth is one of the most peaceful places in the world. It sits in a little alcove set among the splendor and beauty of Augusta, and standing there one has not a care in the world.

#13 green Augusta
The approach to the par five thirteenth green over Rae's Creek

I am blessed, and for some reason the golf gods were good enough to let me play to my handicap when I played Augusta National. As is typical, I had my ups and downs. I hit my tee shot on sixteen into the water,  pulled my ball through the Eisenhower Tree on seventeen, hit my fair share of chip shots fat and three putted more than normal, as the greens were tournament ready. After my final putt dropped on the eighteenth green I shook hands with two green jacket winners. To say I was in a state of elation is a gross understatement. At that moment, I was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

As an added bonus, after the round I also got to play the par three course and to have a drink in the champions locker room. It is quite small and intimate, with only three tables that seat four at each. The veranda outside the room overlooks the circular entry drive and Magnolia Lane. The room was full when I entered and I will leave it to your imagination as to who was in the room and what happened next. If I told you, you wouldn't believe me anyway. Hollywood couldn't have scripted it any better.

I have a big imagination. You have to, to envision playing Augusta and completing this quest. My experience at Augusta National exceeded anything I could have ever imagined. Any one of my experiences that day are remarkable in and of their own right. Are my descriptions hyperbole? Not in the least, when you experienced what I did as the culmination of a long journey. Collectively, they are truly hard to take in and represent a dream come true. The title song from The Wizard of Oz sums up my day:

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.

Would you go if invited?

Links Magazine did a readers poll a couple of years back and asked the following question, "You're on a business trip in Atlanta and have an important meeting that cannot be rescheduled. The night before the meeting, you receive a last minute invitation to play Augusta National Golf Club the following morning. What do you do?"

57% responded that they would skip and meeting and play
43% said they would attend the meeting

The 43% are clearly out of their mind. Are you kidding me?

What PGA players think about Augusta

Sports Illustrated polled the players in 2012 about the Masters. Their answers are below and my opinion in parenthesis.

1. The 11th hole was ranked as the hardest. (I think the seventh and tenth holes are harder)

2. The 12th hole was ranked as the best hole and as the favorite shot on the course (hard to disagree)

3. The 13th hole was ranked as their favorite hole (I agree)

4. 62% of them had never tried the pimento cheese sandwich!

5. 50% of those polled said the major they would most like to win would be the Masters

Some of my favorite quotes about Augusta

"The course is perfection, and it asks perfection" - Nick Faldo

"You get the feeling that Bobby Jones is standing out there with you" - Lee Janzen

"I always said that if they have a golf course like this in heaven, I want to be the head pro" - Gary Player

Augusta truisms

There are three truisms that anyone who has been to the Masters knows:

1. The neighborhood the course is in is more befitting to a suburban strip mall in New Jersey and is lined with Waffle Houses and fast food chains.

2. The steepness of the terrain doesn't come through on TV. Especially how much the first hole plays down and up. Also, the uphill shots required on nine and eighteen are much more dramatic when seen in person, given the big elevation changes. The most dramatic hole of all is the tenth, which plays almost straight down hill.

3. The entire property is perfect. Quite literally perfect. There are no weeds. Nothing is out of place. Those who have been to the Masters know how perfect it is, including the wooden pine bathroom houses that are spotless. The interior of the clubhouse is also perfect. I don't know if they paint the place every day, but the interiors of the buildings look like they were freshly painted. The flooring is polished, the carpets are spotless and look freshly laid, and the lucky people working there are charming and gracious, and make you feel at home. No detail is too small to overlook at Augusta National. Inside the clubhouse they don't use an electric vacuum cleaner since the noise would disturb the perfect ambiance of the place. Instead, they use an old school push style that makes no noise.

Unlike any other

Pine Valley is the #1 ranked course in the world and Cypress Point is #2, and an absolute dream land. Everyone talks about Pebble Beach, and you get chills playing the Old Course at St. Andrews when they announce your name on the first tee. But the course EVERYBODY asks about when I tell them what I've been doing is Augusta. Have you played Augusta? How did you get on Augusta?

I have played in some unreal and memorable places. My day at Loch Lomond was exceptional. My experience and the ambiance of the hunting lodge at Morfontaine is still something I think about all the time. It is also pretty hard to beat an overnight stay at The National Golf Links of America. Yet, this is the one to tell the grand kids about (some day). Everyone I meet in my life from now on will hear about my birdie on the twelfth hole.

#13 looking back 
The 13th fairway looking back toward the tee shows the massive curve around Rae's Creek

Augusta trivia

Some interesting trivia facts about Augusta taken mostly from David Owen's The Making of the Masters:

1. The tress that line Magnolia Lane were planted before the Civil War

2. President Eisenhower never attended the Masters because of possible security problems

3. Before there were tour caddies, golfers recruited bellhops from the local Bon-Air Hotel to serve as caddies

4. Cliff Roberts handled Eisenhower's personal finances and investments

5. The golf shop makes change with new bills because Clifford Roberts didn't like dirty bills

6. There are no tee times at Augusta National. Captains of industry are very civilized and no doubt don't all show up at once. The limited number of cabins for overnight play self-regulates the number of people that play, as most members don't live locally.

7. The two nines originally played in reverse. The 1934 Masters was the only one played with the front and back opposite of the way they play today.

8. Augusta has no slope and course rating from the U.S.G.A. thus you can't really post your score after playing. I'm not sure why they never had the course rated, perhaps to do with privacy and limiting access?


What will you do now that you are done playing the top 100 courses?

People have asked me this question a lot. I contemplated giving up golf altogether, since what I just did can't be topped. Like Bobby Jones, I thought, wouldn't it be great to go out at the top. Jones retired at his peak in 1930 after winning the impregnable quadrilateral, as he termed the Grand Slam. My friends reminded me that I'm no Bobby Jones, so a few other ideas I'm kicking around:

1. Go back to Cruden Bay and play it over and over and over

2. Go and sit in the Sunningdale clubhouse for a week drinking Guinness and smoking cigars

3. Try to join the Links Club in New York

4. Eat at the top 100 restaurants in the world

5. Move to Queenstown, New Zealand, herd sheep and drive a taxi while playing golf at Jack's Point a lot

How did you get on the course?

Unfortunately, like in Las Vegas, what happens at Augusta National stays at Augusta National. This will remain my secret. That is, unless my book deal comes through with its big advance, in which case I will give all the details :). What I can say is that asking to play is futile. Like joining the club, you can't ask them, they have to ask you. Asking to play is an automatic no. Think about it, members would be inundated with requests every day if you could ask them to play since this is the course every golfer obsesses about. In this regard, Augusta National is truly unlike all other golf courses in the world. If you meet a member of Shinnecock Hills or Riviera or many of the other top courses, chances are you can ask them and as long as you are not a total JO, you can usually get invited, as they are proud to show off their course, especially to those that appreciate the history of the game and golf course architecture.  A prior post of mine does outline the ways you can get onto the course:  A Dozen Ways to Play Augusta. Good luck if you are trying, and sorry, I can't help.

What are your favorite courses and holes?

Alas, a complex question best answered by this post: The Best Holes and Courses. My day at Augusta was by far the best overall experience of my journey playing the top 100 courses given what happened to me on that day. In terms of the course only, I would rank only a half-dozen or so courses above it including Cypress Point, Sand Hills, the National Golf Links of America, Merion, and Sunningdale. My top five holes in the world are the thirteenth at Augusta, the fifteenth at Cypress Point, Maidstone's fourteenth, Kawana's fifteenth and the seventh at Sunningdale.

Was it hard to play the top 100 golf courses in the world?

Yes. To put the feat in perspective, by completing my quest I become only the 23rd person to do so, the same number of men who have been to the moon: The list of those who have completed playing. I tried to calculate the percentage of people in the world that have done this and dividing 23 into 7 billion gave a result with a lot of zeros after the decimal point. The odds of winning the lottery are higher than the odds of playing all 100 of the top golf courses in the world.

The hardest courses to get on aside from Augusta are Morfontaine in France, Hirono and Nauro in Japan, Wade Hampton in North Carolina, San Francisco Golf Club and The Golf Club in Ohio.

Thank you 

A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been kind to me along the way, particularly those that hosted me and had to tolerate looking at my terrible swing. Thank you to all my loyal and supportive readers. Special thanks to my mates Tom, Chris and Sheldon who accompanied me to many of the world's great golf courses and are fabulous company. We have shared many laughs together. Thank you for being such good friends, I couldn't have done it without you. The biggest thanks of all goes to the most tolerant and greatest wife in the world! Thank you.

One of the lessons learned from this experience is to be patient. I pressed hard to get on Augusta for years and for the last two had sort of given up, and figured completing the top 99 courses in the world would be a pretty good feat. Little did I know that all those previous no's and rejections in my attempt to play the course were for a reason. Fate had decided that my quest should end with the ultimate climax. Just like in your game, sometimes when you give up, you play your best. Other lessons learned: be nice to everyone you meet, think big, have perseverance and persistence, and believe. There is no way to pay everyone back that helped me, so I will continue to pay it forward and share my luck and good fortune with others.

This will be my last post now that the quest is complete.

Post Script - Did I mention I birdied twelve?