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‘We are so proud of you’: What covering the Masters meant to me and my family

Emotional Tiger Woods on Masters win: ‘It’s unreal’

Tiger Woods put on a green jacket once again after a historic comeback win in the 2019 Masters.
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Tiger Woods put on a green jacket once again after a historic comeback win in the 2019 Masters.

When I was an energetic 1-year-old, I would often dart around my great-grandparents’ house, whacking a toy golf ball with a plastic club.

“Goff ball” was one of the first things I said, so you could say my love for the game was born not long after I came into the world.

When they were younger, my great-grandparents, Gladys and J.H. “Buddy” Dean, went to Augusta every year for the Masters. There is a painting of the famed course’s 13th green hanging in their carport. It has been there as long as I can remember, probably longer than I have been alive.

The picture is a reminder of my family’s ties to the game and, not to be too sappy, but to one another.

One day in the fall of 1999 as Buddy slept in his recliner, I watched on TV as they announced the plane-crash death of one of my favorite golfers, Payne Stewart. I was 4 at the time, but old enough to understand.

I pointed at the screen and hollered, “He dead! He dead!”

Buddy 1.PNG
Buddy Dean on the far right, stands with a group of friends at a local golf tournament in 1983. Justin Baxley

My granny, in another room, burst into the room a panic. She’d expected to find Buddy expired in his chair with a copy of The Telegraph on his chest, in his natural television-viewing position. But it was just me howling over Stewart.

A year or so later, Buddy entered me in a drive, chip and putt contest at Oak Haven Golf Club. I won in my age group and took home the ultimate trophy: a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Buddy, now 90, still watches every Masters tournament on TV. His glaucoma makes it hard for him to make out the leaderboards. He stands close to the screen to see if his favorite player, Jordan Spieth, is near the top.

Dream becomes reality

Last week, more than two decades after I swung that kiddie golf club at his house, I made my first trip to the Masters and watched the scene in that painting in the carport come to life.

As a reporter, a sports scribe for The Telegraph, I sat in the grandstands at the 13th hole Sunday and let my mind wander. I thought about Gladys and Buddy and all my kin, and how this venerable golf course, along our home state’s eastern border, binds us.

Buddy, a retired Coca-Cola truck driver and warehouse manager, bought me my first set of real golf clubs when I was about 4. Every weekend on TV, we watched whatever PGA tour tournament was on. For us, the majors were like holidays.

Buddy was so into the game that he transformed the backyard of his Zebulon Road home into a personal golf course. He dug a hole in a makeshift green and stuck a real flagstick in it. He strung up a driving-range net so I could practice. Some days, I cranked hundreds of balls into that net.

‘Your granny is going to have our necks’

We played at the now-closed Oak Haven almost weekly. When we were there, I imagined driving the greens at Augusta, sinking putts to win a green jacket.

Justin Baxley swings the golf club in his great-grandparents back yard. Justin Baxley

It was on those 18-hole adventures that Buddy and I bonded.

One time we were coming up a fairway and I noticed my ball in a green patch between some trees. I ran to pick it up.

He raced behind me, yelling, “Stop!”

Before I knew it I was underwater in a small pond. The green patch I saw was an algae film with a human water hazard hiding beneath. As Buddy reached to yank me out, he fell in too.

When we finally crawled to safety, all I remember him saying is, “Your granny is going to have our necks for messing up these clothes.”

We played out the rest of the round with our wet clothes sticking to us, prolonging the round to avoid granny’s wrath. I persuaded Buddy to take us to Wendy’s to let our clothes dry a little more. When we finally mustered the courage up to go home, she just laughed as she has done every time we retell that story.

‘We are so proud of you’

Buddy and Gladys frequented Augusta National in the 1970s and 1980s — mostly the Masters’ practice rounds — but they occasionally got to see the first day of the tournament. They liked to follow Jack Nicklaus, who was Buddy’s favorite. Buddy still has Nicklaus’ last Masters’ victory recorded on a VHS tape.

The other day, Buddy told me, “Back when I was going over there, people like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, they was pretty hot.”

At Augusta, they still are. The place is timeless in a way that transcends generations. Not just for the players and the champions, but also for the fans. You can watch the game’s greats and recall your own days on a course somewhere with your son, your daughter, your grandpa. I showed my great-grandparents a video of a press conference from Sunday where Tiger Woods answered one of my questions after notching his fifth Masters victory.

“That’s all right, right there,” Buddy said, perhaps the highest praise one can receive from Mr. J.H. Dean.

Gladys chimed in: “We are so proud of you.”

Buddy Dean built a makeshift hole in his backyard for chipping practice. Justin Baxley

They both said they were thinking about me being at the Masters. They wished they could have been there to see it too.

I asked Buddy why golf has been so important to him, why he passed his love for the game on to me.

“Well,” he said, “usually if you got a boy started on golf, he don’t hardly never get in no trouble.”

Golf, Buddy went on as he sat at his kitchen table, is a game a fellow can play and “as long as he is on the golf course he is all right.”

I handed him a coffee mug I’d bought at the Augusta National souvenir shop, a gift.

He tried to give it back.

“Why don’t you use that?” Buddy said.

“But I got it for you,” I said.

It was the least I could do to say thank you for a lifetime of memories, my gift to the golfing gods and to my hero Buddy Dean.