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Monday, 13 April 2020

Magnolia Lane Memories

This very day a year ago, the date jumping two squares on calendars, owing to 2020’s leap year status, which so often ushers in memories of and anticipation for an Olympic Games summer. Yes, this Sunday, 12 months ago, we were optimistically and excitedly heading off to Augusta National Golf Club, for the final round of the 2019 Masters Tournament.  
In the time it has taken for the Earth’s annual orbit around the sun, I have gone from stalking the world’s finest golfers around the quintessentially iconic sporting sanctuary, to partaking in a family Easter-egg hunt around the garden. Ok, that garden may have a beautiful flowering magnolia in magnificent bloom right now, bringing memory, if not Magnolia Lane into view, but the nearest I’ll come to an Augusta azalea today will be via a Zoom video call with a virtual cyber garden centre.  

Indeed, there are parallels between pandemic-enforced social isolation and a day observing golf at Augusta National (bear with me, here).  With phones prohibited inside the arena, you are denied any opportunity for in-play betting, and consequently you acquiesce to the norms of the situation, embracing the solitude from staking cash on the outcome.  You are forced to enjoy the action for what it is, without any bookmakers’ boost or betting exchange enhancements, and eventually, once you accept the new normal, you realise how peacefully pleasant it can be.  

Punting position on the morning of Sunday 14th 2019 - the thought of Tiger at 6.4 in such a strong position in years gone by would be inconceivable.

So here’s what I recall about Sunday 14th April 2019, aided by a few notes I scribbled on the helpful tee time pamphlets that were dotted about the unique practice range on waist-high dispensers. 

You might remember the weather had been particularly inclement, with early tournament drizzles escalating to storm warning klaxons, Mother Nature temporarily immobilising proceedings as officials glared gloomily into the heaving heavens above.  The meteorological manifestations resulted in Sunday’s play starting earlier than is customary, with action occurring simultaneously on the front and back nine, undoubtedly adding to the drama but undeniably making it extra challenging to follow the unfolding of events from the side of fairway and green alike.  

However, having got to grips with the track on Masters Friday, our incredible holiday punctuated by staccato stages of fly-play-watch-play-watch-fly (via Gander, Canada for an unscheduled overnight stop with the great and the good of pro caddies, due to a tragic and ultimately fatal flight interruption.. but that’s another story), we bounded into Augusta National with confidence.   It helped that I was in a strong position on the markets:

Tiger was back, we were desperate to see him win, and if he was going to be beaten, it would hopefully be by a European (in the shape of then-reigning Open champion Francesco Molinari, who first appeared at this tournament as a caddy for his brother in 2006, or by Mr Loud Trousers himself – no, not John Daly – Ian J Poulter.  Poults, having held the outright lead on a fantastic Friday, was still up in contention alongside Kooch, Koepka, Xander and a few other notable characters a little further back such as DJ, King Louis, Fowler, and Lefty, who had recorded an extraordinary social media prelude to his round with a Twitter video about dropping BOMBS off the tee, and suchlike.

Coffees in hand, my two brothers and I headed straight to the 10th, where we positioned our Masters branded and pantone-colour-matched green camping chairs a few club lengths down from the tee.  Being adjacent to the practice putting green that effectively doubles-up as the Butler Cabin’s front lawn (and therefore the same immaculate stage on which a victorious Woods would later be lauded as champion), in a slightly elevated position alongside patron cabins and with a perfect view of both scoreboard and superstars.  This afforded us an excellent vantage point of players beginning their fourth round on 10, on account of the aforementioned impending thunderstorms, as well as those players eventually coming through the turn to their back nine proper.

So with Tiger’s group of him, Finau and Frankie Molinari not teeing off on the first until 9.20am, and having flown to the course like the proverbial early feathered fiends in search of wiggly 3-woodworms, we hung around 10 in the hope of seeing a few faces, and perhaps even fistbumping a few knuckles. We were not disappointed.  Having already spied scoreboard-steady Scott sublimely swiping spheres from the sand, a shoulder away from shining star Schauffele sharpening his short game as part of their pre-round routines, the practice putting surface permitted a more up-close-and-personal opportunity to ogle one’s idols. 

Rafa C-B, for example, was wandering towards the warm-up dancefloor without any security or accompanying personnel, and was amenable to an early morning “Hola!” coupled with a grin as cheesy as mature manchego.   Alvaro Ortiz, surrounded by his family, exuded a warmth and compassion immediately palpable to the growing throng of gathered fans who had the pleasure of looking him in the eye and receiving knuckley acknowledgement of their support.  Aphibarnrat “The Arm”, Tyrrell Hatton and Eddie Pep were in jovial, relaxed spirits and seemingly enjoying the occasion.  Kevin Na gave us a beautifully executed backhand low-five, the casual familiarity of such an exchange starkly juxtaposed against the behemoth we were about to behold.

We caught our first glimpse of him at 8am.  You know when you’re on an “experience getaway” and you rise before sunrise to go birdwatching, or perhaps to board a large 4x4 vehicle to scope out the savannah on a South African safari. That moment you see the one beast, that solitary member of “the big 5” or whatever. That’s how you feel when you see Tiger Woods in the flesh from close quarters. Can you imagine touching the fingertips of his left hand as he saunters off the 18th green as Masters champion once again? I can ;) oops.. spoiler alert!

TW was practicing putts alongside players imminently commencing their final round. He still had over an hour to go before he began his. There were no Stilton smiles, family friendliness or unconventional hand gestures from Tiger.  The fiery focus and unadulterated concentration was difficult to see, worn as it was, behind an emotionless demeanour that would have made Robocop look like an effervescent entertainer.  He knew what he had to do: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law. Oh shit, that’s Robocop again. Tiger had to play safe, play smart and play like the Major champion he knew he still was.  Robocop was at least half-human. Tiger had to be superhuman once more.

After watching a few groups tee off from 10, including Rory, Kevin Kisner, whose local club in Aiken, South Carolina – Palmetto, incidentally one of the oldest clubs in the USA – we had the pleasure of hacking our way around the day before; and former champions Patrick Reed (2018), Bernhard Langer (1985 & 1993) and Zach Johnson (2007), we moseyed across to the 1st tee and awaited the arrival of Sunday’s headline acts.  We did feel somewhat disrespectful towards Trevor Immelman (2008), especially since he was the last man, Immel or otherwise, to emerge victorious over a Tiger Woods-shaped runner-up in since Tiger last won here in 2005, but needs must.

Was great to play with Beef again, this time at Palmetto Golf Club

Over on the walkway towards 1, cosily pushed up as close as we could get to the security rope separating us from them, we had some discernible bomb-dropping banter with Phil as he exploded onto the main stage. Poulter had his earphones firmly situated within the concha of his ear (I still wonder what he was listening to) as he strode purposefully to work alongside multiple major champ and delightful specimen Brooks Koepka, and erstwhile US Open winner Webb Simpson.  Again, we were awed by each player’s precise pre-shot procedure and subsequent strike, something that every golf fan will always appreciate in person.

And then Tiger initiated his endeavour.

We followed the headline trio of Woods, F-Mol and Finau from the 1st tee to the 3rd green, witnessing a huge roar on 3 as TW birdied the par-4 to go 1-under for the day. Huddled behind a colossal crowd on the towering tee of the par-3 4th, however, Tiger’s iron shot went awry and he immediately gave back a shot.  He also bogeyed the 5th – Magnolia – a hole that had undergone controversial redesign, rendering it one of the toughest of the round, with bunkers Woods himself described as “umplayable”.

We wandered back down between 3 and 2, to the 2nd green, where Rory, who we had seen starting the day on the 10th hole at 7.52am, had an eagle putt but ended up with a birdie. Right about now we were simultaneously able to satisfy our urges to see the big names, while sacrificing the occasional approach shot. It was categorically harder work for us as spectators than it was for many of the players at this stage, and our hearts were pounding as much from the excitement as from the inclines of the undulations required to get into prime observational positions.

Alongside the 2nd green, the 8.58am chasing pack of Xander Schauffele, DJ and Justin Harding were finishing up, while the next trio waited on the fairway, well below the green. Occasionally your brain would ask questions of your eyes, as the difference in height from one point of the course to another would be so severe, you would think mountain rescue might be called to assist.  They certainly wouldn’t have any issues locating their targets: with Webb Simpson in bright yellow and Poulter in characteristically cheeky check trousers, the penultimate troupe were particularly distinctive, even from 180 yards. IJP’s iron shot landed and settled close enough to the hole that the ensuing birdie putt was a formality. Poults had started well. 

Tiger’s approach shot surpassed this and he too birdied the 7th. I  noted at the time that he got to within 2ft, but then crossed it out and wrote 6ins.  I saw on TV later that this shot was credited with turning his fortunes around. Molinari carded his first bogey since Thursday and slipped to -12 while Woods closed the gap on his opponent, climbing back to -11.  

We grabbed a ridiculously reasonably-priced beer from the concessions tent – I can confirm that carrying three plastic cups around Augusta’s slippery slopes was bloody tricky.  The ground was knocking on the door of being described as boggy in places, and while even “boggy” Augusta would put most Royal Horticultural Society sites to shame, I was glad to have learnt my footwear lesson from Friday, ditching porous plimsolls in favour of spiked golf shoes.  It shouldn’t really have surprised me how many fans were dressed in full golf attire, from Titleist-titivated tip to Footjoy-festooned toe, but it was still weird to witness. Not quite on par with lycra bib shorts half way up a Tour de France mountain climb, but mildly disconcerting nonetheless.

We rapidly returned to our vacant seats on 10.  I say ‘rapidly’; spectators are actually banned from and reprimanded for running at Augusta. So if you wish to get somewhere pronto, you must adopt a quickstep walking technique that wouldn’t be out of place in Monty Python’s gait analysis lab.   Despite a now swollen throng of spectators at the 10th, we could ease back into our pre-positioned chairs with the minimum of fuss and were able to catch our breath from racewalking just in time to see Poulter, Koepka and Simpson turn onto the back 9.   Then, with the echoing reverberation of appreciation following him onto the tee, Tiger Woods entered the arena for the culmination of over a decade’s top-level retribution.

Brother Tom, blue cap, leaning so far over he nearly fell into the teeing off area. Brother Luke, grey cap, stands open-mouthed in awe just in front. God knows where I was at this point.

Following their shots, we regular-walk down the left side of 10, chatting cheerily with a friendly female volunteer (many of those working at The Masters are regular fans who apply to help out for the week, their pride and delight at being able to do so is infectious) who explained that the luxurious patrons’ cabins lining the path are used to accommodate players’ family and friends throughout the tournament.  

Crossing over the 10th fairway, akin to traversing a deep valley, as the players are shooting uphill to that most elevated green, from which the course’s slopes are dramatically accentuated,  we continued down the hill to Amen Corner.  Hiking gear wouldn’t have been unreasonable in these circumstances.  Tiger and TF both dropped a shot here on 10, while Molinari, still holding it together in the pursuit of that coveted Green Jacket made par.  

We arrived again, at Amen.  Once you reach the 11th green, the view of 12, Golden Bell, immediately recognisable as one of the most famous par 3s on the planet, is breathtakingly spectacular.  A familiar sight from TV you can’t quite fathom exists before your own two eyes.  At just 155 yards, with an extra-energised grandstand behind the tee sensing a Tiger triumph, and enclosed like an amphitheatre, it did not let us down for thrilling sporting tragedy. Having bogeyed 11, Poulter plummeted into the water of Raes Creek on 12, eventually carding a double bogey. Koepka did the same.  The place was packed and it was stickily humid.  Tiger parred 11, as did Molinari.

All was silent on 12 as Molinari teed off only to see his shot fall short of the putting surface,  following Poults and Brooks into the devastating drink and, credit to my brother Tom for this one, suddenly it was more lifejacket than Green Jacket.  Finau drank from the creek also.  Tiger stepped up and steered a short iron shot to the left side of the green. The place went berserk.  Somewhere back in the clubhouse, a fine Italian tailor left the building, dejected, as the blazer was adjusted from European cut to an athletic American fit

We watched them clean up on 12, Woods two-putting for par, gaining the same number of shots on Molinari, from the right side of the par five 13, Azalea, before revisiting the grandstand where we had enjoyed such a fabulous perspective on Friday.  Here, Molinari valiantly managed to regroup and record his second birdie of the day.  Woods was in with a tangible eagle opportunity, but also birdied.  Events unfolded quickly and the scoreboard totally transformed before us:
-       First, Cantlay took the outright lead on -12 thru 15
-       Then, Koepka bounced straight back with eagle on 13 to -11 
-       At this point, Rahm reappeared near the head of proceedings on -10, having been nowhere on the board all day 
-       Bubba bounced up to -9
-       Poulter trickled off the scoreboard and would eventually finish T12 

We rushed (in a controlled fashion, of course) to the side of the water at the par 3 16th, where we had been poorly advised of a decent view on the slope.  Granted, we were able to take in the 15th green, the whole of 16 and still make out what was going on over on the 17th tee, and a kind, tall gentleman let us in front of him, but we sat in awe appreciating the amazing atmosphere, rather than the unobstructed outlook.  Previously circulating rumours of a Justin Thomas ace here, were confirmed, and a chap breaching communication rules with a rogue Apple Watch gave us the heads up that Molinari had again found water on his way to the 15thgreen, thanks to an overhanging pine cone, recording a double bogey 7 and slipping to -10.

Inevitability peeked above the parapet at this point, coaxed out by jubilant scenes as Tiger’s birdie here saw him take the lead out on his own.  DJ birdied 17 and returned with the clubhouse lead of -12 looking extremely competitive.   The scoreboard was a tight as the narrowest fairways and as congested as the crowd, all of whom had congregated around this deep portion of the course.  

Every one of us had to compromise now and make decisive spectating trade-offs as we jockeyed for best position, weighing up whether it was superior to get to a green or continue tracking the final group.  Heads moved from left to right, tip-toes engaged and relaxed in order to locate a view-finding gap between heads in front.  We opted for a position to the left of the 17th tee, looking back across the Koepka group, who were awaiting their penultimate drive, towards Tiger, who had the honour on the 16th, Redbud, not more than 200 yards away, the official length of the final par 3 being 170yds.

We saw his ball land on 16, high and to the right, and roll back slowly towards the cup.   He was so close to a hole-in-one and the crowd gave it some welly, barely controlling their excitement. Keen to get on with things, Brooks Koepka didn’t wait for the raucous applause and hollering to abate, no – he stepped up and cut the 17th fairway in half with a powerful drive while the cheers echoed around him.  Pandemonium, I tell ya!

It became clear that the officials had played a blinder with the rescheduling of tee times as matters concluded; the muggy humidity grew around us and it was apparent that the storm was nearing.  Yet, -14 through 16 holes, Woods was as cold as liquid nitrogen, pulling out the driver on 17 and making par as his trademark black trousers rippled in the rising winds.  

As we attempted to gain ground up ahead on the final hole, Holly, we soon accepted the impossibility of the task of getting close to the green, and instead surrendered position here in favour of a place not just amongst the eventual guard of honour for Tiger’s victory, but our little place in history.  We heard, rather than saw, him finish things off with room to spare, and although his concluding bogey rewarded him with a one-shot win on card, this jubilant conquest was nothing short of a sporting landslide.  

Those striking celebratory images of Tiger with his young family are forever etched in the annals of golfing history, like so many of his earlier career accomplishments.  He paraded and postured, whooped and shrieked in a sensational spectacle of emotion – the Robocop armour well and truly cast aside – and as he held his hands out to receive the adulation, the tip of my right middle finger made contact with his outstretched paw.  Choosing that spot, rather than a futile attempt to get greenside on 18, I sacrificed the slim chance of a sight of victory, for the unmistakable touch of it.  A moment I will never forget. 

It’s certainly true that we are all missing the Masters this April, but it does indeed give us a few additional months to further savour this 'allure', this remarkable return to the pinnacle of golfing greatness, the flavours of a magical moment as succulent as the spices on Tiger’s quarantine-style champion’s menu fajitas.  Who knows, maybe he can follow it up again in November - I wouldn't bet against it!

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