It’s been 20 years since my first Masters. This is what’s different now
AUGUSTA, Ga. — By Masters standards, 20 years is an unimpressive number. The late Hall of Fame golf writer Dan Jenkins covered a record 68 Masters, and plenty of other golf writers, some within my own company, have been to more than 40. Still, 20 years is an intriguing snapshot because of how it straddles different eras—in golf, in media and in the life of an editor. It’s a short enough span where the rate of change can still seem dizzying, yet long enough to marvel at how much remains the same. Below, a few (occasionally self-indulgent) reflections on two decades starting spring in Augusta.
My first Masters in 2003, the Martha Burk protests over Augusta’s all-male membership was the dominant storyline. True story: The protests on Saturday were in a vacant lot down the street from the club, so I left the press room with notebook in hand, and started WALKING DOWN MAGNOLIA LANE to cover the action. I took a half-dozen steps before being stopped by a state trooper. “You can’t go that way!” he said. “No, it’s OK,” I replied cheerily. “I’m a reporter heading to the Martha Burk protests.” This was not an acceptable response. “Turn around now,” the trooper snapped.
It turns out a golfer from my hometown, George Zahringer III, was in the Masters field that week as the U.S. Mid-Am champ. On Tuesday, I caught up with George after his practice round, but since he was pressed for time, we agreed to keep talking as he hustled to his next engagement. We walked under the massive oak tree and into the clubhouse, where I followed him upstairs to the second floor, then through another door to a staircase leading to the third floor. Suddenly, we were standing in the vaunted Crow’s Nest where Masters’ amateurs stayed. There was a TV on and another player watching. This was the early days of the second Iraq War, and George asked, “What’s going on in the war?” as if the answer would be a score and the time remaining. After 20 minutes, I left George and walked back downstairs. It was around 5:30, and the clubhouse staff was setting china at a large table on the second floor. Then I realized why: the Champions Dinner was an hour away. If only George was willing to talk longer.
There was grousing all week how that was the worst Masters in years. The protests. Tiger was slumping. The eventual winner was Mike Weir, in a playoff over Len Mattiace. Plus it rained so much all week, a manure-like smell wafted through the grounds. “You must think this tournament sucks,” a veteran writer cracked. I actually couldn’t think of anything better.
But the next year was, in fact, better. Woods’ comeback win in 2019 will likely be the most consequential Masters I ever attended, but 2004 was my favorite. It was Arnold Palmer’s last Masters, and we randomly ended up eating lunch next to the King in the clubhouse before his final round (his drink of choice? Diet Coke). Two days later, Phil Mickelson was in a back-nine battle with Ernie Els on Sunday. There used to be viewing stands for the press overlooking the 18th green back then, a vantage point so exquisite you wondered why they allocated it for mere sportswriters (they ended up wondering the same thing—they were gone several years later). We watched Els make birdie on 18 to take a one-stroke lead, snuck into the grill room to watch Mickelson birdie 16 on TV, then climbed back up the tower in time to see Lefty march up the final hole. Phil's closing birdie was the best golf moment I ever saw live—the downhill putt, the celebratory jump, the emotional hug with caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay. His first major had cemented his legacy as the most beloved golfer of his era. You figured nothing would ever mess with that.
We used to play golf on the weekends. I was in newspapers back then, and whatever online presence our paper had was not relying on early morning dispatches from me. On Sundays, we’d drive 45 minutes across the South Carolina border to Aiken Golf Club, play 18, then drive back to Augusta National in time to watch the leaders tee off while eating peach cobbler on the veranda. Of all the simple pleasures the Internet has stolen from me, this might be at the top.
By 2005, Woods hadn’t won a major in three years, but was back in contention. More rain disrupted the tournament, which meant he had to complete his third round Sunday morning. One problem: our annual tee time at Aiken. A worrier by nature, I told my housemates I probably shouldn’t play, but they convinced me we wouldn’t miss anything important. In those flip phone days, with no live scoring at my fingertips, I told Joel Schuchmann of the PGA Tour I was going to call him at the turn just to check in. “Duuuude,” Joel said when he picked up from the press room and said, “Tiger has birdied seven holes in a row.” I assumed he was messing with me. He assured me he wasn’t. A friend who will remain nameless was covering his first Masters in a new gig, and we bolted to the parking lot as calls came in from his office. “What a morning,” my friend told his editor on the phone. “It’s electric here.” We were still 20 miles from the course.
The Internet then was not the Internet it is now. Gather 'round kids. There was no Twitter, Google wasn’t yet a verb, and newspaper websites were a maze to navigate. As a young reporter at the Masters, there was little connecting your daily presence at the course to the work it ultimately produced. I was in my twenties, looked like I was 15, and as far as anyone else knew, might have been there to just watch golf and pocket Masters logoed plastic cups from the press room. I remember the first time a golf writer I respected remarked on something I had written. “It was good,” he said. Later that night I called up the file of the story on my laptop and obsessed over every phrase, not sure if the writer was merely being polite or had mistaken me for someone else.
My oldest son was born six weeks after Tiger’s fourth Masters. I had resisted buying merchandise my first few years, but with my two boys, I couldn’t resist: Masters hats and golf shirts, logoed ball markers, teddy bears in caddie jumpsuits. Then one year, we had just bought a house and were paying for daycare, so in the spirit of financial discipline, I returned from the Masters with just one youth small golf shirt. “Who’s this for?” my wife asked as Charlie and Will, two years apart, stood before me awaiting an answer. “It’s for you both! You can share it!” Chaos ensued—punches, tears, slammed bedroom doors. I confess I didn’t really think it through.
The bleakest years were 2007, when an arctic chill whipped through Augusta, and 2008, when I was saddled with a debilitating mix of bronchitis and Trevor Immelman. That was also around the time I started dabbling writing for other outlets. One was a big sports website, and I still remember tossing ideas around with an editor who kept steering me away from predictable stories about the tournament leader. “This is the Internet,” he said. “People can just read that shit somewhere else.”
I’ve never won the media lottery to play Augusta National the Monday after the Masters. For several years, in fact, I didn’t even enter. When I was in newspapers I was doubling as a hockey writer, so I needed to hustle back for the playoffs. Then when I moved to Golf Digest, I determined the Monday after the Masters was too important a news day to spend playing golf. All true, but really it’s because I feared playing Augusta National would be so daunting I would exhaust myself into paralysis. I’d spend the first few holes too nervous to play well. Then I’d be annoyed I wasn’t playing well. Then I’d be annoyed that I allowed myself to be annoyed at all in such an ideal setting. By the time we got to 18, I’d be obsessing about the 375 direct messages awaiting on my phone, before remembering this would go down as the greatest experience of my golfing life, and that I would never be able to do it again.
The no-phone rule at Augusta National was a mere inconvenience against newspaper deadlines. When you work on the Internet it feels more like you’re missing a limb. Yes, I know that sounds pathetic. My colleague Max Adler has written about the unexpected rewards of detaching yourself from your device for the day, which I can appreciate in principle. In practice, though, there is a magnetic pull I fight whenever I venture on the course, where I imagine my phone buzzing uncontrollably at my desk—Slacks and texts, emails and tweets, missed calls from family members stranded in remote locations. I can last 40 minutes or so before checking back in, and usually what I miss is … not much. Leave it to the green jackets to help remind me I’m not nearly as important as I think.
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