Dream Round at Augusta National

This is a repost of my AOL Sports column, published on April 9th, 2007, a day after Zach Johnson won the 71st Masters.

Can’t find my pictures from Augusta, but here’s one from Interlachen

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National tamed Tiger, mocked Mickelson, and embarrassed Els at the 2007 Masters. 

 So what chance do I, an 18-handicapper, have to shoot par on the famed course? 

 None. 

 Yet I echo the sentiment of Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber, when his love interest tells him his chance of ending up with her are “like one out of a million.” 

 Christmas, played by Jim Carrey, pauses then says, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance. 

 “Yeah!” 

  So how did I react when I was one of the journalists plucked from a lottery to play all 18 holes of Augusta National? 

 I unleashed the emphatic fist pump Tiger Woods reserves for Sunday eagle putts. I then scrambled to locate some clubs, a particularly difficult proposition since I am left-handed.

Phil Mickelson’s weren’t an option, because he sprayed shots all over en route to an 11 over, and Mike Weir’s were too short. Luckily, the media relations staff assisted me, and directed me to the general manager at a nearby club, Jones Creek in Evans, Ga. Micah Hicks had one set available, and the bag wasn’t teeming with top-of-the-line equipment.

I did what anyone in my position would: I told him I’d take it, and, with Woods set to tee off in less than one hour, I immediately navigated through tournament traffic to secure the set for Monday morning. 

 Here are highlights — and lowlights — from my dream round at Augusta National. 

 My tee time is set for 7:22 a.m., and an invitation informs me that I can arrive at the golf club an hour before to warm up on the practice range. 

 Oh, and I can drive down Magnolia Lane, the famous tree-lined entry used almost exclusively by the club’s elite membership. I check in at the clubhouse, buy a glove and head to the bag check area, where I am introduced to my caddy, Brian Tam of Harlem, Ga.

He is 27 years old, and this is his fourth year at Augusta National. 

 We walk over the practice range, where he grabs me a bag of balls. 

 I mentally notch another reminder from the week of how opulent Augusta National is: my practice range balls are Bridgestone Tour B330-S. 

 The balls are brand new.  The balls are devoid of an “x.” 

 According to Golf Galaxy’s website, a dozen of these balls retails for $39.99. My green bag includes at least 24, so I briefly contemplate not taking any practice shots, stuffing the balls in my pockets and unloading them in my rental car. 

  I did not. But while hitting some shots, I realize that I’m in trouble. Thanks to someone named Hal – the name was on a towel – I have a set of clubs you wouldn’t wish upon your on-course enemy. The outdated Ping putter and irons are acceptable, but the remaining clubs are not. 

 Mickelson carries two drivers, but Hal apparently carries three. None of them, however, were seemingly designed in the last decade. I don’t know what the “cc” in drivers stands for, but I am unsettled when my best option has 205cc on it. I recall that my Nike Sasquatch has 460cc on it. There is also a random Cobra seven iron and Dunlop eight iron. Most disturbing of all – in this bag overstuffed with everything from an umbrella, to a poncho, to 1,000 tees and plastic ball markers – is the shortage of wedges. All I have is a pitching wedge. At home, in my current bag, I have four wedges. 

 I know this will haunt me later in the day. 

 On our way to the 10th tee, where we will tee off, I rush through a quick primer on the putting green. Brian tells me to trust his reads, even if they seem ridiculous. I nod. When I get to the hole, I meet my playing partners: Larry Fine, a sports correspondent for Reuters; Susanne Kemper, a golf writer from Switzerland; and Peter Williams, a journalist from New Zealand. 

No. 10, Camellia, Par 4, 450 yards 

 I am the first one to tee off, and, armed with my Bobby Jones’ era driver, blast a 250-yarder downhill, along the right side of the fairway. 

 “You can exhale now,” Fine says. 

 I do. 

 I lay up on my second shot, not wanting to get greedy, and I hit the spot I wanted. With 80 yards left, I settle my wedge shot on the left fringe, about 15 feet from the hole. My first putt is solid, settling about four feet away, and I nail my bogey putt center-cup. Take that Ben Crenshaw, who carded an eight on this hole in 1979. 

No. 13, Azalea, Par 5, 455 yards

 I hit an acceptable drive to the right side. I jokingly ask Brian if I should go for it like Tiger.

“That’s 245 yards,” he says incredulously. 

 I cannot ignore the beauty of this hole, as I walk on the fairway. Rae’s Creek runs along the left fairway, and pink azaleas are everywhere, to the right and overwhelmingly to the left. 

 I lay up, leave myself about 100 yards to the flag, and give myself a birdie putt from 10 feet. I just miss, though, but I drill my four-footer for par. I outplayed Luke Donald, who had a bogey, and Mark Calcavecchia, who had an eight, on that hole Sunday.

I am quietly pleased with how I’m playing. 

No. 16, Redbud, 145 yards 

 After a triple bogey on the previous hole, the wheels loosen some more. 

 I don’t get under my tee shot enough, and the ball lasers into the pond. During practice rounds on this hole, players playfully skip balls over the water and onto the green. Mine nosedives into the water. 

 Peter hits a solid shot and jokingly says, “The crowd is on their feet.” 

 Just keep moving, pal. 

 Another three putt for me. 

No. 18, Holly, Par 4, 385 yards

 One of the most famous finishing holes in golf, I notice how dramatically different the scene on the green was less than 24 hours earlier. Fans were lined up 10 deep in every direction, constantly checking the massive white leaderboard, and reporters were seated in two raised stands on the left side of the green. 

 We are greeted by a handful of workers breaking down CBS equipment. As we wait for Susanne to hit her approach shot, Peter and I walk toward the right trap, where eventual champion Zach Johnson hit a key shot on Sunday. We marvel at the drop off, which wasn’t evident to me in the raised stands or to Peter on the high-definition television he was watching from the Media Center. 

 Johnson’s chip was almost perfect, settling just inches from the cup, ensuring that he would finish the tournament at one over par. 

 “He took all the nerve out of his final putt with that shot,” I say. 

 “What a remarkable shot,” Peter says, shaking his head. 

No. 1, Tea Olive, Par 4, 365 yards

 Rough start to the second nine. 

 My third shot lands on a meaty part of the green, and I reach for the putter Brian has in his hand. 

 But he says, “You’re chipping.” 

 I look toward the hole, and I notice my ball creeping down and, eventually, off the green.

This course is as forgiving as an old-school Catholic schoolteacher. 

No. 4, Flowering Crab Apple, Par 3, 170 yards 

 No hole makes me realize how much better the pros are than the average golfer. 

The length of this course from the members’ tees is 6,365; tack on an extra 1,080 for the pros. On this particular hole the pros are 240 yards from the pin. 

 Marco Polo wouldn’t have been able to find some of my tee shots from that distance, where some pros hit three woods. 

 And once you get on the green, it is impossible to put the ball in the cup. 

 The green slopes to the front, according to the description on the official Masters’ website, but I swear the green is like a roller coaster. Although it is just the fourth hardest hole, there are fewer birdies on No. 4 than on any other. 

 So what chance do I have? 

 I four-putt and card a six. 

 No. 7, Pampas, 330 yards

 I don’t know what Pampas means. But, perhaps, its loose translation is “Sand Traps of Death.” 

 I take the Mickelson route, sending my drive onto a bed of pine needles. My punch out is solid, but I fly my wedge shot too deep and left. I can’t see where it lands, though, because of the huge elevation change. 

 When I get high enough, I see that my ball is in one of the five bunkers surrounding the green. 

 I can thank Horton Smith, the 1934 and 1936 champion, who suggested bunkers be added to give the hole some character. 

 My third shot has settled into left bunker, above the green. This is where my lob or sand wedge would come in handy. 

 I have a small margin of error, to land my ball on the green. Complicating matters is the wet sand. 

 My first hack just misses escaping the trap and rolls back down, about three feet left of where I am standing. My second shot flies over the flag, prompting someone to yell, “Oh no.” 

 When I get out of the sand trap, I don’t see my ball. A caddy grimly points me toward the middle bunker, below the hole. 

 When I settle into my shot, I look up and see — a wall of sand. 

 I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you the bunker wall is 10 feet high. 

 Facing Goliath, I am David, minus a slingshot. Instead, I am armed with a pebble or, in this case, a pitching wedge. 

 I’m not sure there is a club lofted enough to get me out of this trap, but I am fairly certain the one I hold isn’t one of them. 

 I try once, then twice, prompting a caddy to say, “That’s not fair. 

 “You should be able to throw it up.” 

 I try a third time, before I realize I could still be there as you read this, if I don’t give up.

This sandy Goliath has won, although the carnage of white sand on the green is evidence that I didn’t give up without a fight. 

 I lay the ball on the fringe, nearest the trap, and I three-putt for a seven-over on the hole.

I blame Hal on my way to the eighth tee box. 

No. 9, Carolina Cherry, Par 4, 395 yards

 This is the final hole, and I want to make it a memorable one. 

 I hit a laser down the right side, sending the caddies scurrying, and my second shot goes down the fairway. With a wedge to the green, I send the ball left. 

 When I line up the shot, there are, much to my horror, two bunkers between the green and me. 

 So frustrated, I ask Peter, who is also a lefty, if I can borrow his lob wedge. 

 I don’t hit it well, but at least it makes it over the evil traps. 

 From the fringe, I hit a chip that slides just past the hole. 

 Meanwhile, Larry hits a shot to the top part of the green. His chip is too hard and screams down the steep green and doesn’t stop until it’s off the green, about 25 feet away. His next chip runs up the hill but doesn’t have enough gas, and trickles back down – five feet from where he stood. 

 “Oh no, no,” Larry says. “Not that. Please let me putt.” 

 An Augusta National member laughs and says from the first tee box, “Welcome to Augusta.” 

 I encourage Larry that he can still hit a magical shot, and he hits a very impressive to get himself close to the pin. 

 My round concludes around noon, and I must hurry to make a flight later in the day. Brian and I walk toward the clubhouse, and I insist on tipping him, although he initially refused.

“Has anyone played worse than me?” I ask. 

 “Oh yeah,” Brian immediately says. “You’re all right. It’s tough. You got to be so precise with the line and the speed on these greens.” 

 After grabbing a quick plate of food, I head toward the car, to get I-20 for Atlanta. I am in such a rush, I don’t even have time to tally up my scorecard. 

 On the drive to the airport, I call my wife. At one point, she says, “Is it the nicest course you’ve played?” 

 “Are you kidding me?” I say. “Uh, yeah. It’s one of the most famous courses in the world. It’s … the Masters.” 

 My next call is to one of my golfing buddies, Paul Moon, a chiropractor at home on his lunch break. 

 “How did you do?” he asks. 

 Paul then informs me that he and Mike Johnson, an optometrist, had an over-under bet on me. The number is 115. 

 I tell him I hadn’t added up the shots yet. 

 Well, Paul, you’re the winner. I shot a 112, with five three-putts and one four-putt. 

I’m not proud of my score, but I’m proud to have played Augusta National. 

 And for anyone who wants to make fun of me for my score, I have a ready-made answer for you. 

 How many times have you sucked at Augusta National?