A Tournament Unlike Any Other
"I've got two passes to the practice round on Monday if you want them."
It was the week before golf's spring migration. I was at lunch with a good friend, more specifically, I was applying a glop of brown mustard to my pastrami on rye, when he offered the tickets. I've been to the Masters dozens of times, starting in 1976 when my older brother and I joined our parents for Ray Floyd's jacket fitting. In the 1990s I attended the tournament almost annually, either as a journalist or, for a time, as an employee of Jack Nicklaus. I can tell you that in the market for Masters tickets, Monday practice rounds are like junk bonds. Any ticket to the Masters is great, but Monday rounds are crowded and filled with a false sense of excitement, as nothing remotely meaningful will happen for another two days. I almost said no.
Then it occurred to me. On that Monday my 10-year-old daughter would be out of town for a Girl Scout sleepover; my wife needed a quiet house so she could plan for an upcoming party, and my 6-year-old son had the day off from school. Maybe I could take him.
The concept was fraught with risk: There was a good chance both father and son would hate it. Since my original visit in 1976, I had been spoiled. My media credential had given me entrée to almost every nook and cranny of the fabled clubhouse. In fact, early in my career I would routinely walk into golf's equivalent of the White House studiously carrying a pen and a notebook to make it look as though I was intently working up my next Pulitzer, when in fact I was just soaking in the atmosphere. I'd look around and listen in on lunch-time conversations between the biggest names in golf. When I worked for Nicklaus, a childhood hero, I experienced a massive upgrade. I remember eating ice cream with Jack in the Champions' locker room. It was 1997. Jack, me and a steward who had stocked up on Jack's favorite flavor, butter pecan. The TV was on and a young Tiger Woods was ransacking the Masters record books. Between smooth spoonfuls of ice cream, Jack served as my personal play-by-play commentator. Monday practice round? Public toilets? I don't think so.
Then there's my son. The kid loves sports, but he'd never been to a golf tournament, and for good reason. There's a lot of walking, a LOT of hills and a lot of tall people blocking your view. And for a kid who loves a good hockey fight, there's very little of what he might describe as action. I feared that Chris' golf baptism might seem more like Grandma's garden show than an actual sporting event. "Great azaleas, Dad. When do they drop the gloves?" Throw in the four-hour round-trip drive from Atlanta, and this had the makings of Excedrin headache number I-20.
But somewhere in the back of my mind I thought he might enjoy it. What's the worst that could happen, he grows up with a revulsion toward green sports jackets? Could be worse. I told my buddy I'd take the ducats.
That afternoon I told my son, "Hey, guess what you and I are gonna do on Monday."
"Go to a hockey game?"
"No, we're going to the...uh, er, Stanley Cup of golf." Cheap ploy.
"Huh?" He was underwhelmed.
"It's the most special golf trophy, and Tiger and Phil and all the guys we like play for it. Plus, you get a green jacket if you win."
"Can we see Tiger?"
"If he's there that day, sure." Not likely .
"Can we see Phil?"
"I think so." Liar.
Monday morning we got in the car. On the way down I pacified him with a couple of hockey movies. As we closed in on Augusta and Washington Road, he saw the traffic build-up and realized we were close. I took a shortcut away from all the traffic and the litany of questions began to flow. Are we lost? Where's Tiger? Where's Phil? I'm really hungry. Can we eat?
We entered with the hoi polloi at Gate 6 and ambled alongside the new practice area. First stop: Concession stand across from the big souvenir shop. We filled up on youth staples: A chicken breast sammy, a Coke (kept the cup), some chips and a bag of M&Ms (I'm here to tell you they do melt in your hands if your son holds onto them long enough). We found a spot to chow down. That's when I had my first revelation: In years past I always had a comfy chair in the pressroom or an air-conditioned refuge in the clubhouse. This day I realized that there are actually very few places for people, er, patrons, to sit and eat or rest or people-watch or tie their kid's shoes for the 11th time.
We passed our lunch break counting the number of fans wearing Reezig sneakers, the kind that Sidney Crosby and his biggest little fan prefer. We counted 27. Pretty good. The next logical move seemed to be the practice area. We watched up close as Lee Westwood and a few other players putted (I had pulled a bait and switch on my own flesh and blood: Neither Woods nor Mickelson was on the course Monday). We worked our way over to the bleachers and watched 8 or 10 guys blast drivers into oblivion. Chris, who is big on maps and stuff, had a copy of the sheet listing every invitee and his home country. Two brothers from Italy? Not as cool as Crosby, but noteworthy nonetheless. Then through his chocolate-covered lips he asked a question that struck me not only for its precocity, but for its unwitting penetration to core of Bobby Jones' Masters vision.
"Do any of these people just play for fun?" His recognition that some people don't play purely for enjoyment was startling.
"Sure," I said. I showed him the asterisk on the sheet that denoted amateurs in the field. "They just play because they love the game. They don't get any money." He didn't say anything, but I could tell that it had registered. It occurred to me that I hadn't heard a whine, a whimper or a single complaint all day.
It was time to tackle the golf course. We entered near the big leaderboard to the right of the 1st fairway, and walked up the hill. We got up to the 10th tee and saw 1966 PGA Champion Al Geiberger, playing a practice round (all former major champions and U.S./British Amateur champions are invited to partake of the practice rounds). Chris took in the 73-year-old Geiberger's seasoned visage, identified him as "old" and asked incredulously, "Is he playing?" I told him no, that Geiberger was once a very good player and that he was always invited back to join in the fun of practice rounds, but he can't play in the tournament. The kid loves nicknames so I told him that Geiberger was named "Mr. 59" because he was the first guy to shoot lower than 60 in a PGA Tour event. This wasn't exactly rubbing shoulders with Rocket Richard, but I had his attention. Thank you, Al.
We walked down the right side of 10 and headed into the little path that takes one up the toward 15 tee, then worked our way over to 15 green for a picture and then down to the 16th tee. The neatest "tradition" of Masters Monday is a fairly new one. After the contestants play their practice tee balls in to the 16th green they walk up to the edge of the pond and, at the crowd's beer-fueled urging, try to skim balls onto the green. This seemed about as close to hockey as we were going to get at Augusta National. We got a front row seat in the bleachers and watched the likes of Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose goof off. The next group featured David Toms and Mike Weir. Chris scrambled through the listings to find out where these two guys were from. One was from the United States and the other was from...God bless us...the home of hockey, Ontario, Canada.
We had a great seat only a few feet away from the action and the banter, and since Chris has skimmed his share of stones on water, he could see precisely what they were trying to accomplish. We followed Weir for a hole or two, grabbed a drink at the concession stand near No. 3 green and cooled off in the shade. Six year olds are like funnels, pour liquid in the big end and invariably, seconds later, it will come out the small end. We dashed to the nearby restroom and upon entry he declared, "It's a big bathroom."
The final phase of our visit took place back at the practice area. There he got an autograph from an exceedingly patient Stewart Cink. Then we watched as an elderly couple, a green-clad member of Augusta and his elegant wife, shuffled toward the clubhouse and Chris said, "Dad, what year did he win?"
As we laid back in shadow-covered grass to gather ourselves before heading to the car, Chris began rubbing his arms through the lovingly-kempt blades as though making a grass angel. He had no interest in going home. As he relished the cool turf, I had a flashback to the first time he had ever been on ice. I took him to a rink not far from home and as soon as he stepped on the surface he got down on his hands and knees, rubbed the palms of his hands on the surface and then put them to his face. He's been in love with hockey ever since. Anyway, I was gathering our stuff for the trip home when, laying in the grass, he looked over at me and said, "Dad?"
"I want to live in this grass." I'll never forget the happiness he oozed at that moment.
So why indulge myself and write about this? After all, thousands of dads take their kids to Augusta every year. It's because I realized something that day: The Masters actually has very little to do with golf. Unlike, say, the WGC Championships or the Shell Houston Open, excellent events that are solely about golf, the Masters is really about the passage of time. Like Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's, the Masters is a flashback. We can't help but think of family and friends who have inhabited our lives. The people we've played with, laughed with, lost to and walloped. The old TV footage and the awkward fabrics of yesteryear are almost tactile markers of our own passage, both through life and through the game. This was crystallized for me recently when I watched for the 10,433rd time the video of Nicklaus' win in 1986
. We all got choked up at the embrace of that father and son for the same reason we get choked up by the embrace of any father and son: Because they embody the passage of time. It was crystallized again as little Chris rested, content in the cool shade.
As we rumbled toward the setting sun and dinner, Chris never turned on his hockey movie. He alternately studied the now tattered, chocolate-stained pairing sheet and stared out the window. Halfway home he said, "Can we go back on Saturday?"