On Sunday afternoon, I once again made the drive down Magnolia Lane at Augusta National Golf Club. This might be the most breathtaking and beautiful 200-yard stretch of road in America. Just off of Washington Road at Gate 3, Magnolia Lane is lined by mammoth trees dating back to the 1830’s when this piece of property was the Fruitland Nursery.
Magnolia Lane is now closed to the public. Dozens of bystanders will collect at Gate 3 in hopes of getting a glimpse of the world’s most famous golf course entrance. The drive ends at the clubhouse where a circular roundabout is accentuated with a flower bed in the shape of The Masters logo. Thousands will wait in line this week for a photo opportunity at this famous spot.
This is truly a special place. 2012 is my fourth consecutive year to serve as a Rules official and I look forward to having four more years in this capacity as my tenure as a PGA Officer winds down. Between past trips to The Masters, several opportunities to play the course and serving as a Rules Official I will have spent over 90 days of my life at this place when 2014 comes to a close. That’s three months in golf heaven, something I don’t take for granted.
Sunday night I enjoyed dinner with my good friend Gene Howerdd and his family. Howerdd has been a member at Augusta National for 52 years. His dad joined the club in 1940. Gene was born in 1934, ironically the year of the first Masters. He will tell you that he has attended every single Masters ever played, even though his first was in his mother’s womb.
Monday is the one day that I can relax a little bit at the course and soak in some of The Masters ambiance. I tracked down Tom Watson on the 14th hole and exchanged a handshake and few words with the two-time Masters champ. I have always admired Watson’s competitiveness as well as his class and dignity in victory and defeat. It’s a relationship that I hope will grow even more in the years to come.
I also had a chance to talk with Billy Casper the 1970 Masters champion. Casper sets up camp at one of the umbrella tables on the lawn at The National. He will be there in that spot all week. The 52-time winner on the PGA Tour recently released a book called “The Big Three and Me.” It recounts his career and reminds the reader of Casper’s relative dominance of golf in the 1960’s. Casper was the second player to reach $1 million in career earnings, behind only Arnold Palmer.
|Tom Watson on Practice Round 2 Day|
|Watson and McIlroy playing together Day 2 Practice Round|
I spent some time early this week in the Augusta National golf shop. It was there that I ran into Nick Faldo, three-time Masters’ champion. Faldo was buying an arm load of souvenirs and was shopping with his boys. Johnny Miller was doing the same on Monday morning. There is something about this place that captivates even the most famous people in the sport.
The early days of Augusta National were not so distinguished. Built in the 1930’s with a goal of obtaining a national membership, the Great Depression put the course under financial duress. Twice in the first few years of the course’s existence it faced bankruptcy.
Alistair MacKenzie designed the course, but it was two years after his death in January of 1934 that his widow was paid the design fee by Augusta National. When Horton Smith won the inaugural Masters in 1934, the members had to pitch in and buy him a trophy which Smith received later that fall.
The original Augusta National land plan included 21 residential lots around the course. By 1954 only one lot had been sold when Clifford Roberts, course developer, finally pulled the remaining twenty from the market out of frustration. But in the mid-1950’s, a national television contract was signed by The Masters and everything changed.
Today, The Masters is the most famous golf tournament in the world. Augusta National has remained conservative and exclusive over the decades. Some have criticized the club and its membership for exclusion, particularly with female members. Women can play here, they just can’t join. Many private clubs in America have the same policy.
Last week it was revealed that The National had previously extended a membership to the CEO of IBM, a key sponsor of The Masters. This became news because the new CEO at IBM is a female. It remains to be seen how this situation will play out. Over the years, The Masters has contributed millions to various charities and the Augusta National membership has proven its commitment promoting to golf.
This is indeed the biggest golf reunion of the year. In many spots around the U.S. this is the official start of the 2012 season. It’s been an unseasonably warm winter in Augusta and many of the flowering trees and shrubs have come and gone. The excitement, however, is at an all-time high here at The National.
“I think we might see the greatest Masters ever,” said the 80-year old Casper from his perch in front of the clubhouse on Monday. “There are two players here- one that has won many Masters (Woods) and another who should have won ( McIlroy) and everybody is talking about them. But, there is a bunch of great young players here who won last year. Nothing would surprise me this week.”