Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Round Unlike Any Other

I love my wife and kids to death, but I think even they will understand that when I go to the great clubhouse in the sky and St. Peter asks me to list the best days of my life, that I will I include April 11, 1994, along with our anniversary (June 12, maybe?) and the boys’ birthdays (sometime during basketball season).

Clearly, the caddie was getting frustrated. There we were, standing in the middle of the 15th fairway of Augusta National Golf Club, and in four quick swings we were barely 20 yards from where we started. There were two beaver pelt-sized divots on this pristine fairway of golf’s most meticulously groomed course and two balls in the pond just ahead of us.

That was exactly 20 years ago, the only time I had the opportunity to play Augusta National Golf Club, one of the world’s most exclusive private courses, which opens its gates to the public one week a year for golf’s first major tournament, The Masters. It was the day after Jose Maria Olazábal won the first of his two Masters titles, and the luckiest day of my life.

I was covering the tournament for only the second time, as a pretend golf writer for the now-defunct Greenville (S.C.) Piedmont; yet my name was pulled in the famed Monday media lottery, in which 20 print journalists and 20 television journalists are invited to the play the course with the final-round pin placements. When the lottery results were announced Saturday morning, I was anything but interested in writing about The Masters’ second most interesting Spanish champion.

At the time, when your name was pulled for the media lottery, you got one shot to play the course and then your name was tucked away in a filing cabinet in a folder that read something like “Never Again.” I believe that policy has been relaxed in the meantime but since the last Masters I covered was in 1998, it probably won’t change for me.

The Monday after the Masters is also when CBS shoots its promos for the following year and when all the television executives and other famous people are on the course on one of the rare days the club allows non-members to play en masse. So Olazábal was on the front nine when we started off on the back.

Basketball legend Julius Erving played that day, as did all the members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Then-Duke athletics director Tom Butters, chair of that group, was in the foursome behind us.

It was a spectacular spring morning, a little nippy, but no hint of rain. I didn’t exactly fit in, with my faux-leather Bud Light bag, muddy shoes, a disposable camera and the perpetually sad look of a sportswriter who missed deadline on a daytime event three of the four previous nights. Despite the traffic from three days of practice rounds and four days of competition, the course was a perfectly maintained sea of two-inch grass, back when the course had no rough and the groundskeeper felt obligated to outline any two-square-foot patch of clover far away from any fairway and put up a “Ground Under Repair” marker.

On this day, I was randomly assigned a caddie, a second-shift worker at a local cookie factory whose primary skill in life was reading the elephant cemeteries Augusta National uses for greens. And as lumpy, fast and slick as they seem on television, I can assure you, they are lumpier, faster and slicker.

Like most of the guys in the caddie corps at Augusta National, my guy was good. I’m convinced he could, between long draws of an unfiltered Camel, detect the break on a perfectly balanced billiard table. On the 16th hole, the par-3 Jack Nicklaus made famous in 1986, I chipped onto the green after a dreadful first shot and was about 30 feet uphill from the flag, which was in its traditional Sunday placement on the front lefthand corner. He pointed at a spot on the green about five feet from my ball and said “Make it die right here.” 

Never mind that when I lined up on that spot, my back was to the hole. I hit it where he told me and one second after the ball seemingly died on the ridge, it took one more roll, gained momentum and trickled in an arching path to the hole. It rimmed out at the last second.

“Didn’t hit it where I told you to,” he said after I tapped in for bogey.

So he was good. What he didn’t deserve that day was me, a well-known hacker whose game makes Caddyshack look like a History Channel documentary. I had been playing golf for a few years, but had only recently begun taking lessons. In the words of my instructor, I had a high-powered swing that he described as “incorrigible.”

I don’t believe that means “accurate.”

Of course I’ll never admit this to myself, but my frequent playing partners can attest that I am a horrible player who has committed a lot of felonious golf on some of the world’s great courses. I once won a bet in which I received a stroke a hole for a full round and still lost by three strokes. I once hit a condo at Linville Ridge Country Club so hard my playing partners actually walked up to the building to see if the ball was embedded in the Hardiplank siding. At Royal Dornoch in Scotland, Donald Ross’ home course, had I not climbed down a 40-foot gorse-covered embankment on the 16th hole to retrieve a lost ball I spotted out of the corner of my eye, I would have been unable to finish my second round of the day, which I had started with five sleeves of brand-new balls.

At Pinehurst No. 2, the site of this year’s men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, I made a 16 on the par-3 sixth hole without a penalty stroke. You wanna know how? I rolled in a 12-footer to save it.

So here we were standing in the middle of the 15th fairway, after I murdered a drive, easily reaching the go-zone that non-PGA Tour rakers like me dream about on 495-yard par-5s. I was way ahead of where Gene Sarazen hit his paltry 265-yard drive in 1935, when he made the famous double-eagle that turned the two-year-old tournament into golf's most anticipated event. Our foursome had made a pact at the beginning of the day that we would aggressively go for any greens we could reach in two. For me, that meant all the par 3s, 4s and 5s. I was about 180 yards from the middle of the green and when I walked up to the ball, all smiles, the caddie was waiting on me with a 5-iron.

“Nice, easy swing,” he said. “Make good contact, and the ball will land right in the middle of the green.”
The problem, however, was that go-zone was on a slight downhill slope. I hate hitting a ball on a slight downhill slope, with my shoes just above the ball. I have virtually no chance of hitting a good shot from that kind of lie. Back in the day of soft-covered balata balls, I could put a smile across the dimples that would scare the bejesus out of a clown.

So on the first swing, I dug too deep. The divot may have actually flown further than the ball. I slammed by club into the ground, replaced what grass I could salvage and glared at the caddie when he quietly handed me a 6-iron.

“Nice, easy swing,” he said. “We can still get there in regulation.”

The second divot was bigger than the first and the ball finished dribbling down the fairway about the same time I finished, wife-like, cursing my inadequacies. I replaced another divot and nodded wordlessly when the caddie handed me a 7-iron. This club was my friend, one I could easily hit 150 yards to the middle of the green and still leave myself a chance to make par.

He might has well have handed me a ladle, because I chili-dipped the next two shots right into the middle of the pond that protects the 15th green. Now laying 7, I dropped a ball with determination, looking like a one-year predecessor of the “Tin Cup” character Roy McAvoy.

No way was I hitting a third ball in that pond. I did, however, nearly dump it to lake behind the green. 

Luckily, the ball struck the well-girded scoreboard that stands near the 16th tee box. It caromed back onto the green, leaving me an easy one-putt (even for me) to finish the hole.

It’s not the way Jack or Arnie would have played what is traditionally Augusta National’s easiest hole, nor was it what designer Alister Mackenzie had in mind when he built it.

"It is not only an interesting three-shot hole, as one will be maneuvering for position from the tee shot onwards, but also a magnificent two-shot hole, as a skillful and courageous player will, aided by a large hillock to the right, be able to pull his second shot around to the green,” he wrote in the first Masters’ program. “A pond in front of the green provides the penalty for the long player who fails to make a perfect second shot.”

That’s me, “skillful” and “courageous”; though, technically, neither my second, third, fourth nor fifth shot was “perfect.” Few were that day. I made one par the entire time, on the azalea-ringed 13th hole, a par-5 that has pine straw to the right and Rae’s Creek to the left. I hit into both of them on my first two shots.

I eventually found my ball sitting up on a sand bar in front of the green, down where the water moccasins are known to squiggle. I played it like a really wet bunker shot, was up on the green in regulation and easily two-putted from 15 feet.

I did okay on the hardest shot in golf, from the tee box at No. 12. The intimidating par-3 isn’t very far, barely 155 yards, but it does have a creek in the front and a rock wall in the back. I landed in the middle of the green, but the ball rolled off the back, up against the rock wall. I felt pretty good when I chipped up to within four fee of the hole, but equally miserable when I missed a stupid putt for par on golf’s most intimidating hole.

To be honest, other than hitting the media tent with my drive on No. 1 (our 10th hole of the day), the front side was kind of a blur. It was getting hot. I was playing poorly. I was feeling rushed. I had to leave early in the afternoon to make sure I made it from Augusta to Salisbury, N.C., at 6 p.m. that night for our annual Rotisserie League Baseball draft, which takes a little over three hours with no South Carolina Highway Patrol in the way.

I didn’t fully appreciate that this would be the only time I would ever see this course from (mostly) inside the ropes. There were times, standing over my third putt or looking for the ball hidden deep in the cathedral of pines, I completely forgot to tingle.

As always when I’m on the golf course, my desire to play finished long before the round did.

Somewhere in my cluttered home office, I still have the the press pass from the tournament, all the newspaper clippings from the stories I wrote that week and the scorecard from the only round I’ll ever play at Augusta National.  I rarely come across them among the media guides, folders, books, notes and other little mementos from 30 years in writing about sports.

But you know what happens when I see them? A little tingle.

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