Dearest reader, please forgive me for these few hundred words of sheer self-indulgence. Hopefully we can have some fun along the way…
It’s 5am and my phone is barking at me. “Take the exit and follow signs for Downtown Augusta.”
I am just minutes from Augusta National following a two-hour middle-of-the-night run from Atlanta. I couldn’t sleep. Partly from jet lag, partly from staying in an airport hotel and all the wonderful noises that brings, and partly because I was just too damn excited.
I turn onto Washington Road. I drive past rows of cheap fast food sheds and run-down shops called things like Augusta Liquor which, in stark contrast, have huge sparkling billboards for Rolex watches towering over them. The car park of a steak house that almost certainly sells more drugs than it does red meat serves as a sales floor for dozens of men with huge yellow signs promoting their definitely legal Masters ticketing services.
My co-pilot pipes up again. “Your destination is on your right.”
Surely not, I think. How can the most pristine golf club in the world be – well – here?
But there it is. That famous water tower. This is where I’ve been told to park. I roll slowly through some large green gates that may as well have been a portal to a different dimension.
“Hello and welcome to the Masters!”
The greeting from the sweet-lady-who-you-wish-was-your-grandmother at security is everything I expected. And needed.
“Can you unzip?” she asks, politely. “You’ll have to buy me a drink first,” I reply. “Your bag!” she squeaks, and she wraps her arms around me as she belly laughs her way into Tuesday.
I turn the corner and I’m presented with the building that will house me – and the rest of golf’s illustrious media, of course, I’m not special – for the week.
It’s bigger than the White House. And in better condition, too. What do you do with this building for the other 51 weeks of the year, I ask an Irish colleague as a gentleman behind a grandiose desk thumbs through some envelopes to find our credentials.
“Almost everything at Augusta National is only used for Masters week,” he tells me. “This building, the driving range, many of the buildings. Even the par-3 course to a certain extent.”
It’s hard to describe how I’m feeling. Actually, no it’s not. Remember when you were a kid and you went to see your favourite football team for the first time? That walk up the steps and the utter wonderment of seeing the pitch, and the stadium, and your heroes in real life? That.
All you can really do is stand and stare. Even, as was in my case, it was pitch black outside.
I familiarise myself with my surroundings until the sun comes up. I head into the restaurant – yes, really – for a slap up breakfast. (Vanilla pancakes and bacon, thanks for asking.)
As first light begins to shine down on this delicious corner of Georgia, finally I can see some of the National. Well, the practice range, at least – and I get my first glimpse of the famous white boiler suits as the caddies help their bosses prepare for the week ahead.
Then the players start piling through the interview room. Rory McIlroy gives way to Jon Rahm, who gives way to Tom Kim, and then Tiger Woods. Then, a break. For lunch? Probably. But let’s pretend it’s because we all want to write about the GOAT.
I write a bit about Rory because – let’s face it – he’s the most interesting, and I’m ready to get back to my Airbnb and, more importantly, my bed.
But I have to see some of the golf course before I go – if only to get my steps in. I wander down the hill to a patch of land that opens up in front of Augusta National’s famous clubhouse, taking in the 1st and 10th tees, and the 9th and 18th greens that somehow simultaneously feel like a putter’s shaft but also a million miles from each other.
And the turf. Oh my word, the turf. It’s perfect. How on earth do they get it so perfect? I laughed when Emily Toy told my colleague Hannah Holden ahead of last year’s ANWA that she was scared to take a divot. Now I get it. I feel guilty just walking on it. Shall I take my shoes off out of respect?
The sun starts to dip down behind the trees that tower over every fairway. Tomorrow, I whisper, I will be back to see all of you.
As soon as I’m fed (sausage, eggs, potatoes) and the sun’s up I head down towards the course, but something – or, should I say, someone – catches my eye.
Come on, you’ve done this already. Get on with it.
It’s cliched to say that the TV cameras really don’t capture just how hilly the golf course is, but the TV cameras really don’t capture just how hilly the golf course is. I’m almost annoyed at myself for thinking this as I head down 10, along 11, and to the 12th.
I’m not religious in any way, but standing and looking at Golden Bell is almost a spiritual experience. Out of body, even. It’s such a tiny piece of land, but it’s 155 yards of grass and water that I – and you – have come to know almost intimately. But nothing can prepare you for how it looks, and feels, in person.
I decide to savour the moment by taking a bite out of a Krispy Kreme donut which has been spoiled by spending the last 20 minutes clasped by my giant paws.
One thing you might not know is that you are not allowed to take your phone into Augusta National. As I walk around, I constantly go to whip mine out and snap a few shots. I would put my hand to my pocket, have a brief moment of panic, then remember the rules and know it’s safely tucked up in my locker. I’ll thank them one day, I’m sure.
But it’s at the 12th where I realise just how underappreciated the rule is. Thousands of people just living in the moment. Soaking it into their memory.
Matt Fitzpatrick and Billy Horschel find the dance floor with their tee shots and then the chants go up. “Skip it! Skip it! Skip it!” It’s like a pantomime. Both players fire their balls into the water, neither of them escape. Mock boos shake the azaleas.
I walk up to appreciate just how ludicrously tight the 18th tee shot is, and then I decide to brave the merch tent – or Golf Shop, as they call it at ANGC. Despite barely being 10am, the queue already piling up the hill towards the practice area.
It’s OK, I think, it’s moving pretty quickly. I didn’t realise, of course, that once you’re inside the doors it then snakes for what feels like four miles. But it moves surprisingly fast and before I know it I’m in Masters merchandise heaven. (Or hell, depending on how you want to look at it.)
I’m certain I hear my credit card yelping in my back pocket as I scoot round, flinging things in my bag with reckless abandon. I can’t spend it when I’m dead, I remind myself as yet another item I will almost certainly never use flies off the shelf and into my possession.
Finally defeated, I head to the cashier, a pleasant college student who tells me she’s flying to England to study in Lyme Regis(!) for a year.
I ask her what the most one person has spent at her register is. “Fifty-five hundred,” she replies, which I think is American for 5,500. “But I’ve heard stories of like 18 and 19 grand.”
I’m suddenly incredibly grateful that she only asks for $400 for my personal haul. Most of it is gifts, most of it is gifts, most of it is gifts, I silently chant in time with my march back up the hill.
Some mementos, though, are cheaper than others, and I see many walking around clutching everything from napkins, sandwich wrappers and plastic drinks cups to take home as little reminders of their day out. I even saw someone reach into a trash can to dig out a couple of discarded beer containers.
Wait, how has it taken me this long to get to the sandwiches? You’ve all seen them, and the media centre has its own little sandwich stall packed with all your favourites – Ham and Cheese on Rye, Chicken Salad, BBQ, and, oh yes, Pimento Cheese. (And no, I haven’t. And won’t.)
I opt for BBQ. And then another. And one more. OK, maybe a fourth. They are very small, and I have walked a long way already as well as survived the logo-laden gauntlet.
I sit back at my desk, satisfied with my morning’s work. And then decide to actually do some work. (If you can call this self-absorbed nonsense ‘work’.)
I’m briefly interrupted by Augusta chairman Fred Ridley’s always entertaining press conference, before I head back out to soak in the Par-3 Contest.
Now I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong, and I was wrong. This is the best place in the world to sit and watch players flicking their wedges to kick-in range. It’s almost too good a way to spend an afternoon. So I do.
But tomorrow, the real thing. I’ll be back – if only to soak in as much action as I can before the rain arrives…
It’s here! The 87th – and my first, have I mentioned that? – Masters is here! It’s 6am and I’ve already been up for three hours. (And not because of the squeaky mattress on which I’ve been condemned to spending the week.)
I join the masses of fans walking down the hill, past the already huge queue filing into the Golf Shop (those gnomes sell out fast), and to the first tee. The crowds are already jostling for position, and the Green Jackets create a human corridor to allow our honorary starters a way through.
A boiler suit appears from the Crow’s Nest and a smattering of applause breaks out, before people realise it’s just Mike Weir’s caddie on his way to the putting green.
The Canadian left-hander, who won the Masters in 2003, isn’t far behind, but the patrons aren’t falling for that one again. Weir’s playing partner, Kevin Na, follows with his Iron Heads GC clothing and bag. He doesn’t look particularly happy about something, and the woman standing next thinks the same out loud. “Do you know what’s up with him?” she asks, though I’m not entirely sure why she thinks I would know.
But here they come. The main event before the main event. Gary Player emerges first – obviously – and blows kisses to no one in particular. Jack Nicklaus follows, clinging to wife Barbara’s shoulder, and Tom Watson makes up the three, that familiar beaming smile lighting up an otherwise overcast morning.
Player wipes a tear from his eye as he’s announced on the tee, and he pumps one down the middle.
Nicklaus then has his annual celebration with the patrons about successfully getting the ball on the tee, and he pumps one down the middle. Watson says something about how “you don’t ride go karts at my age” – what? – and he pumps one down the middle.
Who picks up their balls from the first fairway, I wonder, and who keeps them? I ask the woman next to me, though I’m not entirely sure why I think she would know.
Anyway, witness the honorary starters tee off at the Masters: check.
“Fore, please! Mike Weir to drive first.” I love that. And I feel an unexpected lump of emotion welling up inside me. Don’t cry. Not here. Not in front of all these people. Not for Mike Weir.
The trio of Vijay Singh, Scott Stallings and amateur Matthew McClean follow soon after. McClean’s dad stands near me with the Belfast optometrist’s face plastered across his t-shirt. (At least I hope it’s his dad.)
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so nervous on the 1st tee. But he stiffs his approach and, for half an hour or so at least, leads the Masters.
Soon news filters round that Na has withdrawn from the tournament having completed just a handdul of holes. These LIV players, eh? Just want to play less and less golf with every tournament. I wonder if Greg Norman will make him stay until Sunday, just in case one of his players wins.
Right, I need to see the front nine of this golf course.
I watch first the group of defending champion Scottie Scheffler, Max Homa and amateur Sam Bennett away, then he’s here – the man with the hopes of a nation on his Grand Slam-seeking shoulders. Rory McIlroy strides confidently to the tee. He feels this, I can tell. Then he crunches his opening drive into the trees that separate the 1st and 9th holes. (That, it will turn out, sums up his day.)
He attempts to hook his second round the corner, but ends up right in front of me and my fellow fans. Look, I even got on TV…
McIlroy and playing partners Tom Kim and Sam Burns disappear off to the 2nd and I decide to hold on, because emerging up the hill from the 1st fairway is the main man: Jordan Alexander Spieth.
I watch him make a routine par then follow him down the sweeping 2nd, where he moves into red numbers, then join in with the roars as he gets to 2-under at the 3rd. Further along at 6, an almighty cheer rings around Augusta as he rolls in a birdie putt, then he adds two more to go out in 32 and ohmygodhe’sgoingtodoitisn’the?
By the way, the slope under the 6th tee at Augusta National might just be the coolest spot in the world to watch golf. You are literally sat watching players hit it over your head into the green, while the 16th – another par-3 – is also in full view. Glorious.
With talk of a thunderstorm incoming, I decide to hot-foot it up 7, 8, 9 and back into the safety (and air conditioning) of the media centre.
I slip into Koepka’s post-round press conference and he dismisses it before going to some rather gruesome detail about his knee problems from the last year.
He’s then asked a rather strange question which is answered by the simplest of Google searches…
My theory? He went to LIV because he thought his career was over due to the injury and wanted to make as much money as quickly as possible.
That’s as much thought as I’ve given it, and all in the time it took to scoff a Georgia peach ice cream.
I glance up at the TV and see Spieth is having a completely normal one that involves a double-bogey 7 and a two at 16. It’s why we love him.
Same again tomorrow? You bet.
- Missed anything from day 1 at Augusta? We’ve got you covered
“Good morning,” the announcement booms around the media centre. “The Monday Golf Lottery is now closed.”
It’s one of the coolest things about the Masters – if you’re working here, that is. If you’re unaware, Augusta National very kindly offers a handful of spots to members of the accredited press the opportunity to play the hallowed 18 the day after play finishes and with the course in tournament condition.
It’s a complete lottery – the name gives it away somewhat – and the only rule is if you get picked you cannot enter again for seven years.
Don’t worry, my name’s in.
The chances of your name coming out the hat are incredibly slim, but it’s easy to let your mind wander. So much so, that you find yourself walking around the course thinking about where you might hit it on certain holes. I drift so deep into fantasy land I have to remind myself that I am Not Good At Golf and would be happy just to keep my ball on the planet, let alone the fairway.
Maybe it’s just me.
“It’s definitely not just you,” my deskmates confirm. Phew.
I pop my name in the metaphorical hat and head down to the first tee.
Watch Tiger Woods play golf at Augusta National Golf Club: check.
I’m not alone in this, it seems. This is hardly a fresh take, but it’s absolutely crazy how popular this guy is – even when he’s battling to make the cut.
Suddenly, everything goes black. Thousands of hands start pointing into the air as a huge dark cloud eases itself into the vicinity. I’m not interested to find out how this ends, so I retreat to the shelter of the Press Building.
“The results of the Masters Golf Lottery have been posted on the notice board.”
That was good timing.
It’s hard to describe 400 people react to a piece of news they are desperate to know while simultaneously playing it cool.
It’s not my year, but a friend is in, so I’m 80% buzzing for him, 20% dreading that I’ll never hear the end of it, 100% filled with jealousy.
But the joy is shortlived as the hooter goes and play is suspended. Then, videos start circulating on social media. A tree has come down next to the 17th tee.
It’s fascinating to be part of something like this unfolding. It’s why we got into the job, right? Now we can’t go down to where it happened, because the course has been evacuated, so Augusta’s media team take the brunt. Thankfully, it’s not long before they are able to confirm that no one was hurt.
Through the huge windows in front of us, we see the white jumpsuits emerge en masse from the caddyshack at the bottom of the range, so it seems play is about to be suspended for the day. Moments later, that is confirmed.
I finish up and head back to my car. On the way I hear a group of fans talking about treegate. I stick my beak in and ask if they had seen it happen. Turns out they had, and it was actually far more scary than was initially thought.
Back at my Airbnb, I lay on my pillow and think about two things: Firstly, why isn’t it just called ‘Airb’, because you don’t get breakfast. And second, where am I going to play some golf on Monday?
- Missed anything from day 2 at Augusta? We’ve got you covered
I’m woken by the rain beating against my bedroom window and, despite my eyes barely being open, I can see my phone lighting up on the floor.
What have I done now, I wonder.
Then it becomes apparent. An innocuous tweet I posted on Friday, with what I thought was a pretty obvious joke, has has been picked up by a few popular accounts and has blown up.
Here it is, look.
Yes, Faceless Tweeter, I know Si Woo Kim has worn these PGA Tour-emblazoned clothes all season. And no, Twitter Handle First Name Bunch of Numbers, calling me a “lefty” is not the insult you think it is.
It’s 5am, why am I explaining a joke?
I decide to forego my morning run and jump straight in the car. A half-eaten bag of M&Ms stares back at me. I’ve already earned it, I tell myself.
As I approach ANGC, it’s still hosing but that won’t stop the massses of patrons. Somewhere in Augusta, a plastic poncho salesman is stuffing wads of $20 bills into a suitcase.
I decide I’ll wait until the rain calms down to head out so I watch Tiger Woods equal the Masters cut record from the shelter of the Press Building.
An hour or so later, I head out to watch Woods play Amen Corner (check) before it really starts hosing it down. As I begin to make my way back to the refuge of my desk, I bump into Brian Baumgartner of The Office fame.
That’s really about as exciting as the day gets. Shortly after I get back in, it becomes quite apparent that play will soon be suspended.
And, barely quarter of an hour after the live broadcast begins, it does.
Golf remains undefeated.
Now, what shall I do with my suddenly free evening?
- Want some proper writing from the Masters? Here you go
We dive deep into the golf ball roll back plans!