ONE HUNDRED AND thirty-four.
Let’s get that out of the way first. That’s the second question everyone wants to know when you tell them you played Augusta National.
The first is, “How the heck did you get to do that?” To answer the first question: the club allows media members who cover the tournament to enter a lottery, and each year about 20 are picked to play golf’s most famous course the Monday after the Masters.
I entered. I was selected. And I shot a 134.
Let’s put that in some perspective: This year’s champion, Bubba Watson, needed 137 shots to complete his first TWO rounds.
Now for some context: I’m a fairly terrible golfer on any course. The last time I swung a club before Monday’s round was at last summer’s South Carolina Poultry Festival in Batesburg, and I only did that for the food and the conversation. The round before that was another year prior at my brother-in-law’s annual Big Weekend O’ Fun, a tradition unlike any other in its own right, but survival is more important than stroke play in those rounds.
So, I’m a bad golfer. In most of my previous years covering the Masters, I haven’t entered the lottery because of that fact. Who wants to embarrass themselves at Augusta National? Clearly, I’ve now reached an age where my embarrassment threshold is way too high. (It happens to all parents as I recall from my youth, and my two boys will soon come to realize that to their own horror.)
The club makes a real effort to make media members who win the lottery feel at home. We drove down Magnolia Lane and changed in the champion’s locker room. (They ask that you respect the privacy of the inside of their premises, so I’ll just say it’s just as you probably have imagined it.) The staff was incredibly welcoming, even to guys like me who they could tell from the jump had no business on their course.
They even give you caddies, complete with the white coveralls and green hats. Vic was my caddie, and I owe him a great deal of gratitude for his patience, and an apology for all the extra yardage I forced him to walk. Media members, and all of Monday’s guests, play from the member’s tees, which makes the course an entirely different animal than the pros play.
The most remarkable thing about Augusta National is that it can, on one end, be so forgiving of guys like me who scuffle, and, on the other end, so challenging for the best players in the world. You have to work hard to lose a golf ball at Augusta National. The only two I didn’t return with found the bottom of a pond. Even bad balls usually end up in a spot you can find them and hit them. The result of this is I was having a very enjoyable round through 12 holes despite a score that already was nearing triple digits.
Then came No. 13, the 510-yard, par-5. My tee shot had plenty of “forwards” but not nearly enough “towards” as they say in my neck of the woods. I ended up so far right I was almost in the concession building. If you’ve ever eaten a sandwich over there, you might have been sitting where my ball stopped.
This is the conversation that followed that shot:
Vic: “Let’s just take a pitching wedge and punch it back out in the fairway (pointing backward).”
Me: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how stupid would it be to try to hit it up there (through a gap in the pines 50 yards ahead)?”
Vic: “About a seven.”
Me: “(Something regrettable.)”
My next three shots hit pine trees, and I don’t mean glanced off limbs, I mean, I hit the barrel of the bat all three times. The ball went the wrong direction at least 20 yards each time.
It turns out Vic was wrong. It wasn’t a seven on the Stupidity Scale. It was a 15. That’s what I carded on that hole. When Bubba Watson played the 13th on Sunday, he hit a 336-yard drive down the left side. It took me 11 shots to advance the ball that far on Monday. I’m sure my playing partners wished that concession building had still been open because they had plenty of time to get lunch.
The round wasn’t a total disaster. I made a professional-looking par on the 450-yard, par-4 seventh hole (It probably played closer to 375 from the member’s tees), blasting out of the front right bunker and hitting a 30-foot putt thanks to Vic’s expert reading of the green. I made a 5 on the famous par-3 12th in the middle of Amen Corner, and I cleared the water on my tee shot, much to my relief.
All in all, I had a fantastic time. Like in most of life, low expectations are the key to happiness in golf.
Media members who win the lottery aren’t eligible to enter for seven years, so that might be the only time I play Augusta National. The good news is, you hit the ball 134 times, you can tell everyone you’ve played it twice.