The first Masters Charles Howell III attended was in 1987 when he was 7 years old and local Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman in a playoff. When he was 10, Howell played Augusta National for the first time and broke 80. In 2002, a year after being named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, he was given an honorary membership to the club, which he has been to so many times he knows every hump and hollow almost as well as he knows the names of nearly every employee in the place.
If there’s anyone who should feel at home driving down Magnolia Lane, it's Howell.
Yet when the 39-year-old Augusta, Ga., native, whose parents still live down the street from the club, tees it up at this year’s Masters, there will be a unique amount of stress and uneasiness looming around every Loblolly pine and azalea bush. It has nothing to do with playing in the toonamint for the first time since 2012.
“One of the challenges I've had is getting comfortable around there,” Howell said. “It’s unlike any other event that you play. It’s hard to get settled. It’s not even about knowing the golf course. It’s everything else that goes on there. You show up to go play a nice quiet round on Monday and it’s packed.”
That’s only the beginning.
While there are plenty of no-nos for the fans (ahem, patrons)—no cell phones, no running, no laying down among them—when it comes to players, it’s the unwritten rules, not to mention inherent logistics, that can make an already stressful week that much more so.
“Your behavior is something you think about more than anywhere else,” said Webb Simpson.
“They don’t have rules,” added another player. “They have customs and traditions.”
The first time the above golfer played a round at the course, he posted a picture on his private Instagram account. The next day he got a call from the club informing him that they’d “appreciate” it if he removed it, noting that photos were a matter of personal keepsakes.
“It was one of those unwritten rules that you don’t know until you screw up,” the player said.
As well as the the Masters is run—and in the eyes of most we talked to, it is the best run event they play for myriad reasons—there are elements of the tournament and Augusta National that indeed make the Masters a major unlike any other.
As one veteran of a handful of Masters tournaments, put it: “The only thing I don’t like is that I always feel like I’m walking around on eggshells. I’ve gotten more comfortable with it over the years but I still don’t know what I can and can’t do because you hear stories of what people get in trouble for.”
—In 2011, Rickie Fowler wore his hat backwards as he sat down for an interview in the media center when he was informed by member Ron Townsend to turn the cap around. Fowler explained he wore it that way so people could see his face. Townsend would have none of it and asked Fowler to turn the hat around again.
—That same year, Golf Channel analyst Charlie Rymer was booted from the property during the tournament for talking on his cell phone outside the media center, which media members are only permitted to use inside the press building.
—On another occasion, a player was warming up on the putting green adjacent to the first tee when he says he was informed by a Green Jacket that the earbuds he was listening to were an unwelcome sight.
—In 1997, Ken Green famously drank a beer while playing a practice round with Arnold Palmer. He was fined by the PGA Tour but got the fine rescinded by saying the beer was non-alcoholic (it wasn’t).
—Other players, meanwhile, pointed out being spoken to about forgetting to take their hat off when under a roof, and being limited to how many people a player can have in their entourage while on the range (in short, a caddie plus one).
“I’d love to win that tournament some day, and it would be amazing to take my dad there to play a round,” said Marc Leishman, noting a privilege extended to past champions. “You don’t want to piss any one off.”
The club has its ways. Even among its own.
According to one player who is chummy with a few members, one year another member pointed out to the club chairman at the time that the Sarazen Bridge on 15 looked dirty and the club should get it power washed. The response was it sounded like a great idea. Some time later, the member received the bill, all $12,000 of it.
When it comes to those playing in the tournament, there are other stressors. Tickets, for example. Players are limited to four and can purchase another four. Trying to keep everyone happy and sort out who gets what on what days can be Advil inducing. These guys are human, after all, and many have large families, surprisingly extended during tournament week, and they can be as demanding as the 12th hole late on Sunday.
It's a delicate balance.
“I remember my first Masters, I was so excited to have my whole family there and we had a house with 12 people in it,” Leishman said. “Trying to juggle tickets and have alone time with 12 people in a house is impossible.”
So is trying to do simpler things like going out to dinner, which turn out to be not so simple when trying to find a table for eight because every joint in town is packed.
“Anyone’s first year is not conducive to good play,” Leishman continued, recalling being met with a two-hour wait for a table one night. “Thankfully I’ve got my wife with me and she does a great job cooking so we don’t have to go out to eat now.”
There are other demands. The first major of the year is also golf’s biggest social event, making it a prime opportunity for sponsors to use the occasion as a chance for players to schmooze with clients.
“Once I started playing I was afraid to take a divot the first few holes,” McIlroy said.
Two years ago, William McGirt was scheduled to appear at a Wheels Up party on Thursday night of tournament week. The only problem was that he was near the top of the leaderboard and by the time he finished with media and got back to his house it was nearly 8 p.m. and he still hadn't eaten dinner yet.
McGirt had a 5 a.m. wake-up call and early tee time the next morning, so he had to cancel the appearance.
“I hate to be the guy that bails,” he said, adding that almost any night of the week there are events where players are required to attend. “But you're there to try to win a tournament.”
Added Simpson, who schedules any such appearances for early in the week: “Family and friends know it’s not a week to socialize. You have to be honest with those close to you.”
Even seemingly mundane things like getting to the tournament can produce anxiety.
Washington Road, the main drag outside the club, is often snarled with foot and vehicle traffic. While the club has done a great job with the flow of the masses in recent years, the commute is still something that must be accounted for, says one player, in order to avoid being delayed and left to scramble through an abbreviated pre-round routine.
“You have to plan your week strategically,” Leishman said. “You don’t want to find yourself fighting through traffic on Washington Rd., so I book a house in a certain area of town where I don’t have to deal with it.”
Inside the ropes, there are more obvious challenges. Like the course itself, and the aura and mystique surrounding it.
“Once I started playing I was afraid to take a divot the first few holes,” Rory McIlroy said of his first trip there for a casual round ahead of the 2009 tournament.
“It was a bit of a dream to be there,” added Justin Rose of his first few years at the Masters. “I used to walk around just trying to take it all in. Arrive on-site, walk out to the back of the clubhouse and just look at what was there in front of me and just be, wow, I'm kind of living this dream that I had as a kid. Just to be playing there — it was the one tournament that makes you feel that way.
“‘Then in recent years I’ve almost had the sort of a slightly surreal out-of-body experience like turning up knowing that I'm one of the players to beat and to contend there. That's sort of been something I've had to get comfortable with, knowing that this tournament has always been kind of dreamlike but now actually it's more of a reality and putting myself in a position where I know that I need to put my mindset in the right place to go out and challenge to win it.”
Easier said than done, especially when it comes to juggling everything that goes with it.
“Golf’s the easiest part of it,” McGirt said. “By far.”