My round at Augusta National: A dream realized, and a window that almost closed
AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was always the ninth hole at Neumann Red course. The green was big and fast and had the slope of a Tilt-a-Whirl, making it the ideal replica of Augusta National in my mind. Usually it would be an uphill, right-to-left putt, but I attempted every line possible during my childhood, all with the same running commentary: “And if this goes in, we have a new Masters champion.”
Millions of kids entertained this scenario; still do. However, I'm betting most don’t go home and write about a tournament that never occurred.
My victims varied, with Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, David Duval and, for reasons that continue to baffle in adulthood, Carlos Franco, serving as a steady cast of opponents. But, more often than not, Tiger Woods was the one I took down.
“Beall’s go-for-broke style turned the crowd in his favor,” one missive said. Another noted that Woods, “Looked beat, knowing he could not match Beall birdie after birdie after birdie.” One report stated that Woods surrendered at the 15th after my fist pump sent him into a state of shock. The headline for that story? “Un-Beall-ievable!” (In a related note, I did not have many friends.)
I even wrote a few columns where Woods had won, because these stories had to have a semblance of reality. Obviously.
And it was always Augusta, always the Masters. Let others have the U.S. Open or claret jug; those tournaments are once a year, but the Masters is forever. I knew all the hole names, read every book on the tournament. I knew that 1946 champ Herman Keiser was stationed on the U.S.S. Cincinnati, knowledge that has come in handy precisely zero times.
To be clear, I was not preparing to be a writer; I was preparing to be a professional golfer and writer. I was going to work sorcery inside the ropes, then write to the people how the magic happened. Basically, I wanted to be Eddie Pepperell before I knew a wonderful thing like Eddie Pepperell existed.
That was the dream, at least.
The first part of that fantasy died in 2004. Went lights-out at a junior tournament, firing a seven-under, four-round score. This personal best was good enough to lose by eight. Distinctly remember the winner saying he hadn’t played that well, and paired with him the final two rounds, he was right. That put the kibosh on the tour aspirations.
The other piece almost died in 2015. I was lucky enough to have a job, an increasing rarity in journalism, and worked with some fantastic people. But I wasn’t fulfilled, not allowed to pursue the topics I wanted, in a beat that was a dead end. I felt like a disappointment, and was coming to the realization that a future I had long envisioned wasn’t there. That I saw a book at a library sale titled “Letting Go” seemed like a sadistic sign.
“You’re still young enough to take a chance," my father said. "Don’t close the window while it’s still open.”
A few weeks after this epiphany, I made the annual pilgrimage with my dad to a Masters practice round. As it is for many, the tournament was our Valhalla. Unfortunately, palliative as Augusta National may be, the pangs very much remained. Walking past a media scrum by the clubhouse that day, a sense of surrender washed over me. That will never be me.
On our ride back, I unburdened myself. Like most father-son relationships, our fears and doubts were usually left untouched, buried by more pressing topics like what was for dinner and who was pitching for the Reds that night. But in that car, I bared my soul, my vulnerability, my heartbreak. There was a lead on a marketing job from a buddy, I told him. It wouldn’t be fun, but it paid OK, and I wouldn’t have to torture myself anymore.
Even by dad standards, mine is pretty stoic. Level-headed as they come. He listened, he nodded, he commiserated, he understood.
Then he said something that changed my life:
“You’re still young enough to take a chance. You can always get a business job. Don’t close the window while it’s still open.”
Fathers, they always know best.
Woods, that poor bastard I routinely victimized at Neumann's ninth, won his fifth green jacket on Sunday. A story too good to be true, for it had been dreamt and abandoned many years ago. Sentiments I can relate to, still in shock from my own wish coming to reality: playing Augusta National and covering the Masters.
A lucky few media members are chosen each year to play the course the day after the tournament. It’s called the lottery, a name that could not be more on point, for its winners have hit the jackpot.
That’s how I felt Monday morning, driving down Magnolia Lane to receive the golden ticket. I was assigned a spot in the Champions Locker Room, which was regally spartan and wafted in nostalgia. The practice facility was dotted with fellow gold-ticket holders brandishing the same “Can you believe this?” grin. My warm-up was J.B. Holmes-like slow, partially trying to manage a back issue, but mostly because I wanted to savor every second of the experience.
Ten minutes before my tee time, we walked through a clubhouse corridor out to the first tee. Standing by the big oak, I marveled at the duality of the panorama: where tens of thousands of patrons had once been shouting Tiger’s name was now just a golf course. For a second you wondered if Sunday really happened; luckily the 18th scoreboard nodded back, still littered with names and numbers.
Following a dozen or so putts on the practice green—I now know why some Masters competitors practice on gym floors—I was on the first tee. Earlier in the week, Adam Scott had called this the most nervous shot he hits all year, which was a great instiller of confidence as I planted my tee. Somehow I found the fairway, and we were off.
I was fortunate enough to be paired with one of my bosses, Chris Reynolds. Throughout the day, we traded profound remarks like, “This doesn’t suck,” and “If extended the offer to join, I’d accept.” We were kids locked in a toy store, so overwhelmed that we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.
It was stupid and reckless, yes. It was also stupid and reckless to be here, in this moment, and not go for it
Which can actually be problematic to your game. No, you shouldn’t be worried about such an inconsequential thing like score on a day like this, but there’s so much history and beauty and astonishment it becomes sensory overload. On No. 6, as I marveled how anyone can get a ball close to the Sunday pin, my caddie Russell nudged me, a reminder of, “Oh right, I’m supposed to do that now, aren’t I?”
Finally, after No. 8, the fourth straight hole I had stumbled on, Russ asked me if my back was holding up; I said yes. “Does your swing feel alright?” Sure. “We have some great golf ahead,” he replied. “So let’s play.”
And I did, mostly. Stuck my second on nine to three feet. Saved par from the Rory cabins on the 10th, then followed with another tight approach on the 11th to five feet. On the 12th, where I saw the tournament decided a day before, Russ gave me the yardage to the middle of the green. It’s what a good caddie is supposed to do on the 12th, and in my many years of golf, Russ was one of the best loops I’ve had. I was not looking there. The Sunday pin, tucked in the right side of the green, was my aim. It was stupid and reckless, yes. It was also stupid and reckless to be here, in this moment, and not go for it.
When I struck my shot and the ball held its line, with a chorus of “Be right” behind me, those three seconds—those breathtaking, hypnotic three seconds—will sustain me for years to come. The ball landed just over the stick, finishing on the fringe. So what if I made par instead of an ace; life is not found in an end goal but in the pursuit of it.
We walked over the Hogan Bridge in revered silence. Ditto at the 13th tee box, the vantage point of Amen Corner that can only be captured by television cameras. There’s an adage that the more you travel the less you know. Eloquent and true as that may be, I assure you there’s no vista—in serenity, attraction, ambience—that can rival the 13th tee box. Golf, sport, otherwise.
Pars followed on the 13th and 14th. Cold-topped my second shot at the 15th, leaving me dead in the left pines. The only play was to punch it out. Except . . . well, there was this little window towards the right greenside bunker in front of the grandstands and scoreboard, and if I could only work it a mere 45 yards or so from 220 yards out, maybe birdie was back in play. I was possessed by the living ghost of Phil Mickelson.
I laughed at this, telling Russ the idiotic visual running through my mind. But Russ is my spirit animal, and like all great caddies, I could not tell if his confidence was feigned or fact. He said it was a shot you only see at Augusta National, and luckily for us, that’s where we were. He handed me a hybrid, smiled and said, “Send it big man.”
I will need Bryson DeChambeau to explain the physics on how the ball moved as it did. I like to think the recently departed Dan Jenkins gave it a nice blow to the left. Maybe my draw is really that bad of a hook. But the ball diced it’s way through the pines, rose to the scoreboard, checked its map and made a harsh turn to the left, carried the water and hit the green. It ultimately rolled to the collection area. Not that we could tell; we were too busy exchanging fist-pumps and back slaps.
The back nine of Augusta is where the ridiculous is routine.
I didn’t make birdie at the 15th, didn’t even save par. Those tight approaches at the ninth and 11th? Spiethed them. I promise you with the utmost conviction, it did not bother me in the slightest.
Just like that, we were on the 18th green. A five-hour round, over in 15 minutes. We shook hands and trudged up the hill. Not because we were tired; we didn’t want it to end. I don’t know how long I looked down the 18th, or to my right towards the ninth and first, and in the distance at nothing in particular. As I write, it feels like I’m still there.
Hard to describe what was going through my mind in the ride from Augusta to Atlanta for a flight to New York. I thought about the millions of golfers who will never get this opportunity. I thought about all the writers, the ones I was so jealous of a few years ago, that have been so welcoming and gracious and supportive of me into this fraternity. I thought about Reynolds’ face lit like a Christmas tree after he birdied the 13th. I thought about the adrenaline rush on the 15th and 12th and the moment my co-worker Keely Levins told me I’d won the lottery on Saturday afternoon.
But I mostly thought about how close I’d come to kicking away my dream, and how lucky I am that Golf Digest gave me a chance.
The sad reality is that not all dreams come to fruition. Some are compromised in Faustian bargains; others never get the break that’s so imperative. They’re not given time or effort, or they’re trampled down by the world.
Which is why I wrote this. It’s easy, pragmatic to leave your aspirations in the past. But if there’s something you really want, keep your eyes focused on the lighthouse in the distance when life’s choppy waters want to drown them.
Like my dad said, dreams come true. Just have to chase them while the window is open.