For Masters competitors, the journey to Augusta National can be long and arduous, filled with countless ups and downs that, for many hopefuls, last for several years before they finally get to tee it up at this very special place. My road was equally tough. I-20 can rather drag on.
The 144-mile stretch, between Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta and exit 199 Washington Road, feels like it goes on forever. Having passed four police cars at the side of the freeway within the first half-hour, I stuck to the speed limit like superglue. Add in all the traffic, what seemed like 47 radio stations devoted to Country music, and the never-ending corridor of trees through which the road was cut, and it made for a terribly tedious drive. It would have been perfectly pleasant had I not been in a hurry to get anywhere special, but when the destination is Augusta National, speed is of the essence. Every second spent on the road was cutting into good Masters time. The only respite was a short stop for pizza at a place calling itself "$3.75 Pizza" where the pies were actually a lot better than the price suggested they might be.
I rolled into Augusta at about 6 p.m. Tuesday evening, just as most of the patrons were exiting the grounds. Perfect. This meant a 90-minute, two-mile chug down Washington Road, bland and characterless strip malls and parking lots to the left, trees and bushes hiding the Augusta National Golf Club to the right.
Needless to say, the only point at which we sped up a little was at the very moment I passed the entrance to the club. The look down Magnolia Lane where one of the famous trees had fallen after a ferocious storm the night before, was therefore rather fleeting and it was clear from the look on the traffic cop's face he was not going to tolerate anyone stopping to take a photo.
In the evening, five friends and I ate superb Mexican food at a place called Veracruz where the bill came to an astonishing $96. Clearly the management isn't aware of the potential to cash in on Masters week, a ploy vigorously adopted by just about every other business in the same zip code.
In bed at midnight, I slept much like the third-round leader might; fitfully. As soon as the birds started singing, it was time for a shower and then out the door for the 20-minute walk to the course.
First stop was the media center which, like most things at Augusta National, stops you in your tracks for a few moments before you take it all in and can proceed. It is unlike any other media center in the game (world?), a cross between a large university lecture hall and a JW Marriott.
Never having been to Augusta before, and only here on a one-day Golf Writer's Association of America pass, the sensible thing to do was obviously head straight for the 10th and down into Amen Corner.
Determined not to be surprised by how hilly the course was (I'd heard that line so often), I was immediately surprised by how hilly the 10th was. We are talking Olympic ski jump. A good drive down the hill left the players I watched — Tom Watson, Jeff Overton and Gary Woodland —with little more than short irons into the green. What made the shot really tricky though, from an observer's point of view at least, was that the putting surface was covered in striped shadows making depth perception difficult. I watched all three players come up well short of the pin. But it was no later than 11am so the sun forecast for Sunday, will be making very different patterns.
The 10th is awesome, but the 11th is more awesome still. Walking down the right side of the hole in the shade of the pines planted here a few years back you get your first site of Amen Corner. It's all there; the pond to the left of the 11th green, the huge scoreboard and the watermill (you imagine Larry Mize chipping in from 140 feet right of the pin). Then there's the 12th green in the distance beyond a large expanse of green and a treacherous, ribbon of blue. Yep, everything is just as you expected it.
And yet, no matter how closely you imagined it, the scene takes a moment to process. There it is, the same Amen Corner you've seen on TV every April since 1986 (yes, Jack Nicklaus's sixth victory was the year I started watching — wonder why), stunningly beautiful but, you imagine, wickedly difficult.
You spend a few minutes watching players hit their tee shots at the 12th with no wind swirling around in the trees and the hole cut in its easiest position on the far left of the green. With even the faintest breeze, Sunday nerves and the pin on the far right side of the green, you can understand how 160-something yards can be so devilish (here, you imagine Fred Couples standing on the bank in front of the green just above Rae's Creek, flopping a shot safely back onto the green).
Behind the bleachers at the 12th is a merchandise stand and what looks like a bank of payphones, or voting booths. It's actually where patrons complete the Masters Survey on touch-screens, answering questions about how far you've come, how much you think you'll spend during your stay in Augusta, and if you think there is anything the club could do to improve the Masters experience (the answers; a long way; way too much; no way).
From here it's but a short walk to a concession stand where, for $4, I purchase a pimento cheese sandwich, a bag of chips in a cool Masters packet, and a bottle of water with a list of winners on the side. I've never had pimento before; not even sure if it's available in my hometown. But I'll definitely try searching for it back home, because it's simply delicious. Much has been made about the club's willingness to keep concession prices down, but it deserves a re-telling. A cheese sandwich, bottle of water and bag of chips at any other big-time sporting occasion would cost somewhere between $10-$15. For sure, the club doesn't need the money but still, that's a nice touch.
Walking now toward the 13th fairway, I can see Phil Mickelson teeing off in the distance to my left and the huge green raised above the creek and surrounded by big oval bunkers to my right. I can see the tree from behind which Mickelson hit his amazing 6-iron last year. I ponder the shot and suspect a lay-up would have been a better solution for me.
As Mickelson and playing partners Fred Couples, Ricky Fowler, and Peter Uihlein, approach their drives, it occurs to me I haven't called my wife and kids for two days.
They'll be mad for sure, but I think they'll understand.
More to come tomorrow.
(Photo by Getty Images)
Tony Dear is a native of England who now lives with his wife and children in Bellingham, Wash. He is a longtime contributor to Fairways + Greens and a multi-winner at last year's International Network of Golf media awards. This is his first visit to Augusta National and The Masters.