20-Years Reporting the Masters Is Not Enough

Call me jaded, as in Masters green.

Seriously, I can’t help myself. I love the game’s annual magical mystery tour in Augusta, Ga., that much. I guess you might say that’s what happens after being fortunate enough to attend and report on 20 Masters from 1989 to 2009.

The truth is, I was hooked after my very first experience in ’89, when I covered the tournament for the Arizona Republic. In fact, I was blown away the moment I entered Gate 4 off Washington Road, the site of the old “Press’’ parking lot. Back then at the Masters they didn’t refer to reporters as “media’’; that came later.

It was always “members of the press,’’ like we were a pack of barking dogs. Just like the fans were and still are known as “patrons’’ and the players “contestants’’ or “invitees.’’ It’s old school and quite Southern.

As a sports journalist and part-time fan, I have attended and reported on some mighty big sporting events during my career – the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the World Series, Wimbledon, the Final Four, the NBA Finals, the Rose Bowl, as well as golf’s other three major championships – the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship – and the Ryder Cup. In fact, I’ve covered 46 majors and four Ryder Cups.

Nothing, nada, zilch, zero comes close to the magnitude and the majesty –and just a darn good time — as the Masters. If they all knew just how good it really is, golf purists would sell their souls for one of those weekly “patron badges’’ that cost $200. I still remember plunking down a hundred bucks for the very first one I purchased in 2000, as “the press’’ was allowed to buy a badge each year for their spouse.

Walking through the gates of Augusta National for the very first time — with all the flags from all the different countries represented in the Masters field flying overhead — was so very cool. But taking those first steps onto the course that Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie carved out of the legendary Fruitlands Nursery was like stumbling upon the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz.’’ (And to think, because of a lottery that was held each year for the golf writers, I was lucky enough to get to play Augusta National twice, which was nice because the first time I didn’t sleep a wink in anticipation of my tee time!)

Guaranteed, you’ve never seen anything quite like Augusta National. The vegetation is as if they mixed the pristine fairways and greens of Pine Valley into the gorgeousness of Golden Gate Park. And those spectacular, sweeping, extremely dramatic elevations just blow you away. Visually, Augusta National is overwhelming, especially when you consider the course drops 17 stories from the highest point (the first green) to the lowest (12th green). By comparison, Niagra Falls drops 173 feet. Or those monstrous greens, like the 16th that drops 15 feet from the bunker side to water side.

It is truly a step back in time, as the course looks much the same as when it first opened in 1934 with Horton Smith as the winner even though ol’ Horton didn’t get the green jacket, a tradition that began with Sam Snead in 1949. Even the prices — like beer for $2 and $3 (“regular’’ or “premium”) and those overrated pimento sandwiches for $1.50 – remain entrenched in the lore along with the ice cream sandwiches for a buck.

So are those ubiquitous Georgia pines that frame the fairways and greens, as well as those beautiful blooming magnolias. And though there are only a handful of stately oaks on the property, you never will forget the 100-year-old-plus giant oak that fans out regally on the clubhouse lawn thanks to a series of cables that holds its ancient arms together like a patient in critical care. The old oak tree is where “the press’’ has gathered since early times.

On the other side of the clubhouse, which actually is the front entrance, is where the photo opportunity lies. Cameras are allowed as group after group of ladies and gentlemen wait in line to get a photo with those famous yellow mums that form the body of the Masters logo – a small garden in the shape of the United States with a pin protruding proudly out of the lower right-hand corner where Augusta is located.

Oh, is that the one-and-only Magnolia Lane right over your shoulder? Yep, if you turn around while you’re waiting in line for your photo, there lies the tree-topped canopy over the road that everybody who’s anybody in the game has driven down at least once in their lifetime. Of course, that includes members (or “green jackets,’’ as they are dubbed by “the press’’).

Speaking of must-see (immediately!) Masters landmarks, there’s the game’s holy grail also known as “Amen Corner,’’ which includes the terrific trio of holes numbered 11 through 13. The second shot on the par-4 11th is perhaps the scariest on the course, considering it’s always struck from a downhill lie with water left, bunkers right and the green sloping towards Rae’s Creek. The 12th is, hands down, the most difficult tee shot of four very demanding par 3s, especially with the wind swirling above the trees. The 13th is the easiest par 5 on the course IF you can work the ball around the corner of a seriously tilted fairway that is guarded by Rae’s Creek on the left and a small pine forest to the right.

Other well-known features of “the National,’’ as the members like to refer to it, include the fairy tale-like Hogan Bridge, which arches over Rae’s Creek to the 12th green; the Sarazen Bridge that fords the pond to the 15th green; and the Eisenhower Tree that guards the 17th fairway. Each has a great story behind it, but it’s hard to beat Sarazen’s “shot heard ’round the world’’ in 1935, when “The Squire’’ holed a 4-wood from 235 yards for a double-eagle 2 at the par-5 15th. Sarazen trailed Craig Wood by three shots at the time, made them all up in one swing, and then beat Wood the next day in an 18-hole playoff.

During my 20 years at the Masters, my personal tournament highlights included watching Tiger Woods win by 12 in 1997, in what was truly a turning point in the history of the tournament and eventually led to “Tiger –proofing’’ the golf course; observed two of Phil Mickelson’s three wins (2004, 2006) as a fan and a reporter for the East Valley Tribune; scratched my head in disbelief when Nick Faldo went back-to-back in 1989-90 as both Scott Hoch and Raymond Floyd choked; and the emotional week when “Gentle Ben’’ Crenshaw came from nowhere to claim his second green jacket shortly after burying his life-time mentor, Harvey Penick.

There were so many other memorable moments, like renting homes from the locals through the Masters Housing Bureau. That was an amazing experience, considering we rented our first house for $1,000 for the week and our last house for $3,600 for the week – the first house being way better than the last. (Unless you don’t mind cock roaches.)

Along the way we stayed in Augusta, North Augusta (yes, it’s a suburb), Martinez (pronounced Martin-ez) and Aiken, S.C., which is on the other side of the Savannah River from Old Town Augusta. Believe it or not, about 500,000 people live in the metropolitan area, which is quite a few for what one local once told me: “Is a town that comes alive for one week and is ‘dead’ for the other 51.’’

But for that one week, Augusta (population: 200,000) will give you a year’s-full. We used to go to a blues-themed supper club in the Old Downtown area (Broad Street) called “Word of Mouth,’’ which was a circa-1900s building that once housed James Brown’s notorious nightclub. Yeah, the same red-brick wall that the “Godfather of Soul’’ once drove his car through in a drunken stupor still remains. So does the 165-year-old Partridge Inn off Walton Way, where President Warren G. Harding, America’s first golfing president, hosted his election gala. And speaking of Walton Way, which borders the western side of Augusta National, you had to drive down this storied street at least once every day just to check out the awesome Antebellum mansions where all the corporate “players’’ hosted their weekly Masters parties.

Speaking of shindigs, the Irish Tourism Bureau still throws a bash for the golf writers in one of those throwback homes of yesteryear on Thursday nights of tournament week followed by the PGA of America’s barbecue on the river on Fridays and CBS’ clambake on Saturday nights.

Parties by hosts like TaylorMade, Nike and Golf Digest also are a major part of Masters week, although I always had more fun checking out the cuisine and vino at places like TBonz, a Washington Road roadhouse where the players and caddies liked to hang (well, a few players like Jack Nicklaus and Fuzzy Zoeller); the French Bistro, a bizarre New Orleans-style seafood restaurant that was always packed tighter than crawdads; the ageless Surrey Bar, made famous by the old CBS posse of Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi and the late Bob Drum; Luigi’s Italian Restaurant, a mainstay in Old Downtown known for its “Greek chicken’’; the namesake Green Jacket Restaurant that went belly up and became a Bible store; and Coconuts, a popular nightclub (not the strip version) where I once observed a drunken female patron taking it all off — for free!

There were other things about Augusta and the Masters that remain timeless and entrenched like a life-long tradition in my mind. The heavy pollen that would turn virtually everybody’s rental cars lime green throughout the week; the Richmond “Boss Hoss’’ County sheriff’s deputies who were always doing their best to out-glare the Pinkertons through their mirrored-covered sunglasses; everybody being referred to as “Mr.’’ or “Mrs.’’; and my first encounter with Krispy Kreme donuts that were later made famous by Phil the Thrill (Or have you forgotten the green-jacket photo at the Krispy Kreme drive-thru from last year?)

And then there was my most infamous moment ever at the Masters, which came in 2009, alas my last year before they banned Internet writers and thus shut out the last of the Arizona “press.’’ As I was leaving the course from Wednesday’s practice round, I ducked behind the men’s restrooms near one of the exits on the course to do a radio interview that I already was late for and desperate to get done. And, yes, I knew the rule of “No Cell Phones’’ but, oh well, play at the Par 3 Contest already had ended hours ago and it was nearly 7 o’clock at night with not an “invitee’’ in sight.

“Sir, is that a cell phone you’re using?’’ a Pinkerton asked me from seemingly around the corner. Shocked, I dropped the interview with XTRA Sports 910 in mid-conversation and tried to hide the phone. But it was too late.

Two hours later, I was cleared of any wrongdoing and promised I’d never, ever talk on my cell inside golf’s holy grounds again. Adding to the chagrin that week, the ending was one of the biggest duds of my two decades at the Masters, with Angel Cabrera beating Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry in a playoff.

Oh, well, spring has sprung again, and golf’s annual rite is upon us. Which brings me to what now has become ‘’my major misery’’ for a second straight year.

Damn, I miss the Masters.

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