Trip of lifetime: The Masters experience turns into an experience that won’t soon be forgotten, but definitely repeated

By Randy Youngman

AUGUSTA, Ga. – My first-ever visit to Augusta National Golf Club during Masters week was, to paraphrase CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, an experience unlike any other during my four decades of chasing athletes around the globe.

What immediately distinguished this two-pronged road trip from any other in my career in the toy department of life is that I attended as a spectator – and a paying customer. (Notice I didn’t say patron. Sorry, Billy Payne.)

After joining friends in Atlanta to take in the NCAA Final Four – and, yes, there was time for a couple rounds of fairway research — we made the 145-mile drive across the state for the Masters practice rounds, to soak in the ambience and history at Bobby Jones’ hallowed teeing grounds.

We sensed it was going to be a memorable visit in Augusta when we checked into our accommodations in nearby Evans, Ga., and the first person we ran into was Al Geiberger, a USC grad better known as “Mr. 59” who would speak at a welcoming cocktail party that night.

On our way to lunch, we ran into John Daly, whose mobile home was parked outside a Hooters restaurant on famed Washington Boulevard, about a half-mile from Augusta National. Like Pete Rose, who sets up his memorabilia table in Cooperstown, N.Y., during Hall of Fame ceremonies, Daly sells autographed books, apparel and memorabilia in Augusta during Masters week. (Hey, if you can’t join ’em, gouge ’em – or something like that.)

Golf fans are well aware of what transpired during the four days of Masters competition – and we don’t need to dredge up the details of the controversy surrounding Tiger Woods’ two-shot penalty for an improper drop in Friday’s second round – so I’m going to provide a few sights, sounds and snapshots of went on behind the scenes before the first meaningful tournament shots were fired:

** When the gates at Augusta National swung open at 7:20 on Wednesday morning, my first must-see spot on the course was the pine straw under the trees outside the 10th fairway, where Bubba Watson hit his miraculous gap-wedge hook onto the green en route to his playoff victory in 2012.  Golf fans took photos of each other re-enacting the shot and/or pointing to the spot, one after another after another. “Where’s Bubba’s divot?” shouted one, laughing.

** Later that morning, we heard the quintessential Masters roar when Bubba aced the par-3 16th hole in his practice round with Rickie Fowler. Watching all the participants attempt to skip golf balls across the pond onto the 16th green – another Masters tradition unlike any other – proves that golfers are allowed to have fun at stately, storied, sometimes stuffy Augusta National. Nice to see.

** My favorite moment was seeing 83-year-old Arnold Palmer, 77-year-old Gary Player and 73-year-old Jack Nicklaus playing together in the traditional (there’s that word again) par-3 contest. The scene as the Holy Trinity of Golf made their way around the short course, to one standing ovation after another, was worth the price of admission itself. There was another deafening roar after Player’s chip-in birdie from the fringe on No. 6, where we were camped out, but it mattered little that Arnie hit two shots in the water.

** Another highlight was watching Jack Fleck, 91, the oldest living major winner, make his way around the par-3 course, step by step, with the help of caddie Billy McKinney, a teaching pro at Marbella Country Club in San Juan Capistrano.

**Masters week is the best organized and most efficiently run major sports event  I’ve ever witnessed. Don’t know what their secret is, but long restroom lines, long concession stand lines and long merchandise shop lines moved quickly and efficiently. The TSA should take note of how they do it.

** As I had been told by a Masters regular, you can’t grasp on TV the dramatic elevation changes and the steeply sloped fairways and the bright floral colors until you set foot on the grounds. As one apparent first-timer said as we trudged up the hill along the 9th fairway, “Do they have a defibrillator here?”

** It’s amazing nobody runs at Augusta — under the explicit threat of expulsion, of course. Equally eye-opening is that if you leave your portable folding chair, it’ll still be empty when you get back, even hours later. The spectator decorum is remarkable, as are the concession stand prices. Three bucks for a beer and $1.50 for sandwich? Mind if I move in?

** A spectator from Orange County yelled from the gallery to remind Houston Open winner D.A. Points that he owed Arroyo Trabuco head pro Michael Block $30 from a skins game at Riviera during the Northern Trust in February. Maybe Points will be sufficiently embarrassed to pay up.

Can’t wait to go back. After all, I’m a Masters veteran now.

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