There are many reasons that the Masters is golf’s most popular event. Among these, of course, is the fact that it’s played on the same course every year, and that’s it’s sooooo private. I’m asked a lot of questions about golf, but the one I’m asked more than any other is whether I’ve played the course. I have, four times.
The first two times were because I’d been picked in the annual Masters lottery for media spots on the Monday morning following the tournament. Twenty spots were given to print, 20 to televisions, and 20 to radio. I was picked during one of the first years I covered the Masters in the mid-80s (the decade, not the score). We were required to play off the members’ tees. The course is about 6,400 yards from there. That was only about 500 yards short of where the Masters competitors played the tournament in those days, some 25 years ago.
I have no idea what I shot, but I recall thinking that club co-founder Bobby Jones was right on the money when he said the course should allow for an easy bogey and a hard par. It’s a club for members, after all, except during the Masters when the course should test the best players in the game. There was so much width to the fairways that it wasn’t difficult to keep one’s drive in play. If you can think your way around Augusta, you should be able to play to your handicap.
After that early win in the lottery, I didn’t bother bringing my clubs to Augusta when I covered the Masters. The rule then was that you couldn’t enter the lottery for another seven years after striking gold. The rule changed some years later, but I still didn’t bother bringing my clubs. I’d had my game at Augusta National.
But, at some point, my wife suggested I take my clubs to the Masters and put my name in again for the lottery. My name was drawn. This was about 20 years after the first time my name came up. I played with some English writers. The pace of play was agonizingly slow, because the group ahead took photos on every hole—of themselves, with every green and bank of azaleas as background. A couple of my playing companions had to leave before they finished so that they could make their flight home out of Atlanta—a two and a half-hour drive from Augusta.
It’s odd to me that I can hardly remember a shot I hit that round, either. I do remember that the guy caddying for me was big into disc golf; he told me about the Augusta Disc Golf Association and some of the area’s challenging courses. I finished my round, had a quick lunch, and that was that.
Then came a call a few years later. My daughter-in-law’s father, a good friend who had recently retired as the headmaster at a Montreal school, had been given two gifts. One was a trip to Scotland for golf, and he was invited to bring a companion. He invited his brother. The other retirement present came from one of the few Canadians who belong to Augusta National. He was invited to fly down to Augusta in a private plane, stay in a cabin on the club’s grounds, have dinner at the club, and play the next day. He was invited to bring a guest, and chose me.
Now this was something, much different than playing the course the day after the Masters. It was nearly a month after the tournament, and the course was about to close for the summer on the next weekend. It was still in phenomenal condition, and, well, what can I say? We were treated like royalty. I guess that’s the way it is anytime a member and his guests visit the club.
My wife Nell and I drove up from Jupiter, Florida, where we spend the winter, en route to Toronto. I’d been told to arrive at the club entrance at 5:45, not 5:44 or 5:46. We timed our arrival perfectly. Our car was bashed in on the driver’s side, because somebody had backed into it in a parking lot in Jupiter a few days before. We could drive it, though, and decided to wait on the repair until we returned to Toronto.
So there we were, driving down Magnolia Lane in a battered Acura, the car full of luggage and bric-a-brac after four months down south, the Florida Hillbillies. My wife dropped me off at the clubhouse, continued around the circle, and made her way out and on to a local hotel for the night. You know what they say: It’s important to marry somebody who is a friend to your enthusiasms. Thanks, Nell. She knows golf, and even wrote a piece after attending a Masters. She called it “The Missus Goes to the Masters.”
I joined my fellow Canadians in the Clifford Roberts cabin just down the first fairway, and soon we were ready for dinner. Drinks first in the cabin, and then we walked the 50 yards or so to the clubhouse. Two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw was there. NFL star quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning were there. Later that evening I encountered them in an upstairs room, watching something on television and singing. They were enjoying their evening at Augusta National.
We were soon invited to visit the wine cellar, one of the highlights of the visit. One shelf was marked “DDE,” representing wines that the late Dwight David Eisenhower, the former U.S. president and Augusta National member, enjoyed. Dinner went on for some time, and it wasn’t long before we returned to the cabin for the night. We were up early the next morning for breakfast, and soon I was on the practice green chatting with Crenshaw.
Tee time. It was brutally hot, moisture was coming out of the ground, and we walked with caddies—the only way, and the best way, to play. The members’ tees were still about 6,400 yards. The tournament course was 1,000 yards longer. I don’t have my scorecard at hand, but I believe I shot somewhere in the mid-80s—in the 2000s. Respectable, I suppose.
I returned to the cabin, showered, and elected not to play an afternoon round. I relaxed and read in the cabin, and then walked over to the pro shop to spend a few dollars. Nell picked me up at the appointed time after a night on her own on the far-from-glamorous Washington Road, and we were off again, headed north to Raleigh to spend the night with friends who live there.
And so, yes, I’ve played Augusta National. But why can I remember hardly a single shot I hit in my four rounds? Wait, I know. Well, to be precise, Nell knows.
“It just shows you how that place obliterates the mind,” she just told me. Nell speaks the truth.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein