Comment: My dream first visit to Augusta National
Three years on and it remains comfortably the best thing I have ever done.
On Tuesday April 9, a little after 8am, I was greeted by a particularly friendly person as I entered one of sport’s most hallowed arenas.
‘Good morning and welcome to the Masters, have a great day.’
Possessions-wise I have daily reminders: the plastic beakers from the various concession stands and the hats, shirts and towels (and socks) from the merchandising stall just past the main gate. I also keep the Spectator Guide in my desk at work to have a little delve into every now and then.
The memories are just as detailed as they were 12 months ago – the first sighting of a player (Graeme McDowell hitting balls one-handed on the practice ground), the first glimpse of any hole (a carry of 260 yards to reach the beginning of the 1st fairway) and, two hours later, the most anticipated walk – over the brow of the 11th fairway to Amen Corner.
This comprises a piece of ground, the 11th green, that is barely bothered by a succession of safety-first approach shots, a par 3 of just 155 yards and a distant tee that can’t be accessed by fans, sorry patrons. The sum of its parts, however, adds up to something quite magical and we settle, with a beer and cheese and pimento sandwich (and our change from $5) in hand, in a spot that we’ve read about for years where all three shots can be seen. And quickly understand why, come Sunday morning, the first ones through the gates head only in this direction. One or two almost break into an illegal trot.
For over three decades I, like many of us, have been fascinated and thrilled on a yearly basis by all things Augusta; partly due to the European dominance in my teenage years but also for the first proper sighting of the year of Seve, Sandy and Norman – and, for the only time of the year, more than a passing interest in whether the rhododendrons are in bloom.
And so, given my exhaustive research, I am then able to piece together the events of the 80s and 90s that filled dozens of VHS tapes, as well as the more recent dramatics of Bubba Watson and visiting a previously undisturbed piece of ground deep in the undergrowth.
But there are still surprises around every corner. The 5th is the highest point on the course and thereby affords you a spectacular view, the patrons seated halfway down the 6th – where tee shots are dispatched over their heads – also have a bird’s-eye view of the short 16th.
The 7th green also provides a perfect sighting of the 2nd green and 3rd tee while, from the banking to the left of the 16th, it is possible to make out as many as eight holes, most notably the approach to the 15th.
Many will spend a whole day watching group after group attempt to skip their ball across the water from the front of the tee This is where all the noise is made on the practice days and where many will spend a whole day watching group after group attempt to skip their ball across the water from the front of the tee. At even the faintest suggestion that a player will fail to give it a go he is roundly booed. Others take it on as a four and hit in unison.
This is where, as we have watched on YouTube, Martin Kaymer and Vijay Singh have skimmed their way to holes in one. Rory McIlroy gave it his best three times and never emerged from the water.
Three days later we are back on the same bank, looking back down the previous fairway, and watching the World No. 1’s assault on a fifth Green Jacket.
He is tied for the lead and sitting pretty in the fairway.
This was to be our ‘I was there’ moment. His third shot would rattle off the fibreglass flagstick and back into a watery grave. The whooping and hollering of Tuesday is now replaced by a stony silence, the six would later turn into an eight after an incorrect drop that nobody spotted at the time.
Augusta National is not an overly big piece of ground. And, as Bobby Jones intended, it is easy to jump from one hole to the next. There is no craning to see a shot and nobody other than the players and caddies is allowed inside the ropes. Easier still, leave your chair, with your name tucked into the back of it, and you can return to it hours later and resume your place.
Other nice touches are the amateur champions and defending champion positioned on all the on-course scoreboards before play begins on Thursday.
The last word goes to Jones, whose words from 1949 still form the suggestions in the Spectator Guide.
‘I’d like to observe that experienced spectators realize that the least satisfactory way of watching a medal play tournament is to trek around the course with one particular pair of players. It’s an accepted fact that walking 18 holes in this manner is more tiring than playing them.
‘We have spotlighted action on 13 holes although we have walked the equivalent of only five and one half. The performance of many players has been witnessed rather than that of a few. We have accomplished this merely by locating ourselves at strategic points and letting the Tournament come to us instead of chasing after it.’