It’s exactly a year ago that I moseyed along to Manchester Airport with three mates to catch a Virgin flight to Atlanta for what was planned to be my golfing trip of a lifetime. Whilst I recall snippets on TV of the Masters in the late seventies and early eighties it was the event in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus won by eagling the 15th and then birding 16 and 17 with an oversize putter, that it really became a fixture in my emerging golfing calendar. I had just joined Didsbury Golf Club and taken up golf as my primary sport after my footballing career had ended prematurely with a fractured skull. (Note to self – head ball not player!). The Masters for most of us in the UK, is the start of the golfing season when hopefully our courses become playable after the winter deluge and the weather at least gets temperate. Watching the British dominance of the event in the late eighties with Lyle, Faldo and Woosnam – and then with the added bonus of Olly too, set this Major apart from those of the US Open and PGA Championships played on the other side of the pond. So every year the desire to visit Georgia and home in on the Augusta National Golf Club increased. I’d had an opportunity to visit three years earlier but the demands of both family and a commitment to Corporate Life (not wanting to be away at the end of one financial year and the start of the other) meant I had, foolishly, declined. Nevertheless this time we had planned the trip on my kitchen table and we were off.
We landed on schedule at Atlanta but fell foul of an enormous queue at US Immigration meaning that by the time we had hired and picked up our huge Ford Expedition – 4 Adults, 4 large suitcases and 4 sets of clubs with room to spare – we were two hours behind plan. On that kitchen table, looking at a map of the US on an iPad, we decided that as we had three days to kill before arriving in Augusta we would nip down to Hilton Head Island to play a couple of rounds, and then en route back up to Augusta detour to Kiawah Island to tick that one off as well. In reality the inch and a half on a iPad screen was 285 miles and turned out to be a drive of nearly five hours. We arrived on Hilton Head Island at midnight local time when our bodies were telling us it was 5 am.
Hilton Head Island, the home of the Heritage Tournament, is a golfing paradise but unfortunately we were unable to play the Harbour Town Links with the famous Lighthouse as a large aircraft manufacturer had fully booked out the course for the weekend. But after playing the Arthur Hills course, navigating around the Alligator ridden ponds – ‘every hole has a pond and every pond has a gator’ our starter had reliably informed us on the first tee - we went for a recce of the Harbour Town course and the recently built new clubhouse. As we were still in golf gear, we mingled with the golfers on the putting green and then slid into the clubhouse for a good nosey around. Great looking course and a very nice clubhouse in true American style, complete with a ‘pick-n-mix’ in the Men’s Locker room.
After a further round the next day on the George Fazio course, we left to visit the renowned Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, scene of the famous Ryder Cup confrontation of 1991 – the 'War on the Shore'. Here was another impressive clubhouse with a porch overlooking the 18th green and practice putting green. The waves were crashing down on the beach behind a row of flagpoles, all flags flapping vigorously in the onshore wind. We all liked the layout of the course, the challenging carries to the fairways playing off the medal tees, although the greens were very poor after a battering winter and early season weather. It took a little off the day but nothing off the green fee. The famous Par 3 17th isn’t as foreboding as it appears on TV but the Gators were far bigger than those on Hilton Head!
Our journey to Augusta that evening was uneventful apart from a stop off at a convenience store half way, where as soon as we opened our mouths and spoke it encouraged an impromptu inquisition of ...’Where y’all from? What y’all doin here?’ ... from the staff. Each question answered prompted more questions – we were indeed in the back of beyond in the deep south of America.
Arriving late that Monday night in Augusta we found the cute little house we had rented a mere 'Par 4' away from Magnolia Drive. Being on the doorstop was a real bonus. You were able to really get an understanding of The Masters tournament from a local perspective. The owner of the house said that he had only just been allowed inside the gates of the Augusta National Golf Club, on a small tour organised by his employer, despite having lived all his life in the town. ‘Most folk here don’t get inside the gates to see that little piece of perfection in a town that ain’t anywhere near perfect’ he confided.
We worked out pretty quickly that Augusta was a one week town as famous for being the home of James Brown with the locals Downtown, as for being the home of the first golf major of the season. Highway 28 Washington Road, the six carriageway strip that runs past the course becomes an international trade and food fair – American fast food! With all the restaurant workers, taxi drivers and the like driven in from other towns/cities just for the week.
We hadn’t got tickets for a practice day but were easily able to buy those on the strip, and with thunderstorms forecast, the price of 200 bucks each was a snip (it didn’t rain and the sun came out for a beautiful afternoon). Entering the Augusta National Course for the first time with all the Police and Security smiling at you, with the obligatory ‘Welcome to the Masters, have a nice day!’ repeating over and over again, you knew that you had ‘made it’ and the body tingled with satisfaction and excitement. This was a big tick on the golfing bucket list.
The course and every inch of the property is, as you would expect. manicured and beautifully presented. Perhaps what you don’t expect is the severe elevations as the course is essentially built on the side of a hill with the famous clubhouse at the top and the 13th tee and fairway at the bottom. It has the sense of a great park with a huge expanse between the 8th, 9th and 18th fairways. As the crowd is limited in numbers, and with defined seating areas respected by everyone, you can easily see any of the action apart from perhaps the last few holes on Sunday. Having planted your little green chair at your preferred viewing spot you can safely leave all of your gear – perhaps even wallet - on the chair without any worry that anything would be stolen. What I really liked was that each golf group had only the players and the caddies within the ropes with the normal media scrum you see at The Open kept outside. For the spectator (or patrons as they are known), the cost of food and drink within the grounds is very reasonable and as you would expect the service is very good and efficient. The shop has everything you can think of, including watches, and each daily visit to the Masters would finish with yet another bagful of Masters’ goodies purchased.
There’s no need to talk about the holes – you know all that – or the competition – Spieth walked it wire to wire. It was the little things that marked out the event to me, including the abundance of green sand put down every night, to return to perfection the impression of the course for the TV viewer, should even the smallest sign of a muddy path appear during the day.
The Masters Tour 2015 was over far too quickly and the last year has raced by so that here I am one year later again with Georgia on my mind and a Georgia Green on my wrist. But when I think about my trip of a lifetime and the Masters tournament that lies ahead I can only say, in the words of James Brown, that ‘I feel good’.
Who’s your money on for the green jacket?