I may be writing this with noise-cancelling headphones reducing jet engine din to merely a faint whir, but I can still hear the spine-tingling roars from the 18thgreen. We didn’t get to see Tiger Woods’s final bogey putt, for the throng of people gathered there in anticipation blocked our immediate view, but we did get a glimpse into his soul. As we stood in a golfing guard of honour, surrounded by men, women and children from all over the sport-watching world, who had descended on Augusta National this humid, intense Sunday morning, Tiger bounded up towards us, accompanied by his children, his destination The Butler Cabin, exuding pure joy. His victorious face displayed relief, self-belief and a genuine smile of gleaming teeth.
He had done it, we were there to witness it, and, having held it together over the weekend, he let it all out for the first time. Fist bumping fans and high-fiving the outstretched hands in a display of raw emotion, his hand touched mine. I felt the fingers of the 2019 Masters champion.
|Spot the really happy, bald guy in this photo. No, not the one holding the trophy wearing the Rolex, the one in the background wearing Masters merchandise with the yellow Garmin.|
Everyone knows what happened, and how it happened. This is my take on making it happen, how we mastered Augusta, managed the course from a spectating perspective, and lost our green jacket V-plates.
Rewind a year or so. My two younger brothers and I begin preparatory and preliminary talks to plan a boys' weekend for my youngest brother, Luke's, 30th birthday. Vegas was proposed and soon dismissed. It had been done before for stag parties and work jollies, and while it's a hedonistic and iconic destination to be chalked off any self-destructive bon viveur's bucket-list, we decided we wanted a more memorable moment to treasure rather than a reenactment of previous recreational retreats.
It was decided: we would head to Augusta, Georgia, for the first major golf event of the 2019 calendar, the Masters Tournament. From a betting point of view, I love this event. The small field, course form and generous terms on offer make it a punters' paradise and I waded in with the following wagers:
We booked our entire trip with Pete Warsop at Tailormade Golf Travel, and from the early emails all the way through to the hospitality and hosting, we were very well looked after by him and his team. Tournament tickets, rounds of golf at two superb local courses, accommodation and transportation were taken care of, meaning we could ease into life as Augusta National Golf Club patrons for an unforgettable weekend up there with the best of my life.
After landing in Atlanta on the Wednesday of the par-3 tournament, picking up an Escalade, and driving a couple of hours east to a very pleasant holiday home situated just a few minutes' drive from Magnolia Lane, we spent the Thursday morning playing The Reserve Club at Woodside. This is a stunning residential plantation in the beautifully quaint town of Aiken, South Carolina, where we were met by a friendly "Hey y'all" as we dropped our golf bags with the buggy attendants before being served with a delicious all-American breakfast prior to our 9.06am tee time.
Five hours and not many more Stableford points later, having been treated to regular refreshments by friendly young ladies traversing the cart-paths in refrigerated vehicles, we were back on the clubhouse terrace tucking into an enormous lunch catching up on the day's action from the other first round of golf happening 40 minutes down the road that day. Assessing the leaderboard later that evening, Matsuyama had started badly, Rahm fairly strongly. Woods had a solid 70 and Rory was slow out of the stalls on +1.
We got an early night ahead of our first day trackside at the Augusta National. The blue skies were being threatened: there was a storm on the way...
|Nice of Andrew "Beef" Johnston to pose with us on a wonderful day at Woodside|
On Friday, the weather (and weather warnings) added to the drama. A gloomy gown of grey adorned the dawn sky. Deluges of warm rain at the start of the day, and near the end, punctuated an otherwise hot and occasionally beautifully sunny occasion, so Augusta’s flora was lush, the fairways lively and the footpaths slippery in places, with enormous slopes, famous undulations that are perceptible on television but only fully appreciated in the flesh. The course was packed with characters.
Characters – pros on the practice range and the putting green, experienced supporters in the specators’ stands, where we stopped for a few minutes before heading towards the course proper. We took an immediate shine to Neil, from Liverpool, who has lived in Melbourne for the past 10 years but clearly hadn't forgotten his time living in the drizzly UK. We stood under his Masters-merch umbrella and bantered with him for about half hour as Aphibarnrat, Vijay Singh and Matt Fitzpatrick effortlessly pinged some shots around. This guy Neil, plays off scratch, was in the USA for two weeks. He played a couple of courses around the south east states, watched days 1 and 2 of the Masters, and was then jetting off to Vegas for the weekend to play the Tiger v Phil course, Shadow Creek, as well as Wolf Creek before heading home. He had the good sense to bring his wife and two childen with him at the beginning of his holiday, and parted company with them only after a credit-earning family fun time witnessing the wonderful world of Walt Disney. He was the first of many affable aficionados with whom we had the delight of discussing the action unfolding before us.
Now, we had some first day decisions to make – do we sit down on a Masters branded deckchair, given to us by the tour company, just one of many items of memorabilia and merchandise that has made its way home with us, or wander around the track trying to keep up with events. We went with wandering. You can, however, just plonk yourself on other people’s pre-positioned deckchairs, so long as they’re free, and until their owners come back to politely kick you out (in a friendly, respectful, Augusta National kinda way).
We watched a load of groups tee off on 1, then followed the European trio of Molinari, Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Tyrrell Hatton round for a bit, until the fairway of 3, where we waited halfway towards the hole, at the side by the pines, and saw tee shots and approaches from the next few groups
Phil Mickelson went into the rough here. We were less than a club's length away from him as he played out. I was trembling! Leaning all over my brother to get a better view but desperately trying to avoid placing my entire body weight upon him, for fear that we might fall across the flimsy rope that separates patrons from players. This proved to be a delicate balance over the course of the day, and even more so on the Sunday as one tries to trade off a perfect view of a shot with the compromise of being accused of groping ones fellow golfing ganderer. No phones are allowed inside the grounds, so there are no selfies or photo opportunities and I must say the whole experience is better for it. You soak it all up so much more fully without any technology to tempt you into tapping away at a screen.
Then we headed to the 240 yard par-3 fourth and cheered on a few pin-peppering shots from there. The tee is high above the green, so you get an incredible view from up there.
It was around 11am, so we grabbed a cheap but charming pimento cheese sandwich – the prices of food and drink at Augusta are ridiculously good value, seemingly unchanged at around $2 for everything since the days of Jack Nicklaus (who, I forgot to mention earlier, is the course designer of the Reserve Club at Woodside). The concessions hall is run with the precision as a laser range-finder but with as much variety as Ian Poulter's dressing room, so you can be in and out within minutes but yet keep yourself satisfied for hours.
From 5, we jumped to Azalea (13), to hit a grandstand, where you can see tee boxes, greens and fairways all from one elevated position. You can look down and see the Hogan bridge from there so this was our first glimpse of Amen Corner. This is where we saw the aforementioned and sartorially-elegant Poulter take the outright lead after his 2ndshot got plugged against the steep greenside bank of Rae’s Creek. He was pumped. Not Ryder Cup-pumped but certainly buoyed by his early place at the head of the leaderboard, so we followed him down 14, cheering him on with other Brits (although a lot of yanks were surprisingly rooting for him too), before positioning ourselves in the roaring sunshine next to the devilishly tough pin on the par 3 16th. We sat in (someone else’s ) deckchairs there for about an hour, watching all the superstars come through. By this point, it was only about 1430, so we knew the likes of Woods, McIlroy, Rahm, Fleetwood etc had only just commenced their rounds back on the first tee.
So we went over to 7 to await their anticipated arrival, standing in awe as golfing giants appeared before us as mortal competitors, focused on one of the most highly coveted prizes in sport, emotion already etched on their face. The guard comes down at Augusta and you see what these guys are made of.
Then behind the green on 10, where from an almost vertigo-inducing height, you can fully appreciate the huge hill down which they have to drive on this hole. The highest peak to the lowest divot of 10 is 116ft, roughly the same height as the Statue of Liberty, and the tournament torch was really beginning to flame. From here, you are also right next to the tee box on 15, so you can just stand still, turn your head and see Freddie Couples teeing off there, while Xander Schauffele was finishing off his putt on the 10th green. This was a great spot highlighted by our official Augusta yardage book (one of many bits of merch picked up for a mere $8).
Eddie Pepperell stood on 15 with driver and ball, but no caddy. This bemused us at the time, but made more sense when we bumped into said caddy in a bar on Sunday night. In the subsequent grouping, Henrik Stenson interacted with the crowd, cool as a chilled Kronleins Crocodile, partnered by legendary caddie Fannie Sunesson, who we would also bump into later in the trip, but more of that later.
|Literature lifeline in the absence of phonelines. This document, helpfully distributed around Augusta National, and with a course map on reverse, was vital to charting events as they developed|
Finally on Friday, and as the humidity hugged us closer, we went to Amen Corner. This was as iconic and visually impressive in real ife as you would imagine. The patrons are not permitted to go down onto the 12thgreen so this is the only bit of the track where the public leave the players to finish their iron shots in relative isolation. Tiger birdied 11 and the place went berserk. Then he chipped to within a few feet on 12 and the noise was as though a billion balloons burst, as the dial on the barometer nudged ever closer to thunderclaps. As his partner, Haotong Li approached his ball to tee off, a breath away from his backswing, the weather warning klaxon rang around the course.
It was 5.10pm and we were told that was it for the day.
Everyone was reasonably perturbed and confused by the siren, but people started to evacuate. Looking up at the sky, whilst overcast and with air pressure reflecting the sporting action, our initial (perhaps optimistically British) thoughts were: "it looks fine, please crack on", so we just hung around with other concerned characters, while Tiger, a solitary figure, proceeded with purpose down across the bridge to mark his ball and get an advance read on his putt. He stayed on the green for a good few minutes and we watched him until he slipped away through some flowery bushes into what musy be some kind of secret exit. It was all rather surreal and there wasn't yet a drop of rain, let alone local evidence of thunder or lightning. The marshals informed us that any stormy conditions within a radius of 10 miles is sufficient cause to suspend play.
Loads of people left at this point, but many stayed. We had been told that it is fairly normal for people to leave the course mid-afternoon, retreating to the comfort of their homes or hostelries and take advantage of the more complete coverage afforded by television broadcast. We stuck it out.
Then we had all the drama of play being suspended, then recommenced; on or off… and then on. This was a real rush! I still can’t quite believe Tiger came back out and missed not only this birdie putt, but so many more birdie opportunities on the back 9 on Friday. He may have simply had too much time to mull this particular putt over whie there was a break in play, and then perhaps the momentum was lost somewhat. The atmosphere, however, was absolutely palpable and inescapable for those of us who remained in situ throughout this meteorologically-induced interval.
Tiger obviously did claw back another two shots from there on day two, and we saw his birdie on 15 as we moved back round there from Amen, staying sluighly ahead of his group, cheering on him and Rahmbo.
Despite understandable and justifiable concerns that watching golf live from the course is less comprehensive than TV coverage, you could totally tell what was going on the whole time. The scoreboards were brilliant and the staff, fellow patrons and even occasionally competitors helped you understand what was going on. Most of the time, Tiger was as tunnel-vision, job-first focused as Robocop, striding towards targets with single-minded steadfastness. But by now, he was really smiling. It was amazing to see! This first glimpse behind the competitive mask suggested more than just being pleased to be being competitive, if that makes sense. He was glad to be there, but he seemed to be allowing himself to occasionally check-in and appreciate that he was also in with a real shout of major glory for the first time in over a decade.
We certainly felt we played the action-witnessing strategy almost perfectly, without missing out on the more subtle experiences of just “being in the moment” and drinking it all in, and it meant we had a good template mapped out ahead of our return here on the Sunday, where it was to get even more dramatic as two incredible ball strikers, Ryder Cup rivals and most importantly remaining key players on my betting slip would go hammer and tongs at the head of the leaderboard. Things were just coming to the boil!
|Two boyish faces of joy, and a jolly Grizzly Adams, mulling over the events of Friday at Augusta National|