I’m standing on the most famous tee-box in the world, water ahead darker and more ominous than the North Sea, a landing area behind it that looks as narrow as a fireside rug.
There’s something almost lawless about the movement of the huge pines behind and what mischief the wind is working here.
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“It’s 155 (yards), but you’ll need to be hitting 165 to get there,” says Drake Jones, my caddie and a former professional skateboarder.
“Looks more,” I suggest.
“Everybody says that,” he shrugs wearily.
I’ve been here before. Just over a quarter of a century ago, I dumped two balls into the murky depths of this par three known the world over as ‘Golden Bell’. I was winging it back then. A non-golfer, sent as a one-off to the US Masters to write some colour. It was 1993 (Tiger Woods was still in college), and with my name coming out of the hat to play Alister MacKenzie’s masterpiece and noticing so much blood drain from senior golf writers’ faces in the old media centre, it felt like a sudden electricity blackout.
I was the Philistine who’d won Charlie’s golden ticket, who wouldn’t even drive through the Augusta gates again until April of last year.
From a worldwide pick, 20 journalists get drawn out to play every Masters Monday. Once chosen, you become ineligible for the next seven years. It was Saturday lunchtime when I heard I’d become a dual lottery winner.
Martin Dempster, a Scotsman in the chiselled, Sean Connery mode, came grinning towards me by the ninth, just as Rory McIlroy found what looked an unplayable lie in a greenside bunker.
“So, then, how would you have played that shot?” he asked.
“Better than Rory,” I snapped back, with the hard-boiled sarcasm journalists like to deploy when travelling in numbers.
“Well,” James Bond replied, “you’ll get your chance on Monday!”
So here I am, at this place called Amen Corner, wrestling with history-infested nerves. Rae’s Creek sidewinds its way around the 11th green (which I’ve just triple-bogeyed), staying with us through 12 and 13, like a grinning serpent. All this just 24 hours after Francesco Molinari arrived here with a two-shot lead over Woods and crumbled.
Just three years after Jordan Spieth stepped on this tee, the Masters at his mercy, only for his arms to turn to jelly.
The ghosts insist you retain a keen grasp of higher mathematics on ‘Golden Bell’, Tom Weiskopf famously needing 13 shots to get down in the 1980 Masters. “Your line is left edge of front bunker,” says Drake.
“What you thinking?”
“Six?” I suggest.
“I like it!”
The others in this fourball, all better golfers than me, have already played. Nick Wright, editor of Golf World magazine, is on the green. Bill Pennington of the New York Times and Mick Warner of Melbourne’s Herald Sun, are side-by-side in a back bunker. Just breathing is a challenge now.
I swing and, quickly, lose sight of my ball as it arcs into the glare of a beautiful North Georgia sky. A protracted silence follows. Then chuckles. “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” roars Drake. I’ve just done what Tiger did on Sunday. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ll soon three-putt from 20 feet, but a bogey here feels like some kind of coronation.
Truth to tell, just breathing this pine-fragranced air has us all doing instinctive, semi-conscious, 360 degree whirls as we walk around Augusta National.
Back up in the clubhouse, in the champions’ locker-room, my name is pinned on a door engraved with the identities of 1970 Masters winner Billy Casper and 2007 champion Zach Johnson. Before playing, I’ve spent half an hour hitting Titleist Pro V1 balls on the practice range which – wherever golf bores hold their seminars – they’ll tell you is a bit like blowing your nose into dollar bills.
And the history of this place has, maybe, never felt more epochal. Tiger, after all, won his first green jacket in 14 years just hours ago, his first major in 11. We’re taking a devotional walk in his footsteps here. Remember his downhill putt from the back of nine? That 50-footer with a right to left swing over an elephant’s grave? With the whole world watching?
We can formally confirm here and now that that ball does not stop. We all had a multiple of goes, each one just looking (more) stupid every time. Might as well have been trying to base-jump with an umbrella.
Augusta National challenges every human assumption; exacts ridiculous punishment. Standing right next to me just off the first green, Warner punched what looked a sublime lob-wedge, as directed by his caddy, 10 feet right of the flag, only to see it take on an invisible outboard motor, rolling viciously off the far side.
The look on Mick’s face brought to mind the late, great Dan Jenkins’ expression of feeling “swindled by the law firm of Destiny, Fate and Luck”. In some respects, his confidence never recovered.
For the first three holes, my own brain amounted to bubbling porridge. With rented clubs, I three-putted every green for double-bogeys. Chasing the 18-handicapper’s refuge of a stableford score, that gave me the grand total of three points after three. Sinking fast. But then the mist cleared.
A rescue to 25 feet and two putts for par on four; a “Tiger’s bounce” off the trees down the right on five, followed by four iron, lob-edge and six-foot putt for par (Woods bogeyed it every day); a bogey four on six; a par on seven – getting up and down out of a front bunker; then bogeys on eight, nine and 10.
Oh the swagger of this man marching to 11. There I leaked my drive way right, just as Tiger had on Saturday and Sunday. Each day, he’d found this miraculous, heaven-sent corridor. Again, breaking news…. no such corridor exists. I have come to the conclusion that Woods never plays the same golf architecture as others.
He just shapes his own.
Emboldened by my escape from ‘Golden Bell’ (the one hole we play off the Championship tee), I par 13 (best drive of the day; five iron lay-up; pitching wedge to 25 feet; just miss birdie putt), before double-bogey on 14; bogey on 15 (thank heavens the man with the mower hadn’t been out yet on that slope at the front!), bogey 16 (six-iron to back right, then – on Drake’s wise counsel – aiming first putt towards Newry to get to a hole in Mullingar); ugly double on 17; then finishing bogey on 18 (two putts after finding bunker right of green) to retain my remarkable record in this heavenly place.
You see no Masters champion has bettered my score on 18 the year they’ve set me loose on Augusta National. In 1993, Bernhard Langer won the jacket with a bogey on 18 (I parred with a putt from somewhere east of Atlanta). This time, I’d nervelessly matched Tiger’s closing five.
We’d been told not to tip the caddies, but I secreted Drake a $50 bill I’d picked up on the sixth fairway (some careless member’s loose change), before driving back down Magnolia Lane, grinning from my 94.
I’ll be eligible to enter the draw again in 2026. Memo to Sports Editor. Can I buy you a coffee?
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