By Tom Cunneff
The Masters is called a tradition unlike any other. Well, this was a day unlike any other.
As eye opening as it was to see the course for the first time in 1999, I was even more flabbergasted to get to play it after winning a spot in the media-day lottery, which credentialed journalists are eligible for once every seven years. It was a surreal feeling to finally be faced with the same shots I’ve seen hundreds of times on TV. Of course, it went by way too fast.
After slowly driving down Magnolia Lane, I ride past the logo of yellow pansies in Founders Circle to the club-drop area where a line of caddies in the their trademark white jump suits wait to be assigned. My caddie, Todd, introduces himself and tells me he’ll meet me at the range. I’m so excited I even pass on the free Danish and coffee.
The 40 or so lucky lottery winners tee off from the Member Tees on the 1st and 10th holes starting around 7:10. I go off the 10th at 8:02 with my good friend Mike Arkush, along with Jay Coffin from and Ed McCarthy, all other media figures. The fact that both Mike and I were selected and then got paired together was pure luck (we think). It made the day just that much more special to have an old friend with whom to share the round—and talk about it for years to come. The golf gods were definitely looking out for us.
The downhill 10th is probably an easier starting hole than the 1st, which has a cavernous swale that drives must carry. With a chill in the air and the sun just coming up over the tall pine trees that line the hole, I have the first-tee jitters times ten, not because of the small crowd that has gathered but because I want to see my ball catch the severe down-slope on the 450-yard hole just like I had seen Arnie, Jack and Tiger’s drives do countless times.
I push my drive into the trees on the right. The Member Tees measure just 6,365 yards, almost eleven hundred yards less than the Masters Tees. On some holes, like 16, the disparity was negligible, but on others, like 11, the difference was more than 100 yards. It’s a lot easier coming into the treacherous 11th green with a wedge instead of a 3-iron, that’s for sure.
Strangely, there are no intermediate tees in the 6,800-yard range. But Augusta does a number of things that you don’t find at your typical club. There are no ball washers or gaudy plaques by the tees with hole layouts and yardages.
The small, white scorecard is a wonderfully succinct statement to the club’s less-is-more philosophy. It doesn’t even contain the course’s rating and slope, but, then, there aren’t any. Hole handicaps are based on length, so the 145-yard 12th is rated as the 16th hardest hole, which is clearly not the case, even on the calm morning like I have. (It was the second most difficult hole during the tournament with a 3.30 stroke average.)
So how fast are the greens? They weren’t cut before our round, but they still had to Stimp out at 12 or 13. With the pin placements in their same Sunday location, I feel like I’m putting on a newly waxed gymnasium floor. I’m so tentative—even on uphill putts—that I can’t put my normal stroke on the ball and my putting suffers as a result, winding up with 36 waves of the wand. I’m happy to say I don’t four putt any holes, though, and have only two three putts, on 13 and 5.
The bunkerless 14th has perhaps the most challenging green, a wavy work of art with its beautifully sculpted mounds and swales. I thought I hit a perfect approach to the back, middle-left hole location, but my ball ends up on the right side of the green 40 feet from the hole.
My favorite shot of the day is my second on 15. From up on top of the hill, I have a wonderful view of much of the course, now fully lit by the sun. I just want to freeze the moment. My 4-iron from 200 yards ends up over the bunker between the green and the bleachers, leaving me with the same eagle chip that Tiger had in the final round. Like him, I only make par, but I was happy to avoid having to hit a shot off the downhill slope over the water to the crowned green.
I wind up doubling 18, but as we walk off the back of the green, longtime CBS announcer Jim Nantz, a friend of Mike’s, is standing there to greet us and ask about our round. The only way this could get any better is if they hand me a green jacket right now.
The front nine was more of the same, bogeys interspersed with the occasional par and double, along with slack-jawed disbelief every step of the way. I finally manage to get a birdie on the 480-yard 8th after skipping in my third shot to three feet, but my lay-up had to be perfect to give me the correct angle to the back-left pin placement.
It’s those kind of shot values that make Augusta what it is: a marvel of strategic thinking, not to mention unrivaled beauty coupled with a wonderful history and tradition.
Final score: 85. Fun quotient: off the charts.