THE first time I played Augusta National, it monstered me.
Fourth time around I had learnt from my mistakes and played a far more positive style, eliminating many errors much, I thought, like a poor man’s Adam Scott.
After the 12th, I woke up, realised they had all been in my dreams and decided I wasn’t going to get much sleep.
Welcome to my headspace hours before my date with the ghost of Bobby Jones.
The press ballot went my way early on Sunday, just as it did for my mate BJ. Instantly, we were like schoolgirls at a One Direction concert: giggling, sighing, full of unrealistic hopes.
We, the 24 souls of varying talent and passion who each drew the Willie Wonka ticket, were briefed about the day I’d considered a million times, but never realistically thought possible.
I’ve wanted to be a PGA pro for as long as I can remember. It was just a tragic lack of ability that cost me any chance. But here it is, in my disbelieving hands — the platinum ticket to golfing heaven.
On Monday we arrive at designated times to drive up Magnolia Lane. Our bags are whisked away by caddies in the famous white overalls, then we’re ushered up to the Champions’ Locker Room.
Dual champ Bernhard Langer’s belongings moved aside, I settle in. Or at least try to. It’s very hard when you’re sitting in chairs occupied only hours earlier by golf’s royalty. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed — and I’m nowhere near the first tee yet.
A pyramid of Titleist ProV practice range balls and a few eye-opening bunts on the putting green later, it’s game on.
Bloody hell. I’m on the first tee at Augusta National. It’s real.
I’m an aggressive, erratic nine-handicapper, with a natural slice born of swing flaws ingrained by years of under-achieving.
I’m working on a draw, but my justifiable fears they’ll become hooks convince me to play to my limitations on this of all days.
Blissfully, we’re playing off the members’ tees which give varying head-starts over the pros’ blocks about three miles back.
With sufficient butterflies I’m nearly levitating and with images of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player in the ceremonial start just four days earlier filling my head, the adrenalin takes over and I cream one down the left side.
It goes way further than I thought and shapes around the slight dogleg an absolute treat.
Wow! I’m away. And in great shape, even.
Maybe this won’t be as hard as I thought.
The walk down and up the first hole’s valley is steep; far more so than television conveys. I’ve walked it outside the ropes as a spectator many times now, but cresting that rise from the middle fills my head with the first of approximately 100,000 visions of what’s happened on this hallowed turf beforehand.
I have absolutely no control of these thoughts. Zero.
I’m watching replays of the greats playing shots from all over the fairway. I’m listening to the CBS commentary team telling me exactly where I can’t afford to hit my next shot. I’m being crushed by information from within. All this stuff that’s in my golf nerd brain is overflowing into my conscious thoughts.
How do you put aside a lifetime of expectation and let your game just flow like it’s the Sunday chook run at your local club?
The short answer is, you can’t. Or at least I can’t.
Over the back of the first green is dead, so naturally, even from just 108 yards (my caddie could only speak yards), I come up short.
This green slopes brutally to the right and away from my next chip, so naturally I finish short and left.
I’m not observing well. My expectations have already got the better of me. Bogey.
The second hole has a magnetic creek down the left which I’m determined to avoid. Consequently I block my tee shot right. You can see the pattern already.
I promised myself, and others, that I’d take on every stupidly aggressive shot, so when I hit a seven-iron at the tight right pin for my third and flush it, I’m thinking birdie — my only stated aim for the round is to notch one.
Three inches short, I’m in the Jason Day bunker. That can’t be hard. He stuck it in from here in 2013 in the final round to the same pin. Right?
Wrong. I’m only 5m from the pin, but the brilliant white crystal-like sand is hungry for my ball, apparently, as it gobbles up my fourth shot as well. My fifth was good, about four feet above the hole. Key word “above”. I breathed on this thing and it scooted past. Scooted. Double-bogey. Memo to self: leave ball below pin.
I haven’t the space to play out every hole here, but I have to tell you about the third. Like many on the front side, it’s been largely unknown to TV audiences until recently.
It’s a short par-four, almost drivable to Bubba’s ilk. We don’t get much of a head-start here and I get lucky when my well-struck drive down the left somehow skirts the sand.
I’ve got 88 yards to the pin which I’m told to avoid at ALL costs to one the most shallow placements on tour. My caddie gives me 92 yards to the right side of the green and I hit it perfectly.
Or so I thought.
“Get down or spin hard,” my caddie barks. “Ummm, I think you’ve hit it about 97 — you’re in trouble.”
What? That’s the best shot I’m going to hit all day, how can I be in trouble?
Well, at least I learnt to trust my caddie early. It scooted through about 25m down the back. Dead.
I play an ambitious flop shot. Perfectly. I thought.
It lands, rolls, rolls and rolls some more. I’m back over the cliff at the front of the green. Dead.
I play a really nice little bump shot up the hill and it JUST hangs on the back of the green. I can’t believe the pace of this sucker.
Anyway, I may never have hit a better putt than the next one that travelled about 8m to get from my starting point to the hole 4m away. Serious curl.
It took about five seconds to get there and I’d played five outstanding shots — by my mediocre standards — for another bogey! I might need to rethink this birdie plan!
I was similarly butchered by my approach to the fifth (another I thought more than reasonable), then soon racked up a hideous quadruple-bogey seven on the par-three sixth by trying to get cute to the back-right pin that asks you to land your ball like a butterfly with sore feet on a billiard table size area. Skills I simply don’t own. Conservatism and three-putt was a far better option in hindsight, but that’s not my motto.
I made a nice par up the seventh after carving my drive up the 17th fairway.
My first birdie putt comes on the eighth. Moments earlier I’d been pin high for two on the par five but 30m right and my bump to the green went within about 30cm of perfection, but instead of rolling right off the backboard to the pin, it spat mine left and into a position from which physics ruled me out from getting it remotely near the cup from the bottom deck of the green. Bogey.
I bomb a drive down nine, but again get greedy going for that tricky front left pin and the adjacent bunker is an automatic bogey. I’m a slow learner.
But the point is, I’d just had 49 shots and normally I’d be headless. As it was, I was serene — so enamored of my surrounds that it could have been a 79 and I wouldn’t have minded.
Conversely, BJ had just had a four-putt from that impossible position on the back right of the green. Until then he’d been one over — an extraordinary effort, I thought.
I would soon realise the course, unlike some you see set up for British or US Opens is eminently playable if you don’t put your ball in the wrong spots.
But again, slow learner, me.
To test BJ’s putt, I went up to the top of his cliff for a practice roll and had we not been in the home of manners, he might have wrapped his putter around my neck when mine dropped after about eight seconds on this extraordinarily difficult green.
So back to my slice/draw conundrum.
In “American-speak”, the 10th hole has an elevation drop the height of the Statue of Liberty. And it turns hard left at the steepest point. You need to draw the ball.
Bar the first, the course gives those afflicted with a right-handed slice precious little love, so it’s time to play it how it was intended. OK, man up.
Bang! A perfect draw and I’m down to within a seven-iron of the green. I watch BJ slightly roll his approach left and see the carnage that creates and consequently leak another lame approach right. Despite a reasonable par attempt, another bogey.
More importantly, I rush to the Adam Scott spot and attempt THAT putt. I recall he said it broke more than he thought, but even then I miss it about 4 balls low and left. How did he do that under such pressure?
After another bogey on the 11th green, my mind goes into overdrive in this prized real estate. I read the Faldo putt; I try the Larry Mize chip and realise how DESPERATELY stiff Greg Norman was. That is SOOO fast, it’s ridiculous. The history and lessons here are palpable. And next is the ultimate lecture theatre.
It’s only 150 yards to the 12th, but when you look up and see Rae’s Creek, the Hogan and Nelson bridges, azaleas, sand aplenty and the vision of Tom Weiskopf’s 13 among a dozen other wicked memories, it feels like about 2km.
I decide on a cut six-iron because I don’t think I can land and stick on the green going at that right pin. And I’m not playing safe. I’ve butchered enough holes now, what’s another?
Whack! That’s brilliant. All over it.
“Sit down,” my caddie pipes up again.
“You can’t be right here, man.”
WHAT? I know you can’t be short, long or left, but nobody told me that.
Then my mind’s librarian goes searching for someone right of this green and he’s right, I can’t find one.
So when it lands about 3m from the pin, but scurries right with my slice. I’m cooked. Again.
Impossible chip. I can’t get it up on the green for fear of it running into the creek. My third almost does, anyhow. Two putts later, I realise the answer to everyone’s first question is going to be “double-bogey”.
The margin for error is SOOOO tiny here it’s incredible. That was going to be that elusive birdie when I hit it. D’oh!
Oh well, when I bludgeon another nice draw around the corner on the 13th, surely this is my time.
Again, no conservatism. I pay respect to Phil Mickelson’s miracle six-iron and reach for my 5-wood from a spot not far removed. I’ve got 213 yards, so that’s more than enough stick, but I’ll hit it to be sure.
About 40 seconds later I’ve got 156 yards for my third after nearly missing the ball because my head is so far in dreamland it’s incapable of rational golf thought.
My third goes in Rae’s Creek, my fifth over the back. BANG! Triple bogey.
What the hell just happened?
That was my chance, surely. Frittered away in history and delusions of golfing grandeur.
Oh well. Take it on. Keep pushing. I need something to hang my hat on and I’m running out of time.
Then, out of nowhere, it happens. It’s as if the golfing gods have had enough giggling at my scrambled brain and swing.
A crushed drive down 14th, a quick promise to my caddie that I can actually play “a little bit” and I’ve got a seven-iron in my hand with the words “Prove it” ringing in my ears.
The ball flew towards the ledge in the centre of the green and I knew if it didn’t cut I’d have the impossible putt from the back left. Magically, it cut about 4m and began rolling down the hill. TO THE PIN.
“Get in,” my caddie yelled, excitedly for the first time.
It just ran out of legs before doing so, but my 10cm tap-in birdie was all my dreams realised.
Suddenly freed from expectation, I crack one down the 15th — the downhill slope of which is extraordinarily different on TV from reality.
From 15m behind me, BJ hammers a superb 3-wood and the ball soars against the backdrop of those pines and he … MAKES IT! He’s on. Eagle putt coming.
I know I haven’t got the lob wedge shot in my bag even if lay up, so what the hell? Let’s go.
I didn’t pack my 3-iron, so it’s 4-iron “with some attitude” is my caddie’s instruction from 203 yards.
Bang! I could not hit it better. It lands 2m over the water, 1m short of the green and kicks up. WOW!
I’d actually putted really well, despite my scores, so I got the head wobbles and told my caddie I’d make the putt, threatening nudity if it dropped.
Naturally he had mixed emotions about that, but for 98 per cent of my putt, I could feel my belt loosening. From about 10m, it sat 1.5cm behind the cup for what would have been my last shot in golf. I would not have played on.
But alas, I had to “settle” for back-to-back birdies — and this sudden buzz that I belonged. What a muppet!
BJ hit his tee shot to the famous par-3 16th on to that back right ridge, then watched in dismay as it trickled 10cm into the rough before it could take that famous left turn.
Mine was solid into the middle of the green and my bid for three-in-a-row burned the cup. A million pictures, a quick survey of Tiger’s magical shot and I’m like Dracula with the keys to the blood bank.
I hit my best drive of the year up the 17th (this draw caper is easy!) and was eternally grateful that Ike’s Tree was no longer there because there was NO way it would have carried it. How the big boys play from 50m further back and flew it is totally beyond me.
A two-putt par from the front of the green keeps my run alive and it’s on to the funnel off the 18th tee that now I’m hitting so well should be a breeze.
What an idiot.
I blaze it right and it takes two more for me to see the grass again.
This hole is a total mind warper. All I can see are past greats playing magical shots. Lyle, Arnie, Seve, Tiger, Jack. I can see them all. Are you kidding me? I don’t belong here.
Still, I’ve seen this shot 300 times. I’ve got 56 yards and the most famous backboard in golf. I can do this.
I nipped it perfectly, flew it about 62 and sure enough, back it comes to a point where my bogey putt across that Scott plateau is about half of his famous roll.
It drops and I’m delirious. Delirious.
It wasn’t about the score. It was just that I’d played a handful of shots among my heroes. Or at least in their footsteps.
My mind stopped racing about an hour later. And it was only then that I added it all up — 42 on the back nine for a 91.
It wouldn’t win me the Saturday comp, but those four hours were the greatest prize my golfing abilities will ever yield.
A walk among the golfing gods.
Thanks, Mr Jones.