Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dream come true: playing at Augusta

It has to be the dream of nearly every golfer to play at Augusta National Golf Club, site of The Masters each April. I realized that dream Thursday.
In my lifetime, I have experienced the ultimate in sports: The Super Bowl, the seventh game of the World Series, NCAA championship basketball games, The Masters — the list can go on.
But having the opportunity to play at Augusta National was nothing short of the most fabulous sporting experience of my life.
I was at Augusta because of Gene Howerrd and the PGA of America.
Howerrd, who is celebrating his 50th year as a member of Augusta National, was kind enough to host officers from the PGA. I joined Jim Remy, president of the PGA; Brian Whitcomb, honorary president; and Howerrd for one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
Howerrd epitomizes Augusta National. He is a true Southern gentleman who has an appreciation for the game of golf that is rarely found anywhere but in the core of this prestigious group who call themselves members at Augusta National.
Howerrd served on the U.S. Golf Association executive committee from 1984-92. He became a member at Augusta National in 1959, following in the footsteps of his father, who joined in 1941.
His low round at Augusta National is 66. He also is an astute historian of the most famous golf course in the world, which made him the perfect host.
Our Augusta experience started Thursday with a trip down
Magnolia Lane
. The driver slowed to a crawl as we peered out the windows of The Masters van, which picked us up at the airport.
As you drive down this fabled lane lined with live oaks, you see the practice area on both sides. Magnolia Lane heads straight to the club house, which is accented by a bright yellow flower bed in the shape of the United States with a flag denoting the location of Augusta, Ga. This is the logo for Augusta National.
We quickly warmed up and headed
to the back nine for a late afternoon nine-role round. This nine at Augusta commonly is referred to as “where the
tournament starts at Sunday’s final round of the Masters.”
I am proud to say that I opened with a par on the tough 10th hole.
As we wound our way through the fabled Amen Corner, it was hard not to get caught up in the surroundings. You see, the history of this place almost surpasses its beauty. All of the famous spots on this back nine were more impressive in real time. The greens are more severe. The elevations are greater than depicted on TV.
To make things even more dramatic, the tournament leader boards were up for this year’s Masters, and the bleachers were being installed as we played.
But the walks across The Hogan bridge on No. 12, the Nelson bridge on No. 13 and the Sarazen’s bridge on No. 15 were like floating on air. Nowhere in the world of golf is there a more storied stretch than Augusta’s Amen Corner.
Following the round, Howerrd entertained us for dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse. I chose the house specialty of southern fried chicken with turnip greens and macaroni and cheese. Joining us in the dining room were Raymond Floyd, the 1976 Masters champion, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has a pretty famous father and brother.
After dinner, Howerrd took us on a personal tour of the Augusta National clubhouse.
It started with a trip to the wine cellar, where 14,000 bottles of wine are stored.
The oldest is vintage 1907, and the most expensive is $5,000. In the wine cellar still scrolled in pencil on several shelves were the inscriptions: Do Not Sell — Mr. Roberts Personal (longtime tournament chairman of the Masters). Also scrolled was DDE, as in Dwight David Eisenhower, who also stored wine in the cellar.
Next it was upstairs to the champions locker room. This is reserved for Masters champions. It was a small room with brass plates on the lockers commemorating the champion and year won. In a case was the green jacket worn by Trevor Immelman, last year’s champion.
Then it was to the top floor of the clubhouse to the Crow’s Nest, which houses the U.S. amateur champion and others during Masters week. This area had a high ceiling with a widow’s watch window and five twin beds in tiny rooms. Modest accommodations, but the ultimate in location.
At the end of the evening it was back to the Firestone cabin for a night of sleep and 18 holes at Augusta National on Friday.
We awoke at dawn and made the trek past the Butler and Eisen-hower cabins to the clubhouse for breakfast. It was another quick warmup and then to the first tee. Floyd played in a group behind us.
All I can say is, wow, you can’t have a bad day at Augusta.
I hit a lot of good shots in 27 holes. Never lost a ball. Success-fully navigated across Rae’s Creek on all occasions. Three-putted numerous times.
And the score I shot? Well, does it really matter? After all, this is Augusta National.
Ted Bishop is secretary of the PGA of America and director of golf for The Legends of Indiana Golf Course in Franklin.

Photo Caption: AUGUSTA, GA.
It has to be the dream of nearly every golfer to play at Augusta National Golf Club, site of The Masters each April. I realized that dream Thursday.

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