March 31, 2016
A Special Sunday: Making it to My First Masters
By Kevin Merfeld
The best email I’ve ever received arrived when I turned on my phone while taxiing on the tarmac of Atlanta International Airport.
have tx for you Sunday
It was my best friend’s 30th birthday, and we had just landed on the Thursday of the 2015 Masters. My buddy had a badge lined up for Sunday, and we were optimistic that I could find one, too.
But we took off that Thursday morning from San Francisco unsure where it would come from. I had started this process the previous October, steering every golf-related conversation toward my quest to attend the Masters.
Mentioning the Masters to someone who has been before is the ultimate icebreaker. Without fail, I was showered with unconditional warmth, and welcomed into an inner-circle of golf appreciation.
Everyone was eager to share how the Masters was Disneyland for adults, how TV never does the mountainous layout justice, how the prices at the tournament are seemingly frozen in the Jack Nicklaus era.
But every story finished with a you-had-to-be-there vibe. I was always assured that words could not describe the beauty of the place, or the cheerful Southern hospitality of the staff, or the unique atmosphere and sophistication of the galleries who were genuinely thrilled to be in attendance.
I wouldn’t truly be able to understand the Masters until I had completed the transformation from fan to patron, and sat in a little green folding chair, sipped a $4 beer in a souvenir cup, and felt the charge in the air
when a hand-operated scoreboard updated with a birdie from a charging challenger on the back nine.
Completing golf’s Rite of Passage didn’t include fending for myself in the wilderness, hunting lions or land jumping (look that one up), but the path to enlightenment seemed just as daunting at times. Landing what is notoriously known as the toughest ticket in sports simply took an army of 25 years worth of golf contacts, a 2,500-mile leap of faith, and 50 maybes that ultimately turned into one yes.
So if the opportunity ever arises to attend the Masters, don’t think—just say yes.
Because whenever a conversation turns toward the Masters, I smile faster than you can say “Pimento cheese” and relive these memories:
Amen Corner is a Spiritual Experience
When I reached the middle of the cresting 11th fairway at Augusta National and laid eyes on the lakeside green for the first time, my mouth fell open like the broken door of a mailbox. I was physically stunned by the unexpected beauty in front of me. My stomach sank, and my voice vanished. A kaleidoscope of color radiated out: a glorious array of pinks and purples and yellows and greens and whites.
It was my Welcome to the Masters moment.
We’ve all seen the setting on TV: the 11th green stacked in front of Hogan Bridge, Rae’s Creek, the 12th green and 13th tee, with those amazing azaleas framing the hushed nook of Amen Corner.
But in person, the colors popped so vibrantly, almost psychedelically. I never could have dreamt that a landlocked golf course bordered by strip malls could produce a setting that stirs the soul as strongly as the dramatic coastlines of Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and Pacific Dunes, but it absolutely does.
We began our Sunday wanting to walk all 18 holes well before the leaders teed off, to get a true feel for the course. I had no idea when I would be back, and I loved the fantasy of playing the course in my head.
But Amen Corner stopped us in our tracks. We spent the next two hours in the grand, err, observation stands behind the 12th tee, drinking in the intoxicating sanctuary while watching shots bail understandably right of the lake on No. 11, battle the swirling winds at the impossible No. 12, and bend around the banking No. 13.
I’ll admit I arrived at Augusta questioning whether or not the swirling winds were a broadcasting euphemism for shots that airmailed the deceptive diagonal green, or splashed down in Rae’s Creek. But I quickly became a believer as we sat in the observation stands and saw the spooky winds toy with player after player.
On cue, the flags at Nos. 11 and 12 whipped into a flapping frenzy and pointed directly at each other, like two siblings assigning blame in front of a questioning parent. Meanwhile, each pro stood puzzled on the 12th tee, needing to hit his most precise shot of the entire round.
That Sunday pin tucked on the right edge of the green practically floats over Rae’s Creek, with water surrounding it short, right and long. Even a so-called safe tee shot, which meant sticking the landing between bunkers short and long inside a patch of green maybe 15 paces deep and some 30 feet left of the hole, felt like a daring, heart-in-your-throat moment.
But then again, I don’t see how you can ever feel safe when you play Augusta.
The Course Looks Impossible to Play
Don’t get me wrong—Augusta National is the No. 1 course on my bucket list.
But the more I walked around it and saw tee shots squeeze through bowling lane chutes to landing areas pinched in like corsets, 180 feet of monstrous elevation changes that chugged blindly uphill and plunged downhill, crater-like bunkers on every hole but one, bubbling greens as receptive as the roof of a VW bug and putts that always had an extra 5 feet of trickle, the more thankful I grew that I was watching instead of playing.
Augusta doesn’t have an official rating, but Golf Digest estimated that it would clock in around 78.1 from the tournament tees. It gave me a criminal course handicap of 2, and predicted my average score from the 7,435-yard setup would be an 83.
Deal. I’ll take that score right now and drink mint juleps in the clubhouse all afternoon. Breaking 100 might be a competitive over/under. Anything less than 36 putts would be a lights-out lag performance, aided undoubtedly by holing a few 20-foot comebackers. Tiger Woods famously prepared for the speed of Augusta by practicing on the floor of Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, but those putts didn’t snap off and break into the third row.
Putting off the green would be a legitimate concern every time I addressed the ball. So would hitting a tree 50 yards off the tee. I’m not sure I could hit the 18th fairway with a 7-iron, let alone while attempting to belt a driver on the uphill, 465-yard (!) finishing hole.
The 6,365-yard member tees might be a fairer fight, but even the holes the pros sometimes take advantage of were wild in person. The shot-shape for your drive on the par-5 No. 13 whips around like a 3-point line—and the landing area seemingly bottlenecks like a corner 3.
If you don’t find the right 15 yards of fairway on the par-5 No. 15, you are stuck attempting to hold a hot hook around an encroaching grove of trees to a green perched above two lakes.
And those are supposed to be the easy holes—the ones I’ve always chalked up as automatic birdies from my couch or with a PS3 controller in my hands.
Pine Valley? Carnoustie? PGA West? TPC Sawgrass? Spyglass Hill? Olympic Club? Augusta is the toughest course I’ve ever seen. To play Augusta like Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth have is a level of expertise that frankly is unfathomable.
The Traditions Really Are Unlike Any Other
Don’t eat the apple. Don’t bring your cell phone.
Play by their rules, and this fantasy world is yours.
Augusta feels like golf’s Garden of Eden. You trade in your cell phone for the chance to travel back in time to a place that can’t possibly be real.
What began as Fruitland Nurseries now sprouts into a utopic Secret Garden, full of exotic Pink Dogwood and Flowering Crab Apple and Carolina Cherry and Golden Bell and Firethorn.
Once you enter Gate 6, you are completely transported from the busy corner of Washington and Berkmans roads to an enthralling golf land far, far away.
You won’t see squirrels or bugs. I heard birds, but never spotted one as I hiked through the soft pine straw between holes, losing myself at this peaceful place where time slows down—you’re not allowed to run—
but the day is never long enough.
It’s an incredible environment the Masters has nurtured—etiquette and manners passed down for 80 years by Georgia families and patrons.
Slip your business card into the back of your green folding chair, and you have reserved that seat for the rest of the day. Want to put your chair behind the 18th green at 8 a.m. and come back for the final putt? That seat will still be empty when you return.
The details are downright Disney-like—volunteers even hold signs at the back of concession and bathroom lines posting the expected wait times. (You feel like you have a Fastpass to the bathroom thanks to seven-full time attendants ushering you through the line, calling out empty urinals and cleaning the toilet every time a stall is used.)
The Masters could easily get away with Super Bowl-esque gouging—scalpers make more than a grand a day reselling tickets online—but the lucky few with access to four-day tournament badges buy theirs for just $325.
Souvenirs and apparel in the overwhelming golf shop remain admirably affordable, while lunch prices are McDonalds-like. I splurged for a $3 BBQ sandwich, while Pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches—Masters institutions—go for just $1.50.
It all adds up to a priceless experience unrivaled anywhere in sports.