A Trip Unlike Any Other: My Day at the Masters
One of sports’ greatest traditions provides memories for a lifetime
By Bart Pohlman
The first thought I had I as boarded the chartered jet at 5:30 a.m. CT in Tulsa was that I couldn’t remember ever boarding a plane and seeing nothing but smiles.
Usually, you board a plane early in the morning, and no one is remotely happy—flying is an inconvenient convenience, after all. But this was different. This was no ordinary jet, no ordinary trip. We weren’t—at least that day in 2016—businessmen on our way across the country to meetings. We were golf fans, and we were on a trip with Executive Golf Packages, headed to Augusta National Golf Club and that tradition unlike any other, The Masters.
The flight was smooth sailing, something I rarely say about flying, and as the sun crested the horizon midflight, I began to get more and more excited. “Soon,” I thought, “that sun will be shining down through those Augusta pines.” We touched down in Augusta around 9 a.m. ET after two-and-a-half hours in the air, and hopped on a bus for a 20-minute ride to our hospitality house.
Augusta, Ga., is an odd city—or, at least, it struck me as one from the highway. Our bus ride was a trip back in time to the 1990s, with a little bit of the 2010s sprinkled in here and there—modern amenities stood tall next to buildings that had clearly seen better days. The neighborhood we drove through seemed quiet and quaint, exactly as you’d expect from a small southern city.
We reached the hospitality house, got off the bus and were greeted by friendly faces, Southern hospitality and tents housing a silent auction, a bar and all sorts of food. None of that concerned me at the moment, though. There I was, so close to the mecca of golf in the United States, and I only had one thought: getting to the golf course as fast as I possibly could. I went inside the hospitality house to put my phone away—patrons aren’t allowed to carry phones with them on the grounds during The Masters—and set off walking toward Augusta National.
It’s a little more than a half-mile from our hospitality house to the entrance gate, and while in reality it’s not far at all, the walk couldn’t end quick enough. Essentially, you’re walking through a gigantic parking lot—I’d estimate thousands of cars were parked—to get to the gate. Later in the day, I learned that whole lot used to be filled with houses, and that Augusta National bought all the land to make room for more parking.
After what seems like an eternity—another example of how, in life, when you can’t wait for something, it always feels like it takes forever—I reached the gate. I handed my ticket to the smiling (this will be a theme) lady with the scanner, she handed it back along with a course guide, and I walked though the gate and into a little piece of heaven on earth.
I had been told by several people who’ve made the trip to The Masters that the first thing you should do is go to the merchandise shop—it’s more a grocery store than a tent—buy whatever you want, and ship it back home. That way, the shopping is out of the way, and you can enjoy the rest of the day on the course. Naturally, this turned out to be great advice, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who gets a chance to go in the future.
The Masters might be the most efficiently run large-scale event on the planet. Augusta National has everything down to a science. When I got in line to get into the merchandise shop—and yes, there will likely be a line just to get in—I started counting the people in front of me, wondering how long it would take to get inside. I got up to around 200, but by the time I had counted that high, I was next in line to get in to the shop. It took maybe five minutes from the time I entered the line to the time I was picking up a shopping bag and inside what can only be described as Black Friday madness at a big-box retailer.
Most of the merchandise I purchased was for other people—gifts or things people asked me to pick up. I only picked up a few things for myself: two golf shirts, a lightweight pullover, and a ball marker with The Masters’ logo. Originally, I was only going to allow myself to get one shirt, but I saw another one that I liked, and that was that. After all, I was at The Masters … who knows when I might be able to get back?
I paid for everything in my overflowing shopping bag, the damage to my bank account done, and got in line to ship everything back to my office in Fayetteville, Ark. The process is really simple—again, Augusta has logistics figured out—and after waiting in a short line outside the merchandise shop, everything was in a box and in two days would be reunited with me. And with that, it was time to do what I came to do—see Augusta National in all its natural beauty and walk the course.
On the way to Augusta, everybody on the trip was given a great piece of advice by Brad Norwood of Executive Golf Packages: walk the golf course backwards. I liked this idea for a couple of reasons: it allows you to see more players, and it gets you to Amen Corner even quicker than walking it from 1-to-18.
So off I set down No. 18, starting at the green and staring in amazement at all the undulation that would test even the most skilled golfers over the course of the week. The TV broadcast really has no way of doing the shape of the greens any justice. I stopped at the 18th tee box and looked down the chute the golfers hit their drives through—I’ve never hit a tee shot with that narrow of an opening in my life.
I continued on down No. 17 and arrived at the green on the famous 16th hole. I wanted to get as close as I possibly could to the spot where Tiger Woods hit the chip heard ‘round the world—the ball, seemingly rolling in slow motion, pausing for what felt like an eternity before dropping into the cup for the birdie of all birdies. It’s the best golf shot, given the circumstances and incredible level of difficulty, I’ve ever seen, and I’ll never forget Verne Lundquist’s perfect call: “In your life have you seen anything like that!” It was perfect, well, because no, none of us had ever seen anything like that.
Taking an extra few minutes at 16, I watched a group of golfers try (and fail) to skip balls across the water, one of The Masters’ many traditions, before heading to No. 15, where I caught up with Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley. No. 15 is named Firethorn—one of the best names for a golf hole anywhere—and is one of my favorite par fives in all of golf. The second shot is the ultimate risk-reward: If you go for it, you could easily end up short in the water or long (which is an awful place to be), but you could also have a realistic shot at an eagle. I’m pretty sure Johnson was firing no more than an 8-iron to the green, which just seems absurd.
I journeyed down No. 14 before finally reaching the green at No. 13, aptly named Azalea. It’s one of the most gorgeous scenes in all of golf, a Monet painting beautifully brought to life among the Georgia pines. You can’t help but stop and stare, marveling at the creation of a masterpiece.
What happened next was one of the things that makes visiting The Masters and Augusta such a warm experience: I tapped the person standing next to be on the shoulder and asked if he would mind taking my picture in front of the green. Without hesitation, he agreed, snapped my picture, and I was on my way toward Amen Corner.
The smiling and happiness must be contagious. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the incredible friendliness of all the volunteers and patrons at The Masters. It makes sense, though: When you’re doing nothing but helping people who are likely having one of the best days of their lives, it’s easy to smile and be happy all day.
In few places is this more evident than the concession stands that dot the course as a kind of oasis of extremely reasonably priced food. I got in line, and immediately saw a smiling volunteer holding a sign saying that it’d be eight minutes from where I was in line until I got to the food. It was more like five minutes, if that. When you get underneath the pavilion, the concession stand operates like a buffet—you get what you want, and pay for it at the end of the line. I grabbed one of those famous pimento cheese sandwiches and a “domestic light beer” (you chose between that, “American craft beer” and “import beer”), and settled at a nearby picnic table.
As someone who occasionally enjoys a helping of pimiento cheese, I’m glad to report the Masters version of the sandwich lived up to the hype. Sure, it’s possible that my taste buds were blinded by the glory of Augusta, but you won’t find any argument from the other patrons on the course—it’s a must-have item.
After finishing up my lunch, I walked through the grandstands at Amen Corner, up to the ropes, and saw something I may never see again: a hole-in-one. England’s Paul Casey’s shot was in the air when I got to the ropes, and I stood there as it hit the green at 12, bounced, and found its way into the cup. I cheered with the rest of the patrons, and then, I laughed. If it was ever in doubt (and it wasn’t), the ace confirmed how special a day it was.
I’ll be honest: I stood out there at Amen Corner for a while, soaking it all in. Considering the name, I even took a second to say a prayer—it just seemed like the right thing to do.
I continued my trek up the 11th hole, and quickly decided it’s the most difficult hole in golf. It always plays as one of the toughest during the Masters, and it’s easy to see why in person. The tee shot is incredibly difficult, and if your second shot comes up short in the mounds guarding the front of the green, it’s almost sure to find the water.
As I completed walking the back nine and reached the 10th tee box, I happened upon Tom Watson, striping one down the middle of the fairway in his final Masters. The two-time champion still attracted a following, and that’s part of what makes the tournament so special—there’s always the chance of seeing someone turn-back-the-clock.
It’s nice to shut out the outside world and unplug from your devices every once in a while. And when you set foot on the grounds at Augusta National, you do just that—both figuratively and literally.
Remember that rule about no cell phones being allowed on the property? Well, if you want to take pictures, you better bring a digital camera. Want to meet someone at a specific time? Wear a watch. And if you’re too worried about not being able to check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat … you probably shouldn’t be there.
But in the event you do feel like calling someone and rubbing it in that you’re at the Masters, there are phone banks scattered throughout the golf course. I discovered one of these outlets to the rest of the world off the second hole (which, by the way, might as well be a ski slope with the elevation change), and knew I needed to place a phone call—not to brag, but to share the moment.
I was honestly a bit surprised my dad answered a call with a strange number showing up, but I’m guessing he knew it was me. I couldn’t help it; I had to call the man who introduced me to a game I love. The only downside of the whole trip was that he and my brother weren’t there with me among the azaleas and Georgia pines.
As I made my way through the rest of the front nine, the shadows from those pines grew longer, and I knew my time in golf paradise was coming to an end.
I lingered for a minute on No. 7—named Pampas—to watch one of the final groups of the day hit their shots into the green. Meanwhile, I struck up conversation with the marshall working the ropes, and after the players had left the scene, I decided to go for it: I asked him if he would mind taking a picture of me acting like I was hitting a shot from the middle of the fairway. He chuckled, saying it’s the first time anybody had ever asked him to do that. And then he did it. It was a perfect way to cap off an incredible day.
From there, I began my trek back to the hospitality house, stopping for a moment when I got back up to the 18th green to soak it all in. My life as a golf fan would never be the same.
We landed back in Tulsa a little after 9 p.m. CT. Exhausted, but still exhilarated from the trip, I got off the plane, got in my car and headed back to my hotel. Lying in bed, I couldn’t sleep—how could I? My mind kept racing almost as fast as the jet we flew back on, trying to figure out which moment from a spectacular day was my favorite. Was it seeing Amen Corner? Being there for a hole-in-one? Eating a pimento cheese sandwich? Getting my picture taken at all the famous spots around Augusta National?
The answer, of course, was all of them. They’re all my favorites. They all made me smile. And they’re all moments that I’ll never forget.
Trip of a lifetime? You better believe it.