I remember it like it was yesterday. I had joined WHNS-TV, the FOX television affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina, in August of 2005. Shortly after I moved from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to take the job as Sports Reporter/Photographer, I was told that we covered The Masters every year. Jackpot! Augusta just happened to be less than two and-a-half hours away by car. Thrilled was not the word. Then it got even better.
Every year, The Masters is kind enough to enter credentialed media members into a lottery. If you get lucky and your name gets drawn, you get to play the course on the Monday morning after the tournament is completed. If your name does get drawn, you can’t enter your name back into the media lottery again for another seven years. That’s how exclusive the privilege is.
The year was 2006. My Sports Director and I drove to Augusta early on the Monday morning of Masters week. We showed up to interview players shortly after they arrived on the property but before they entered the player’s locker room. That was the key. You had to catch them before they went inside or else you would have to wait until after they finished their practice rounds to interview them under the giant oak tree off of No. 18 green. We were like kids in a candy store. We wanted to be everywhere all at once – the driving range, the locker room, under the oak tree, and in the gift shop.
Television doesn’t do Augusta National justice. It’s greener in person, and everything is blooming the week of the Tournament. The property is also very, very hilly, and there are many elevation changes throughout. When you step onto the grounds at Augusta, something happens to the patrons. They change. People treat each other the way they should be treated. If you bump into another person, you say, “Excuse me.” If you see a piece of trash, you pick it up – even if it’s not yours. When you’re at Augusta, it’s as if time stands still. A sandwich only costs $1.25. A beer is still $3. It’s utopia.
Our station was only credentialed to work through Wednesday’s practice rounds and the Par 3 Contest. We used to be credentialed for the entire week, but several years ago, some members of the station’s sales department took the credentials to the tournament, got drunk, and Augusta National found out about it.
As you might imagine, the station’s tournament credentials were pulled. Honestly, we were fortunate to still be covering the practice rounds. When I became Sports Director the following year, I wrote a note to Augusta asking for our tournament credentials to be reinstated because those members of our sales department were not longer at the station. I got a letter back in the mail politely declining our reinstatement. You can’t blame me for trying.
So after covering the Par 3 Contest on that Wednesday, we head back to the station in Greenville, but I made sure that my name had been entered into the media lottery. I really wanted to play, but I figured my chances were slim because it was my first year covering the tournament. That Sunday, Phil Mickelson won his 2nd Masters by two shots over South Africa’s Tim Clark. Because we weren’t at the tournament, I asked the sports guys at the NBC affiliate in Greenville to let me know if my name was drawn to play Augusta the following day. Wouldn’t you know it? I got picked! I received a formal invitation to play Augusta National Monday, April 10th, at 8:22a.
When I got the phonecall that I was playing the next day, I called everyone I could think of who would understand the magnitude of the opportunity I had just been given. I called my parents, of course, and my brother, who was also an avid golfer. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
The next morning, I was on the road by 4:30a. It was still dark, but I wanted to get to Augusta just after sun-up so I could really soak-in Magnolia Lane and practice putting on the lightning-fast putting green. The range was closed to visitors, so warming-up wouldn’t really be possible. I would have to hit my first tee shot ice cold.
When I got there, I checked-in and was promptly assigned a caddie for the day. I still remember the name of the caddie I was paired with that morning – Senter Smith. He was actually from Greenville and had caddied at Augusta for years. We went right to the practice putting green near Hole No. 10 (Camellia) where we would be teeing off. The practice putting green was really, really fast. There were still indentations in the putting surface from where risers had be placed for Mickelson’s green jacket ceremony the night before. Victory was still in the air.
After rolling a few putts, Senter and I headed over to the 10th tee. Remember, I was still ice cold. I hadn’t been able to hit a single golf ball, and I had just been in the car for the last two and-a-half hours. But my adrenaline was pumping. Fellow Arizona State Cronkite School alum Matt Barrie (now an ESPN SportsCenter anchor) was working at the ABC affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina, at the time, and he had his name drawn too.
Everyone who was playing that day was going off No. 10 tee, so I met up with Matt briefly before teeing off, and we wished each other good luck. I hardly remember meeting the other people I was playing with that morning, but I do remember stepping up to the tee, and striping my drive right down the middle. Even Matt complimented me on my tee shot. And we were off!
Had it not been for the pictures I took that day, the experience of playing Augusta would have been a blur. You have to understand, for a golfer, playing Augusta is sensory overload. Playing the course is almost secondary to the experience as a whole. You’re trying to take-in what the trees look like, what the grass feels like, how hilly the property is, and how the wind is blowing. And then there’s the smell of the fresh morning air. You don’t want to let anything pass you by.
On the Par 3 12th (Golden Bell), I flew my tee shot into the back bunker and was happy to save a five with Rae’s Creek looming large just past the pin. The sand in that bunker was like powdered sugar. I remember being surprised that the Hogan bridge leading to the 12th green was actually covered with field turf and not grass.
On the Par 5 13th (Azalea), I made an eight after spinning my approach shot back into Rae’s Creek just in front of the green. They mow that thing down so nothing stays up. I also made sure to spot 1992 Masters Champion Fred Couples’ divot just to the left of the dogleg where he had seen his Masters hopes vanish.
On the Par 3 16th Hole (Redbud), I skipped balls across the pond using a 4-iron. Turns out it’s not really that hard to skip balls across the water like the players do during their practice rounds. As long as you use a lower-lofted club, the ball will skip, skip, skip across the surface of the water with ease.
My most memorable shot of the day came on the Par 5 8th Hole (Yellow Jasmine). Senter told me to hit a high cut into the green, and I was actually able to execute the shot. We didn’t play all of the same tee boxes that the pros had played the day before, but we played to all the same hole locations.
When it was all over, I had shot an 86. But I could care less! I had only been playing golf for about seven years at this point (I was 26), and I knew that this had been and would continue to be a lifelong high-point.
I gave Senter $100 for making the loop. To this day, when anyone ever asks me about Augusta, I tell them that television doesn’t do it justice. That it’s surprisingly hilly. And that on the Monday after The Masters, in 2006, I got to play it. Green jackets will come and go, but my memories at Augusta will never fade.