The call came from my sports editor at the time, Ed Moore.
“I need you to cover the Masters,” Ed said, almost apologetically.
See, my job description at the time was to cover the Atlanta pro teams and Georgia Tech basketball. That’s not exactly grunt work, but there was an implied contract that I couldn’t be taken off my beat to do somebody else’s job. But for some reason, they needed help in Augusta.
Ed might have mistaken my momentary silence for resistance. In truth, I just needed someone to help get my tongue out of my throat.
“Um sure,” I said. This was before “are you freakin’ serious?” became the vernacular.
“Oh, and take your sticks,” Ed said. “You might win the lottery.”
“What lottery?” I said.
“The media lottery,” he explained. “Every year, they have a media lottery to see who gets to play the course the Monday after the Masters.”
Oh, sure, and Jack Nicklaus gives away an autographed golf glove to the first writer to beat deadline. Ed could spin a few tales. But this time he was telling the truth. Every year, they draw 40 names of media members and let them play the course. Like everything else at Augusta National, this courtesy is steeped in tradition. Bobby Jones was especially appreciative of the media’s role in promoting golf.
So, almost at the last minute, I threw my clubs in my trunk and headed for Augusta. I registered for the lottery upon checking in for my credentials and honestly never gave it another thought.
A few days later, friends started coming up congratulating me.
“You’re in,” said one.
“You’re playing Monday. You won the lottery.”
You could have knocked me over with a Jack Nicklaus autographed golf glove. But my elation quickly surrendered to fear. Jack Nicklaus, I’m not. More like Jack Benny. A good day was breaking 90. My clubs were an eclectic collection from yard sales. Sticks would be a fair description. I hadn’t played in six months. On top of all that, I had developed blisters on both feet from walking the course every day.
So I had a decision: Decline the offer, so I could be eligible again another year; or play. I chose the latter because I might never get to cover another Masters. Little did I realize then that this would be the first of 12 straight Masters for me. Even if I came back, my name might never get drawn again.
I knew it would be ugly. But I had some modest goals.
Don’t break any windows in the Eisenhower Cabin. Yeah, I know, the Eisenhower Cabin is tucked back in the pine trees off the No. 10 tee box. Your point?
Don’t take 30 minutes getting out of a bunker.
Don’t run out of golf balls on Amen Corner.
My first break came when I was paired with a good friend, John Byrwa. John’s a good golfer, but one who’s patient with someone not quite so good. They stuck us with these two obnoxious car dealers, who were playing under the guise of two radio people. They walked and split a caddy. We rode because of my blisters.
My first tee shot accomplished another one of those modest goals. It went airborne, and reasonably toward the green. It clipped a pine tree branch on the right side, in almost the exact same spot Nicklaus found himself in the day before. Yeah, me and Jack -- with our six green jackets between us.
I went on to double-bogey the hole, just like that year’s winner, Nick Faldo, had done the day before. So, if Nick Faldo and I were playing match play, we would’ve halved the hole. And I had blisters.
But golf can be a cruel game. You have to play 18 holes. As a sportswriter with a credential, I could go everywhere on the grounds I wanted to. Except the course itself, of course. As one playing the course with a yard sale bag, I DID go everywhere on the grounds. And, occasionally, even on the course itself.
Like on number 9. I hit two decent shots and was about a foot off the green. A little chip and putt, and I have a par!
And just pick numbers and you can win the lottery! Nothing is simple at Augusta National. Especially not for a below average golfer with yard sale sticks who hasn’t played in six months. And has blisters. My chip shot headed straight for the hole. At Bull Creek, that’s a good thing. At Augusta National? It was a drift wood floating down a creek, over the rapids, plunging over the waterfall and finally resting on a sand bar.
About half way to the hole, my ball detoured left and rolled back toward the front of the green, over the fringe, plunging back down toward the tee box and finally resting at the basin of the fairway. The car dealers thought this was hysterical.
I was just getting started. I figured I had about a three-quarter pitching wedge back to the green. Turns out I was about one-quarter and one club short. I hit a beautiful pitch shot near the center of the green. Had this been Bull Creek
Oh, well. So the ball lands, starts trickling backward, back of the fringe, plunging back down the hill and finally resting – almost exactly where it was 15 seconds earlier.
Then I did it again. And again.
I finally managed to putt out, make the turn, avoid breaking a window at the Eisenhower Cabin on No. 10, and have my one and only showdown with Amen Corner. I didn’t have a prayer.
The rest of my round was a blur. So much for breaking 90. I left that somewhere in Rae’s Creek. It was the most miserable round of golf I’ve ever played. And it was such a blast.