April is a month so many sports fans eye with relish. But this April will be like no other: there will be no spring baseball, no Final Four, and no Masters. Like so many other important events in our lives, all have fallen victim to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether you are a dedicated golf nut or just an occasional weekend hacker, The Masters captures our imagination. Extraordinary athletes like Tiger Woods create the excitement, but the centerpiece of this rite of spring is the incredibly beautiful golf course cut from the Georgia pines.
It is a rare golfer who does not dream about one day playing Augusta National, but this, the most private of clubs is beyond the reach of most players. One who happened to have received the most dreamed-of invitation to play Augusta was TSD contributor John Riley, author of “Delaware Eyewitness: Behind the Scenes in the First State.”
At a time when we can only watch reruns on TV, John has captured a little of the magic of The Masters, his “one moment in time” playing the glorious Augusta.
In September of 1997 I picked up the call that thousands of golfers dream about, but only few receive.
“John,” the voice said on the other end, “have you ever played Augusta National before?” The voice was Larry Collingsworth, whom I had met through economic development consultant and friend Bob Goforth of North Carolina. Bob had been telling me for years that Larry and his colleague, Dave Cox had an Augusta connection and he had put in a good word for me.
“No”, I answered, holding my breath.
“Well, we are looking for a fourth for December 7, if you would like to join us.”
While the beautiful home course of “The Masters” is easily the most recognized in all of golf, it is also shrouded in mystery with a reputation for strict privacy and exclusivity. Golf publications have run stories over the years of desperate golfers writing letters to known members, telling them they were dying of cancer or some other terrible disease and that playing Augusta was their final wish.
And in the age of “Google,” one can quickly find many of the names of the formerly highly secretive list of members, that includes the likes of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Condoleezza Rice, the most public of all the members.
From the standpoint of weather and course conditions, my invitation to play was not at the optimum time of the year, but the scope of the invitation was hard to top. We would come in on Sunday, play 18, have dinner in the club dining room, spend the night in the Butler Cabin and play a second 18 on Monday.
Our host would be a local member (Augusta founder Bobby Jones had decreed that there would always be a limited number of local members) by the name of Henry Clausen, age 77. Henry had served for years on the Masters’ committee and would regale us with his insider takes of famous Augusta moments.
Pulling up to the security checkpoint at the beginning of Magnolia Lane, I almost couldn’t believe that the gates opened when we gave them our names.
After dropping off our bags at the Butler Cabin we walked along the outside of the clubhouse to the golf shop to meet our host. I had spent the previous three months doing all I could to get my game and body in shape for my Augusta moment, but incredibly as I looked in awe at my surroundings I tripped on a step and found myself sprawled out of the pavement.
Embarrassed and with pain searing through my lower back, I tried to quickly pull myself together without making a further scene.
Fortunately, we had about ninety minutes before tee-off, so I swallowed a mouthful of Advil as we sat by ourselves in the dining room for lunch. Staring down at us from the surrounding walls were large portraits of the men whose names were synonymous with Augusta National: Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
During our warm-up and the walk to the first tee, my back began to loosen up and thankfully the pain started to subside as we faced the intimidating opening tee shot.
As perhaps more of a student of golf, than competitor, I have tracked closely the history of the game and no venue in golf contains more history than Augusta. As I walked the fairways and surveyed the greens, I recalled the images and words from famous Masters past. In this very year of 1997, one of the most historic of all tournaments had occurred, Tiger Woods record victory.
Over twenty years later I remember moments down to where I hit my tee shots and what club I used, but I will spare the reader most of those details. I know it took several holes before I settled my nerves and hit some good shots, finally finishing with a 44 on the opening nine. Unfortunately, I hit three pitches from the base of the steep slope in front of the 10th green and finished with a triple-bogey seven. The next three holes, known by millions of golf fans as “Amen Corner” would form the basis of my Augusta comeback.
I should inform the reader that I was playing the great course from the “member tees,” an estimated 600 yards shorter at that time than the yardage for the Masters. We played the 11th hole at 405 yards, compared to 455 for the tournament.
After a good drive on the par-four, I stared down the hill at the green closely guarded by a pond on the left side and thought of Ben Hogan’s words that formed his strategy for that hole over the years, “if you ever see me on that green in two on Sunday, you know I pulled it.” I immediately pulled my nine iron and finished eight feet from the hole, but then missed the putt. Still thrilled to have made a par at the start of Amen Corner, I walked up the slope to the 12th tee.
The beautiful but treacherous 12th at Augusta is also rich with golf history and each of us threw grass into the air to mimic the actions of the famous golfers at the Masters’ as they struggle to understand the swirling winds that cut through the pines. With the pin placed on the far right of the green, as it is for the final round of the Masters, we were set to experience the full excitement of #12. Although I aimed for the middle of the green, I looked up after striking my seven iron to see it headed directly at the flag.
We all held our breath as the ball disappeared for a second and came to rest on the back side of the cup. At the moment it looked like it might drop for an ace, the foursome ahead of us, walking off the 13th tee, shot their arms into the sky, certain they were witnessing a hole-in-one. I tapped in for my first Augusta birdie.
I had an interesting exchange with my caddy on the par 5, 13th hole. While several holes at Augusta could be labeled “iconic,” number 13 clearly fits that bill. I had been thinking about how I would play 13 since the moment I received the invitation —would I…could I, go for the green in two. I went so far as to purchase a new Callaway 5 fairway metal anticipating that would be the right club for me at 13 if I hit a good drive.
Definitely charged up by my near ace on number 12, I struck a perfect drive to the “go” spot at the bend of the dogleg. When I arrived at my ball, the caddy, nattily attired in his Masters’ caddy overalls handed me a seven iron and told me to hit it out to the right for a safe third shot over the famous Rae’s Creek. I looked at him and said, “I bought this club for this one shot in my life and I’m going for it.”
“Sir,” he said, “how far do you think you can hit that club.”
I said, “should carry about 210 yards if I hit it solid.”
He replied, “if you hit it directly at the middle of the green your ball will end up back in Rae’s Creek. Take my advice and aim for the very left side of the green. Assuming you don’t hook it into the trees (he had seen me hook a couple shots), you will carry the creek and stay up, leaving you a long putt or chip for an eagle.”
Seconds later under the critical gaze of a doubting Augusta caddy, my shot sailed at the left side of the green, clearing Rae’s Creek by about five yards. The putt from that point is diabolical, so I would three-putt and miss my big chance for two birdies at “Amen Corner.” But I finished the back nine in 39 strokes, thanks to another birdie two on the 16th hole, offset by a four-putt double bogey on number 14. I had played the final eight holes in even par.
There was an ironic footnote to my Calloway fairway metal story. The club I purchased to hit one shot on number 13 at Augusta National was missing when I reached into my golf bag to use it for the first time the following spring. It really was the club I purchased to hit one shot.
After golf, we had drinks and dinner in the dining room. Across the room from us eating quietly was the only other group that played the course that day. Our host, Henry entertained us with stories about Masters’ past, including a couple about Wilmington philanthropist and socialite, Bayard Sharp, whom I had caddied for as a boy at Wilmington Country Club and Biderman. He said Sharp would spend his springs at Augusta after wintering in Florida and had once hosted him for golf at Biderman Golf Club in Wilmington.
“Man, that guy had the life,” said Clausen. We adjourned to the comfortable accommodations of the Butler Cabin for the evening.
The next morning Henry knocked on my door early to tell me to pack up my things we were being relocated to the Eisenhower Cabin. “Charlie’s coming,” he said, “and whenever Charlie comes to Augusta, he gets the Butler Cabin.”
Charlie Yates was the famed amateur golfer and close friend of Augusta National founder, Bobby Jones. Yates was 84 years old and basically the last living link to Jones and his legacy. Since we were checking out that day, it did not seem to make any difference except that it was sleeting that morning and we needed a place to wait out the weather. Fortunately, the weather cleared up around noon and we were able to play a second 18 on the great course. I was also able to see the inside of another Augusta landmark.
It would be reasonable to conclude that with a little course knowledge I might improve my Augusta score on the second day. That would not be the case.
I do recall that I birdied the par-five 8th hole, and once again suffered the embarrassment of four putting the 14th green. But I did have one additional Augusta moment as we gathered our things to leave. When we had arrived, the locker room attendant had me place my shoes and change of clothes in the locker of the CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch.
As I retrieved my things, the attendant asked for my golf shoes to clean them. I told him that would not be necessary – that I was rushing to catch up with my host who was waiting outside. Suddenly the smile left his face and in a stern voice he said, “Sir, no one leaves my locker room with dirty golf shoes.” I decided to wait.
The day after I returned home from Georgia I had to leave for a meeting in Chicago. It turned out I was on the same flight as my friend Dave Raymond, aka the “Philly Phanatic.”
Dave had been involved in the Leukemia Classic for years and we had played golf together many times. When I told Dave I had just returned from playing Augusta National, he said he wanted to hear about every shot on every hole. While it took four hours to play the great course, I replayed it for Dave on the way to Chicago in only two.