A walk I never imagined taking
On a Tuesday, the day before I was scheduled to play Augusta National, I got stuck at a tiny airport in the small Canadian city of Sarnia, Ontario. The flight to Toronto was delayed with the possibility of being canceled. If I couldn't get to Toronto, I'd miss my flight from there to Atlanta. There were not many options in Sarnia, but I found a guy with a van who, for a fee, was willing to drive me across the border to Detroit. It would be a two-hour drive in rush hour traffic. After a phone call to the airline to change my flight plans I was on my way.
I never rely on a single plan. I must have a back up. One way or another, I was going to be in Augusta on Wednesday morning. Atlanta is a 10 hour drive from Detroit. That is too far for me to safely drive after a short night and a long day. My back up plan would be to Uber my way home by breaking it up into two five hour drives. But alas, an airline was dependable, I made it to Detroit in time for my flight. Delta had wheels up on time. A sigh of relief, at least until Wednesday morning...
It's the big day, and I’ve had another short night. I usually sleep about four to five hours a night. But Tuesday night was anything but a usual night. I managed about three hours of sleep as my excitement built. That morning came face to face with my last challenge, Atlanta traffic. The GPS showed the Piedmont DeKalb(PDK) airport to be 17 miles and 30 minutes away. At PDK I would board a plane with the other three members of our foursome, Danny Yates, our host, Lin Rogers who would double as one of our pilots - it was his plane, and Bill Teberg. I certainly didn't want to delay the group for our date with the first course on my quest to play Americas 100 Greatest Golf Courses. The arrangements for playing Augusta National were made well before I came up with the idea to play the countries most coveted golf courses, but it was a great way to kick off my quest.
My GPS calculated 30 minutes for the drive to PDK. I expected it to take at least 45 minutes. I left my house an hour and a half before the flight to ensure I made it in time. It was a challenge to travel just the first mile to get out of my neighborhood and onto the freeway. I could feel the anxiety building up inside. I started to wondered if i would make it to PDK before our planned 9 am departure. I worried that I would start my big Augusta National experience by delaying the group. It took me one hour and twenty minutes to make the seventeen mile drive to PDK. I was happy that I’d allowed for an hour and a half to make the drive. Once everyone was on board, we departed for our short flight to destiny's doorstep, or destiny's tee box in this case.
Once back on the ground, we were greeted by the Augusta National shuttle for the short drive to the gates that block the entrance to Magnolia Lane from the outside world. I was taken by the stark contrast of what lies in the front of the gates and what lies behind the gates. In front of the gates is the world familiar to many, the city of Augusta and all that a city of its size has to offer. Behind the gates lie one of the most majestic experiences of American life. This contrast is reflective of the contrast of my own life. Born on a Sunday morning, in the backwoods of East Texas in a house without electricity or modern plumbing. Delivered by the same midwife who had delivered my three older siblings. I was born into a world that lacked almost everything. I was about to enter a world that lacked almost nothing.
We were greeted at the gates by a security guard, who instantly recognized our host. He greeted him, "Good Morning Mr. Yates," with the respect due a man who has accomplished and given as much to the game of golf as Danny Yates has. Danny was USGA Mid-Amateur champion in 1992 and runner up to the US Amateur champion in 1988. Danny also played on two Walker Cup Teams and won the Georgia State Amateur.
The gates were opened after the recognition of that familiar and accomplished face. We drove down Magnolia Lane. I was at Augusta National.
The attendants took our equipment from the van. We walked to one of. the cabins to prepare ourselves for our day at Augusta National. From there we entered the club house and were greeted by the men. mostly African Americans, who help make Augusta National a special place. They made sure none of our needs for a great day went unmet. They all showed respect to Mr. Yates. Greeting him with smiles on their faces exuding a sense of familiarity and respect. It was clear to me that he is a well liked man.
Our next stop was the driving range where we were greeted by our caddies. Mine was Eddie, a man with seemingly many more years behind him than in front of him. Eddie was born in Washington, Georgia. He told me that when he was in high school he played in a tournament at my home club in Atlanta, Cherokee Town and Country Club.
My warmup session on the range went well. I made fluid swings. I stuck the ball with the center of the club face. I was relaxed. I had a good hold on my nerves. We walked from the practice range to the first tee on the par three course. A course that everyone who is familiar with the Masters, knows as the course played on the Wednesday before the Masters. This is the course that frequently gives up many holes-in-one on that day when family members walk among the tall pines of Augusta National with the professional golfers that will compete for the prestigious and much desired green jacket.
I hit second off the tee. My nerves were in check. After all, this was just the warm up to the main event, the Championship course. The pin was 140 yards away on the back right part of the green. I chose an 8 iron. I struck the ball well, just as I had done on the practice range. The ball landed on the green to the right of and just past the flag, but kicked right and rolled about 6 feet off onto the collar. My second shot at Augusta National, a chip, wasn't so glorious. I made a divot in the pristine August tuft when I hit the big green ball before hitting the little white ball. The ball rolled just three feet. Lesson learned, keep your eyes on that flawless tuft until after the ball has been struck. My third shot was much better. I chipped onto the green, the ball rolled toward the hole, getting close enough for a tap in bogey.
My first green in regulation came on the second hole. The was on the front of the green just as short 60 yards from the tee. My ball landed on the green and rolled to the back. Three putts later, I had my second bogey of the day. I had now experienced Augusta National's biggest defense against low scores - the greens.
My first par came on the next hole. The hole was playing just a little more than 90 yards. I hit another green in regulation and two-putted for a par.
After the third hole, the holes got longer, my muscles got tighter, my nerves got more frayed and my scores got higher. I finished the nine hole par three course with a 41. This was not how I imagined my debut on the grounds of the most sought after golf venue in America.
Danny, Lin, Bill and I walked off the final green of the par three course and headed back to the clubhouse for lunch. I order a pimento cheese sandwich. How could I come to Augusta National and not have that. The anticipation of playing the Championship course was starting to overwhelm me. My nerves were on end. We finished our lunch, the only thing between me and a date with destiny was the space between the clubhouse and the first tee.
This was my second visit to Augusta National. I first visited these hallowed grounds for the 2015 Masters. I spoke to Tiger as he walked from the first green to the second tee. He’d hooked his first drive into the adjacent fairway. He then hit a high shot over the tall Augusta Pines onto the edge of the green. He two putted for par to open his round. As he walked by me I said, “great recovery Tiger.” He looked up and said, “thanks.” He then proceeded to the second tee box. The legend had spoken to me.
We approached the teeing area for the first hole as the group in front of us was preparing hit their tee shots. We grabbed a few golf balls from our bags and walked to the practice green behind the Masters tees on the first hole. The Masters tees or Championship tees play 1000 yards longer than the Member Tees. There is an 80 yard difference on the first hole.
I putted a few balls on the practice green. With just a light tap of the putter, my ball rolled swiftly over the green. Eddie looked at me and said, “the greens on the championship course are fast. Some of the breaks are wide and obvious and some are small and subtle.”
The group in front of us cleared the fairway. Alas the moment was here. We stood on the first tee of Augusta National's Championship Course.
Danny led off with a smooth rhythmic swing delivering a shot right down the middle. I went second. My heart was pounding, my muscles were starting to tense up. There was a small gallery composed of some of the Augusta National staff and the next foursome with their caddies. I I stepped up, bent over and pushed a tee into the August tuft. I stood behind the ball and lined up my shot. As I addressed the ball, I told myself to just keep my eyes on that nice green tuft and make a smooth swing. I took one practice swing. I breathed in and slowly exhaled. I took the club back slowly and in control as I made a full turn. I let the club drop back down to the ball. I kept my eyes focused on the green turf. The ball came off the center of the club face. I lifted by head to see it sailing down the middle of the fairway to the left of Danny's ball. It dropped from the sky and landed in fairway about 20 yards behind it. The ball had only travelled about 215 yards, but it was safely in the fairway and I was relieved. Relieved because the fairway was generous. Relieved because I hadn't embarrassed myself nor our host. Relieved because I had made a smooth first swing and hit a good solid drive.
Bill and Lin teed off. My feet were on the ground but my head was in the clouds. Danny, Lin, Bill, and I walked up the fairway toward our balls just like so many professional golfers have done on these hallowed grounds.
My drive left me with 175 yards to the pin. It was the shortest in our foursome. That me I was the first an approach shot first. I made another good swing. The ball faded slightly. It hit pin high on the right side of the green and rolled just off. I was thinking, “I got this!” A chip and three puts later, I had turned a possible par and, for sure, an easy bogey into double bogey - welcome to Augusta, rookie!
I played the next two hole similar to the first. I made solid shots and made more putts than swings before finding the bottom of the cup. That all changed on the 170 yard par three that is the fourth hole on the Championship Course. The holes at Augusta all have names. The fourth hole is called Flowering Crab Apple. It was here on Flowering Crab Apple that I made my first par on the Championship course.
The pin was 170 yards from the tee. I focused, I told myself that I could do this. It wasn’t enough now to just be at Augusta National, I wanted to play well. I took the club back, my heart again racing. The club struck the ball. It soared. It dropped onto the edge of the green, but that is still the green.
Eddie handed the putter to me. I walked to the green in high anticipation. Could I get off the double bogey train with a birdie. Could I wash away the bad memories of all those putts on the first three holes with one simple stroke of my Odyssey White Hot flat stick? Oh no! I committed a cardinal sin. I left my birdie putt short of the hole. Danny said, “pick it up.” With those three words, I jumped off the bogey train and savored my first par on the Championship Course at Augusta National.
I had but one more double bogey on the front nine. I had makeable par putts on the last four holes of the front nine, but just couldn’t figure out how to make any of the drop into the cup on the challenges greens of Augusta National. I finished the front nine with a 48.
The back nine offered me a fresh beginning, so I thought. It starts with Camellia as a warm up to Amen Corner. It is a daunting 450 yards from the members tees, but if you hit a good drive you can get the benefit of a generous roll. This was not my fate. I hit a good drive but pulled it to the left. This bought trees into play.
After playing the last several holes on the front nine relatively well, I was a little more relaxed. My nerves had calmed down. I made enough good swings to show I wasn’t a hack. I now felt confident enough to try to craft a shot. With tree branches protruding on the line between my ball I the green, I hit a draw around them but the ball didn’t draw enough. The ball landed just off the right side of the green. This was not a place to be with a front middle pin position on this green.
The pin was on the other side of a mound that sloped steeply toward the front of the green. There was not even a wing and a pray that I could get the ball to stop within 15 feet of the hole. Well I didn't disappoint. I chipped over the mound. The ball landed on the green and rolled down to the front of the green to another impossible position. Three putts later I had started the back nine in the same manner as I had started the front nine, with a double bogey. It two two swings for me to cover 450 yards. It took four more to cover just 25 feet!
On my walk to the 11th hole, I tried to put the disaster of the 10th hole out of my mind. I had prepared for this. I practiced Amen Corner at Tour 18 in Houston. The course is made up of replica holes of famous golf courses. During my practice round there, I made par on all three holes on Amen Corner. There was no reason I couldn’t do the same on this sunny afternoon among the authentic tall Augusta pines. A smooth swing and a 230 yard drive to the left side of the fairway reaffirmed my confidence. The pin was on the front right, all but taking the water to the left of the green out of play. I felt a small amount of wind. Eddie looked at me and then at my bag. He pulled a six iron and handed to me.
I had just 150 yards to the pin. The six iron is my 160 yard club. I trusted him. I also knew that I was likely to fade the ball. I wanted to fade the ball. This would completely take that water to the left out of play. I stood over the ball, I lined up the shot, I took a practice swing and then trusted my caddie and my swing. The ball started on a line directly toward the flag. I had wanted to start it slightly left of the flag. It is stayed in the air and started to fade as it approached the pin. It dropped pin high and 12 feet to the right of the flag. I looked at Eddie and smiled, he nodded.
My ball was just off the green, but no worries, a chip and a putt and we could head to the next hole. That’s what I thought until I duffed my chip ever so slightly. That left a 6 foot putt. A six foot putt at Augusta National is like a 20 foot putt anywhere else.
Eddie studied the line. “Breaking right to left,” he said as he pointed to the line. Again I trusted him. I took the putter back and then pushed forward toward the ball. The ball rolled toward a spot just right of where Eddie had pointed. It broke exactly as he said and slid just past the hole. I tapped in for a bogey, disappointed that I’d not hit the ball on the line Eddie gave. Disappointed that I started amen corner with a par.
It was now time to face Golden Bell. The 150 yard par 3 is protected by Rae's Creek in the front, bunkers behind the green and a green that is only 10 yards deep. There were no azaleas on this bright sunny day, but the lush green landscaping looked beautiful just the same.
As we stood on the tee, Eddie handed me the six iron. It was the second time he’d given me my 160 yards club for a 150 yard shot. This time I questioned him. I was concerned that if I hit it pure, which I do occasionally, the ball would end up in the bunker behind the green . I’d have to hit a sand shot toward Rae’s Creek. I told him I preferred my 150 yard club. He told me he preferred the 160 yard club. He said there was a slight wind in our face (at least that is what he conveyed to me, I suspected he was concerned that I might hit the ball fat and end up in the water). But hey, it was my first time playing Augusta and he had been caddying here for several years. I listened and then proceeded to hit my 160 yard club, 160 yards. The ball landed deep in the back bunker. I didn’t fault Eddie for my misfortunate. He was playing the odds. I was playing to my ego. Odds usually win out in those situations. I now had to carry a lot of sand to get the ball to the green but put enough spend on the ball to stop it before it rolled off the green and into Rae’s creek. This is the type of shot that buckles your knees.
I decided to limit my exposure. I took a conservative line and hit a good sand shot onto the green. I thought it was a great shot until I realized that Rae's Creek was beckoning my ball. The ball just kept rolling toward the front of the green. Fortunately I had taken a conservative line. My ball rolled off the left side of the green. I avoided Rae's Creek, but I had a tough chip and putt to save bogey. I made a good chip, but the ball lipped out on my putt. I made a double bogey on the hole.
The double bogey on the 12th hole took a little of the puff out of my chest. We walked over the bridge over Rae’s Creek to the third and final hole of Amen Corner, Azalea, the thirteenth hole, a short par five. We all hit our tee shots just past the trees on the left and onto the right hand side of the fairway, about 230 yards from the green.
Eddie and everyone else with us advised me to lay up. I was at Augusta National and didn’t know if I’d ever make it back. There was no way I was going to lay up. I thought, what would Phil do. I reach over into my bag and took out my three wood. I made such a terrible swing that the ball went right and didn’t make it to Rae’s Creek in front of the green. I was not left with a sixty yard pitch over Raes creek to a middle pin. I made a three-quarters swing with my sand wedge. The ball landed pin high and twelve feet to the left of the pin leaving me a good chance at a birdie.. I stood over my ball and lined up the putt on the line Eddie gave me. I struck the ball and sent in rolling perfectly on the line. The ball stopped one foot short of the cup. I tapped in for par which was more than I deserved after ignoring good advise in the fairway.
I hit a nice drive down the left side of the fairway on fourteen, skirting the trees, I left my my approach shot short of the green. I followed with a chip and a two putt for bogey. On 15, another short par five, I hit one of my best drives of the day to 200 yards from the pin. I hit a solid second shot, but it caught a mound on the left in front of the green and rolled back toward the fairway, leaving a 15 yard pitch over the mound to the pin. I hit behind the ball and never touched it, resulting in a lost stroke. I then I made a 20 yard pitch and left myself 15 feet for a par. Well you guessed it, three putts later I had a double bogey on a hole that I was 15 yard away from a chip in eagle.
I carried my disgust to the final par three and made a double bogey. On 17, I hit another nice drive. The flag was in the Sunday position for the Masters. I was in the fairway 160 yards away. I hit a crisp shot that landed on the green and then rolled off the back leaving me a tough chip to get back on the green. I make a decent chip and two putted for my bogey.
On a day that I didn't want to end, I stood on the tee box of the 18th hole with high expectations to end my round well and keep my score under 95. I made solid contact on my drive and hit it hard down the left side right into a tree which kicked the ball farther left and out of sight. Eddie and I managed to find my ball, but I had no shot. I pitched the ball back toward the tee box with my driver to get it under the tree branches. I got the ball back to the fairway. With my driver still in my hand, I hit it a third time. I left the ball 70 yards from the pin.
At this point I was thinking about an easy three quarter sand wedge and a one putt for a spectacular bogey. That was until I hit my sand wedge100 yards, which was 25 yards over the back of the green. Fortunately for me, there was a lot of room behind the 18th green. I pitched the ball back onto the green and two putted for my worst score of the day, a triple bogey.
In the big scheme of things if you are not playing for a green jacket, who cares what their score is when they play Augusta National. What matters is that Lin Rogers introduced me to Danny Yates and Bill Teberg and we had a fun day amongst the Augusta Pines. It was a spectacular experience. Thank you Danny for hosting and thank you Lin for arranging for this to happen. Bill, I will see you at Cherokee on the Sunday before Memorial Day.
As for me it's on to the next course. I will retire at the end of May and start the rest of my quest with Kinloch on June 12th. My goal is to play the remaining 99 courses by June 11, 2018.