Date: April 08, 2014
Author: Martin Blake /

What it’s like to play Augusta National

I went to Augusta three times and put myself into the media ballot to play. I was told you had a one in 25 chance, roughly, but three times, I went home disappointed. Then on the fourth attempt, in 2012, my name came out. I was out on the golf course, doing my job, when they pinned the names up on the board in the press room, a dozen or so lucky journos in what Lee Westwood once called &aposDisneyland for adults&apos. A colleague came bolting up to me when I arrived back, and to be truthful, I didn&apost believe him; didn&apost want to be caught out in a wind-up. I needed to see the official invitation, on the Augusta National Golf Club letterhead, to be certain. But it was true, my tee time was Monday morning, with the pins in the same positions as they would be for the close of the tournament on Sunday. This was the Saturday of the Masters, and there was a small issue. I had not taken my clubs to the United States. Previous times, in the spirit of Murphy&aposs Law, I had carted them across the world with the sliver of hope that I would need them. This time, I&aposd gone without, and I was working 12-14 hour days at the course for my employer, the Fairfax newspapers. I could hardly drop my work and start hunting for a new set. A few phone calls were made to local clubs. Of course they either did not hire, or were overrun by the tens of thousands of golf nuts in town for the week. Finally, I found a guy in a local municipal course who said he would loan me his clubs. Step one was complete. Then, a little celebration. In 2012 I stayed in a house right by Augusta National which was populated for the week by 10 Australians who had rented it. That&aposs how it works at Augusta; the locals move out and pick up the exorbitant rents they can charge. Peter O&aposMalley, the longtime pro, was in the house, and his brother-in-law, too. Dale Lynch, the esteemed coach, was there, too, and Tony Bouffler, manager to the likes of John Senden, Rob Allenby and Karrie Webb. The lads had adjourned to a steak house in Washington Road, where all the action is in Augusta, and I joined them around 10pm when I finished work at the course. All of them knew that I was hanging out for the ballot but none knew that I was in. I walked into that restaurant like a conquering emperor, with the invitation above my head. I stood up on a chair at the table, and threw my hands up in the air but I could only see concerned looks on their faces. Stepping down, they pointed above me. I had been within a few centimetres of wiping myself out on a ceiling fan that was running at full tilt, and missing out on one of the greatest days of my life. A friend and colleague, Jim Tucker from Brisbane&aposs Courier-Mail, had also been drawn out of the ballot, making it a big Aussie celebration. We drove down Magnolia Lane slowly, taking it all in, probably wandering all over the road. At reception, we were taken to the pristine driving range, and met our caddies, locals who work at Augusta National. Then it was off to the champions&apos locker room to change, where we borrowed Fuzzy Zoeller&aposs locker for the day. My caddie&aposs name was Norman, and he was a southerner of senior age. He had carried bags at Augusta National for 40 years or so; knew every square centimetre of the fabled course. He also spoke with a southern drawl that sounded like it was coming through minestrone. I could barely understand Norman beyond “take four-iron&apos&apos. Nor he could he comprehend me. Our foursome included a radio guy from England, and another radio host, Bob Casper, who happened to be the son of Billy Casper, a Masters champion in 1970. Bob was a fine player himself, with a handicap of one. He&aposd also played the course a few times with his father and he would shoot low-70s on the day. All four of us banged it down the centre fairway off the first, having learned that we were playing off the members&apos tees. This was significant, for Augusta National would play much tougher for the professionals, up to 50 metres back on some holes. For me, driver and nine iron to the green at the first and two putts gave me a par and I was in heaven. Augusta National is playable. It&aposs not a penal golf course with knee deep rough. The fairways are generous in the Alister Mackenzie way, and the trouble is around the greens. But it is not an easy course to play. I heard Adam Scott say once that for the average amateur, you could add 15 shots to his score playing Augusta. That&aposs because of the angles, and this is the subtlety of the design. Good players hit to a certain side of the fairway so that they can attack a certain part of the green, the end result being an uphill or flat putt, if it&aposs done correctly. Geoff Ogilvy once told me that you need to think about it like you are playing it backward from green to tee; work out where you need to putt from and go from there. But bad players — I&aposm off 12 — find themselves “out of position&apos&apos at a course like this and end up with wicked downhill, sidehill putts that are fun if you are not playing for your living but a nightmare at the same time. Augusta&aposs greens are crazy quick, not necessarily any faster than, say, a Melbourne sandbelt course at tournament time but quite hilly. And the stimpmeter reading might be 12 or 13 on a flat part of the greens but it is as sure as hell a lot faster when you are going straight downhill, say, on the ninth green at Augusta, which Craig Parry called “like putting down the bonnet of a VW beetle&apos&apos. It is a magnificent place, a superb golf course in itself with the mystique and history of the tournament all rolled in. I love the par-four ninth, where the fans watch players putt at 90 degrees to the hole in the practice rounds, and the par-four 10th, where Adam Scott won his playoff last year. I love the 12th and the 13th, too. I love most of it. I came to grief in the pine trees on the short third after short-siding myself and making bogey on the second. Then at the par-three fourth, another high point. My five iron (remember we were off the front tees) hit the green and I made another par. Soon, another faux disaster with a four-putt on the fifth from long range. Three metres away from the hole after one putt, Norman advised me to give it a rap: “You&aposre into the grain.&apos&apos I smote it four metres past the cup, which is easy to do at Augusta. We sauntered around the golf course, taking photos, which is quite something since you cannot do that during the tournament. The golf was largely incidental, to be truthful, although we all wanted a decent score to tell our mates about. The view as you walk down the par-four 11th hole, right across Amen Corner, is probably the single-best look in golf, and it&aposs amazing how much better it looks from out on the fairway. You can see the 11th green, where Mize&aposs chip-in destroyed Greg Norman, and the 12th green from the most famous par-three on the planet is virtually straight behind. Plus the prettiest and probably the best par-five in the world, the 13th, off a little to the right. Welcome to Amen Corner. We stopped and sat on Hogan bridge, and I should have been calm. I was not. My head was spinning. My mid-iron shot off the 12th tee flared right and into Rae&aposs Creek, with the turtles. If I could have a single shot back for the day, that was it. Double bogey. &apos&aposWhere&aposs zat bin?&apos&apos mused Norman as I hit a better drive at the 13th, the sublime par-five. Then at the 16th, the par-three with the pond to the left, I made a miraculous par from the pine straw right of the green, finishing with a 10-metre curling putt into the hole. Just for posterity, we took golf balls down to the back of the green, dropped them down and tried to mimic Tiger Woods&apos monumental chip-in from 2005. This is the majesty of Augusta; what makes is truly special. Nearly every corner has a reference point where something happened, whether it is the bank that caught Fred Couples&apos ball in 1992 or a fountain or a bridge or the place where Gene Sarazen hit &apos&aposthe shot that rang around the world&apos&apos. Another three putts on the 18th gave me a 98, which I was happy with. I wrote a piece for Fairfax and got more feedback from that than any article I&aposd ever penned. People emailed and asked me what it was like. The thing is, you might like to play Augusta, but you can&apost just rock up and do it, unless you&aposre friends with Bill Gates, or something. I can&apost go in the ballot for seven years now, under Augusta&aposs rules for the media. I couldn&apost care less. Put that one down as a red letter day.