AUGUSTA, Ga.—When Valentino Dixon was led in handcuffs into a Buffalo courtroom this past September, it was already decided he would walk free. The judges and lawyers had met earlier to discuss it. This is how these things work.
When Valentino Dixon drove through the gates of Augusta National this past week, into the press lot aside Magnolia Lane, nothing was decided. The possibilities were as limitless as sticking a tee into the ground.
Forgive his initial intent to snap a selfie in front of the stately press building bordered by pink azaleas. It’s easy to mistake as the main clubhouse, and anyways pictures aren’t allowed here.
“Sorry,” he says, and puts his phone away. “But is this grass real?”
After getting his badge and lanyard at the front desk, as a credentialed illustrator with the Golf Digest editorial team, the first thing to do is head to Amen Corner. Down the steep hill right of No. 10, through the pine straw forest of No. 11, toward the clearing. And as it sometimes goes with momentous occasions, they become marred by comedy. I should’ve given clearer instructions on how people dress at golf tournaments, but Dixon looks sharp in his suit and leather wingtips as he skids nimbly through the mud. The course was closed that morning due to heavy rainfall and a female security guard working the rope calls out, “I like how you did that, honey.”
“Tomorrow I’m going to Walmart to get me some flip-flops,” Dixon answers.
And then there we are. The afternoon sun hitting Nelson’s Bridge and Rae’s Creek, casting shadows on the greens and tee boxes whose spatial relationship Dixon never fully understood. These couple of acres that started the first steps on the most unlikely path to freedom in the history of sports, now before him.
By now a lot of people know the basic story, but whenever I spend time with Dixon I learn a little more. When the golf-passionate warden of Attica brought a photo of Augusta National to his cell block and asked him to draw a picture, the inmate with the artist’s reputation was more reluctant than I knew. James Conway was a fair and honest man, but doing a favor for the administration carried risk. What would others think? Dixon delivered the gift as discreetly as he could. By that time he’d spent two decades in prison, and witnessed missteps in that community. Harm could come in the form of a knife, but just as dangerous was to be ostracized. Dixon had lost friends to suicide.
“Sorry,” he says, and puts his phone away. “But is this grass real?”
Despite his efforts to conceal it, guys found out about the “golf picture.” That’s dope, a neighbor said, you should do more. There’s money in golf, and maybe rich folks might buy those pictures someday. This same inmate tracked down a copy of Golf Digest from a white inmate who’d been a golfer before he did a terrible thing, to give Dixon more reference material. Starved for images of nature and expanse, a growing group began visiting Dixon’s cell regularly, eager to see his latest creations.
And so Dixon, a kid from the inner-city who’d never touched a golf club or even been on a course, found my name as the co-author of the Golf Digest column “Golf Saved My Life” and wrote me a letter. I investigated his case and became convinced of his innocence of the murder for which he was serving 39 years to life, and the snowball of media attention and advocacy required to overturn a conviction in the United States without DNA evidence, lurched forward.
“Wow, unbelievable,” Dixon says, taking it in as Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau stroke practice putts to opposite corners of the 11th green. “It doesn’t even look real. It’s 10 times more vivid,” Dixon goes on. The color of the dirt on the stone of the bridge, exactly how that one tree curves low over the 13th tee box, these details and a thousand more that had been hidden in photographs, now revealed. And of course, all the fans. Dixon’s landscapes have almost always conveyed empty solitude. But anyone who’s been to Amen Corner during the Masters knows it’s a communal religious experience.
The gulf between seeing a location in the flesh versus a photo is, it goes without saying, too wide to belabor. Dixon traveled to Augusta to physically experience his subject, these golf holes that captivated his mind more than any others, that he would draw more than a dozen times in various scales before he was released. But he found that what makes the Masters is the people as much as the place.
Mark Steinberg, agent of Tiger Woods, is under the big tree, and I wedge myself between a conversation to make the introduction. I try to explain 27 years of wrongful conviction in 30 seconds, but Dixon’s smile says it all. “This is the best meeting I’ve had all week,” Steinberg says, “and I’ve had a lot of meetings.”
Scott Tolley, manager of Jack Nicklaus, is just as flabbergasted to encounter Dixon at the Par 3 Contest. How could anyone possibly survive being locked away for something they didn’t do?
“I always remembered there were people worse off than me,” Dixon tells him. “Some people die when they’re 10, and others when they’re 80 never having lived. Even after my appeals kept getting denied, I knew that if I could just get out, even if I was 60, I would still have life to live.”
When Jack Nicklaus meets Dixon and accepts a signed print, Nicklaus tells Dixon his lack of bitterness reminds him of Nelson Mandela, whom he befriended years ago. There are guards and green jackets waiting to escort Nicklaus away after his press conference, but the Golden Bear isn’t making tracks. He wants to stay and listen to this man. One eavesdropping guard wipes the corner of her eye.
Tom Watson already knows all about Dixon’s story, and catches him in the press building to offer a lesson on the grip. Before Tiger Woods takes the stage at the golf writer’s dinner to accept the Ben Hogan Award for Comeback Player of the Year, he hangs with Tino and quizzes him on his coloring technique. Brooks Koepka is curious, too.
A member of Augusta National, whose identity is not important now, invites Dixon to display his art at a dinner party at his home. He wants to fly Dixon and his mother to next year’s Masters. An event annually devoted to golf chat is overtaken by the subjects of law, activism and the strength of the human spirit.
“I never speak radically because I want to be a uniter, but the sentencing laws in America are too harsh,” Dixon says. “When people are getting 15-20 years for crimes that in other countries you get six months, it becomes a numbers game.”
Indeed, with more than two million people incarcerated, the United States has the largest prison population of any society in the history of civilization. That’s not a new fact, but that it’s a hot topic of conversation at the Masters is.
In some ways it’s a miracle Valentino Dixon is at the Masters, having lunch at the clubhouse, mixing it up with players, agents, members, and everyday patrons, leaving a trail of joy in his wake. But let’s remember that what’s truly remarkable is that we ever heard from Dixon in the first place.
Only a few centuries ago, people convicted of crimes were subjected to harsh physical torture and often execution. But we’ve moved away from punishing the body, and instead now focus on the mind, by confining people to small spaces for very long periods of time. Rather than break their bones, we break their spirit. This has also coincided with a shift away from punishment as public spectacle. While the gallows of a former day were in the town square, the operations of modern prisons occur behind distant walls, and the officials in charge are highly loathe to admit mistakes. The drawings of golf courses that Valentino Dixon sent us were veritable messages in a bottle, as well as evidence of how one soul survived a system designed to crush it.
Whatever art he creates next will surely be differently inspired. He’s heading home to watch Masters Sunday from the comfort of his living room.
You can purchase T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring Valentino Dixon's artwork at Golf Digest Select.. All proceeds go to the artist.