Augusta National: An experience like no other
Finally it’s here. The time of year when we long for the colors of azaleas, crisp mornings, swaggering pines, blooming dogwoods, green jackets and golf shots struck on the anvil of greatness.
The Masters, or what has been lost to time as Bobby Jones’ invitational, has presented itself to us since 1934 when Horton Smith beat Craig Wood by a single stroke. Horton’s pay for his 284 total was a mere $1,500 — less than 1 percent of the 2012 winner’s purse, $1.44 million to Bubba Watson.
In 1935, the first great shot came from Gene Sarazen when he struck the perfect 4 wood on the 15th hole of the final round, and his Wilson Hol-Hi ball fell for the first double-eagle at The Masters.
It also was the last to be made at the 15th.
That one shot propelled him into a playoff with Craig Wood, and for Craig the outcome was the same as 1934. He eventually donned the green jacket in 1941, besting Byron Nelson by two.
The next year, a great battle ensued between Nelson and Ben Hogan. It ended in an 18-hole playoff that displayed than phenomenal play with “Lord Byron” on top by a single stroke.
In 2003, another great event took place at Augusta National. It is less well known; in fact, not known at all by any but my friends and family. I stepped to the first tee of Augusta National with my dear friend, PGA pro Kelly Childs, thanks to his friend Peter Menk who was there as required by club policy to look upon our adventure.
And quite the adventure it was.
I experienced the drive down Magnolia Lane. Statuesque 150-year-old magnolias create a canopy for visitors, an indelible memory that includes a glass of iced sweet tea adorned with a mint leaf.
I experienced the locker room, the Champion’s Locker Room, the Crow’s Nest, the clubhouse and Cliff Roberts’ eyes watching every move I made in the dining room.
I sat at Dwight Eisenhower’s desk. I experienced the driving range, the par-three course better known as the “Little Course” and when we walked to the first tee of the “Big Course,” I recall how different and strange my feet felt, as if I was walking on a freshly polished floor trying not to leave a scuff mark.
I began running sports reels of times gone by when I sat on the floor of our living room with my father sitting in his recliner. We gazed at our black-and-white television, cheering the great shots and gasping at Rae’s Creek’s ferocious appetite for golf balls. We speak to each other on the phone at Masters time discussing the play, something I look forward to every year.
I’ve never played a golf course that moves as gracefully as Augusta National. It is a slow dance of southern beauty guarded by majestic pine centurions. It’s a beautiful walk through a Georgia landscape interrupted by the frequent golf shot as if each shot was the very permission slip that allows you to immerse deeper into golf’s greatest theater. Each hole brings a sense of a perfect marriage of terra firma and design.
As I approached Amen Corner, my caddie warned me about the back-left pin placement on the 11th, the Sunday pin. I nudged him, “Do I look like a member to you? Today we go at flags.”
He apologized, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
An approach to a foot left my entrance to the scariest walk in golf at 1-under par. As I left the green, I stood where Larry Mize hit his famous pitch to snatch a green jacket from Greg Norman in 1987. One word describes that shot: “Inconceivable.”
No hole in golf stands at the ready to murder confidence as does the par-3 12th when the wind plays through. It whips around the pines like a school of distressed anchovies with a single purpose — to get the player to write five or worse on the card.
Tom Weiskopf knows.
In 1980, he finished the 12th in 13 strokes. Someone in the gallery had a synapse misfire and asked his wife if he was using new balls. We have all sensed the angst of any player who is charging or leading from the time they address the ball to the time it stops … or sinks.
Our memories of The Masters are there. Who doesn’t remember Fred Couples’ ball that mysteriously stopped on the embankment that led to par and his only green jacket in 1992? How about six-time champion Jack Nicklaus’ missed putt with him blaming a spike mark in 1986 that ignited the greatest Masters memory of all?
There might be no hole more enjoyable on which to hit a tee shot than the 13th. I understand this is arguable, but having played a few great golf courses, I can say my assessment accounts for something.
It is risk-reward at its finest — until the second shot. I hit a quick hook off the tee thinking I was of superhuman strength and could gallop my ball down the left side to the hanging lie Nick Faldo experienced in 1989, zipping a 2-iron into the green assuring birdie. One of the centurions acted like Derek Jeter, grabbed the ball mid-flight and threw it victoriously into Rae’s Creek.
It felt strangely appropriate.
I remembered Chip Beck laying up on the 15th in 1993, surrendering the event to Bernhard Langer. I thought about Gene Sarazen’s 4 wood. My 3 iron from behind the pines found the back right corner of the green in two. But the pin placement was front left. The read my caddie gave me was not what I saw. I three-putted, and again it felt appropriate.
On the 16th, I remembered Jack’s unbelievable 6-iron to two feet in 1986, which seemingly was all he ever did on that hole. I tipped my hat to the Eisenhower tree on the 17th and wondered how Ike must have felt when he asked Cliff Roberts at a Governors Meeting to cut the “(expletive) thing” down. Cliff in his stoic manner told the good general to take care of the nation and he would take care of the National.
The demand never came up again.
I birdied the 17th, and although I didn’t have Verne Lundquist giving it a “Yes sir!” as he did when Jack finally took the lead in 1986, I heard him yell it in my head and this time it was for me.
I was a kid again, back in Ohio playing the three-hole course on Orchard Avenue, pretending I was in The Masters.
The 18th yielded my final birdie to finish at 1-under for the day. I thought of Sandy Lyle, Ben Crenshaw, Arnold Palmer tossing his hat, Billy Casper, Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret, Jack, Greg Norman, Tiger Woods.
I felt exalted and humbled. I knelt and kissed the green for some strange reason — as if it would make the grand arena remember me. Me, the guy who through friendship and a man who took the role as my dad and put a club in my hand at age 2 started the entire process of getting me there.
On March 30th, I learned that Mr. Peter Menk had passed away.
My dear friend Kelly Childs informed me via email. I was, and still am, saddened by the news.
Mr. Menk was the gentlemen’s gentleman. It was because of him that I was extended the invitation to play there. I want to say thank you again to Mr. Menk because my letter to him in 2003 just seems so commonplace. He gave me a memory of a lifetime. I gave him a letter.
Thank goodness good men do not owe a balance.
EDITOR’S NOTE — PGA of America pro Karl Kimball is the director of golf at Hillandale Golf Course. He was the North Florida Section PGA Champion and Player of the Year in 1984 and is a past member of the PGA Tour and the Hogan and Nike tours. He has won four Carolinas Section PGA major championships including two North Carolina Open titles. He won one of four PGA of America Regional Championships in 1997 at the Homestead in Virginia.